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By Suzanne Garment, author of “Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics”
For almost two years, the country has been waiting for the report by special counsel Robert Mueller on Russia’s activities in the 2016 presidential election and their connections, if any, with the campaign of Donald Trump. Though the report has now expanded from a dot on the distant horizon into a looming certainty, it’s been shrinking in our expectations.
To Trump and his supporters, the reason is simple: “No collusion! No collusion!” To his critics, the change reflects something grimmer: It’s become clear that the problem of the Trump presidency is bigger and grimier than Russia. The scandal has metastasized beyond whatever the Mueller report will likely say.
The scandal has metastasized beyond whatever the Mueller report will likely say.
Mueller was empowered by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to investigate and prosecute “links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.” This mandate covers “collusion” or, more accurately, “conspiracy.” It also covers matters arising “directly” from the investigation, including any prior Trump business dealings connected to it. Finally, Mueller’s mandate covers interference with the investigation itself – through perjury, obstruction, intimidation or destruction of evidence.
But here is some of what will likely be missing from the Mueller report:
First, we won’t hear much about Trump’s unconventional relationships with autocratic regimes other than Russian President Vladimir Putin’s — particularly with Saudi Arabia. For more than a half-century, the kingdom’s oil has afforded it a privileged position with the United States — even as the Saudi regime has affronted human dignity. When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman emerged as the heir to the kingdom, he became a U.S. media darling: praised on front pages across the nation for diversifying the Saudi economy, attacking corruption and letting women drive. David Pecker, publisher of the National Enquirer, and a long-time pal of Trump’s, stocked supermarket shelves with a 97-page magazine titled, “The New Kingdom,” praising the prince for “transforming the world at age 32” and “improving lives of his people and hopes for peace.”
The president’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had quickly developed a special relationship with the crown prince, routinely communicating outside the reach of other U.S. officials.
That was before Mohammed was implicated in the murder of Washington Post columnist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi, focusing attention on the regime’s torture of activists and dissidents, particularly women’s rights activists, and its slash-and-burn war in Yemen, on which the Senate has now rebuked the president. This entire issue is outside Mueller’s remit.
There have been similar foreign policy debacles elsewhere. They include the administration’s bizarre course of action toward North Korea. Trump’s treatment of leader Kim Jong Un has swung between abusive — “little Rocket Man” — and sycophantic. We don’t know whether Kim will make good on his threat to stop talking to Washington altogether.
The crack-ups also extend to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which the president habitually mentions only to demand that its members pay more for their defense. The Mueller report may have something to say about this issue, since weakening NATO is a substantial Russian political objective. But the report is unlikely to treat the larger issue of the erosion of NATO under the pressures of modern populism.
The Mueller report will, we hope, set out the details of Russia’s attempt to swing the 2016 election, with or without collaboration with the Trump campaign. The report may also address related issues, like the presence of a contingent of Russia-friendly Ukrainians at the Trump inauguration — and whether their contributions may have violated U.S. campaign laws.
But we now know that the campaign finance issues extend well beyond Russia.
We’ve heard a lot of these stories from Michael Avenatti, the former lawyer for Stormy Daniels, and Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime attorney and fixer. They’re not Mueller stories, however. This is not something the Russians did to us. We did a bang-up job of doing it to ourselves.
Other pathologies run still deeper. Even before the first day of the Trump administration, there was the original sin of nepotism. It’s simple: The most powerful officials in the White House are also members of the president’s family. Some implications are small — like the question of who gets to travel on Air Force planes. Some effects are larger: Think about the process by which the president’s daughter and son-in-law got their security clearances. A president has clear authority to grant clearances, and the executive branch officials to whom the authority is delegated may not have better judgment than the president’s. But when a president is dealing with his relatives, the rest of us can’t make straight judgments about these cases.
That is why, Robert F. Kennedy notwithstanding, nepotism is, plain and simple, a cancer on a presidency. This, too, is not a Mueller report problem.
The next big Trump presidency problem is personal and family enrichment. The Mueller report may actually have something to say about this because Trump the real estate developer has had past or future financial stakes Russia.
But even when it comes to personal enrichment, the Mueller report must share the stage with other items — like billing the U.S. Treasury for presidential trips to Trump golf properties; the patronage of Washington’s Trump International Hotel by people who have business before the federal government; Ivanka Trump’s Chinese trademark registrations and the good fortune that has befallen Kushner’s heavily mortgaged property at 666 Fifth Avenue. (See nepotism, above.)
The Mueller report simply won’t have the breadth to tell us what to make of all these things.
That leaves the issues that are in many ways the most critical and most home-grown, like Trump’s use of law enforcement mechanisms for partisan purposes.
Do you remember, “Lock her up?” That was a presidential candidate telling his followers that the way to deal with a political opponent was through criminal prosecution. Remember Trump’s proclamation that he’d accept the results of the 2016 election — if he won? You were hearing a candidate refuse to consent to the rule of law. Remember his claim that he couldn’t get justice from a Mexican-American judge? You were hearing a statement that ethnicity outweighs common American citizenship.
Remember Trump’s excoriation of his attorney general for recusing himself from the investigation of campaign charges? You were hearing the ritual humiliation of a man who had refused to jeopardize his career to protect the president from investigation. Remember — sure, you do — the firing of Trump’s FBI director?
Russia is not the source of these pathologies. When we seek guidance on the proper response to them, there will be little help for us in the Mueller report.
In the months since Mueller’s appointment, there are some things you haven’t heard from Trump. You haven’t heard him repeating, at the slightest provocation, “No personal enrichment! No personal enrichment!” You haven’t heard him proclaiming, “No abuse of law enforcement! No abuse of law enforcement!” And you certainly haven’t heard, “No nepotism! No nepotism!”
Nope, Trump’s chant of choice has been, “No collusion! No collusion!”
Trump, in his feral wisdom, is onto something. Mueller’s report may indeed show that Trump was right: No collusion — or, more accurately, as we’re often reminded, no conspiracy.
But that may no longer matter.
Suzanne Garment, a lawyer, is the author of “Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics.” Her husband Leonard Garment was acting special counsel to President Richard Nixon for the last two years of his presidency.