Lawfare has a dense and lengthy commentary on the Mueller report by Benjamin Wittes, the editor-in-chief. Wittes actually read the whole thing; his commentary is in sections and I’m barely through the first. This is something I’m going to plow through from beginning to end. Wittes has the necessary legal background to understand what the Mueller report is and isn’t saying. Whether it matters to the larger political world where voters just seem to want to move on, it matters to me.
I wish it mattered more to Attorney General Barr, and to Republicans in Congress. Barr clearly mis-stated the findings in his brief summary and minimized the conclusions. He’s responsible for most of the ongoing investigations referred by Mueller when the special counsel felt the material exceeded his mandate. That mandate was to conduct a criminal — not a counterintelligence — inquiry. We can assume those ongoing matters will go nowhere in a Justice Department led by Barr.
Within that criminal investigation, Mueller worked under a tight legal definition of what constitutes evidence of conspiracy: some kind of formal agreement between the parties. That Trump and his campaign were trying really hard to take advantage of whatever Russia had to offer didn’t fit that strict standard, unsavory and unpatriotic though it was.
The Wittes commentary is written in clear language, without a lot of legal-ese. I think it’s going to take hours to read through all the sections, but here’s an excerpt from the first. The “IRA” referred to is the Russian disinformation agency.
“It is a story of failed immunity on the U.S. side to outside interference—and aggressive Russian exploitation of the absence of democratic antibodies to fight off such manipulation. The IRA was able to reach tens of millions of U.S. persons using its social media accounts. It was able to trick prominent people into engaging with and promoting its dummy accounts. It was able to exploit social media companies. And it was able to make a series of contacts with Trump campaign affiliates and get Trump figures—including Trump himself—to engage with and promote social media content that came from a hostile power’s covert efforts to influence the American electorate. Though not intentional or criminal on the U.S. side, this pattern shows a troubling degree of vulnerability on the part of the U.S. political system to outside influence campaigns.
And while Trump and his people did not “collude” with the operation, they did fall for it. The investigation identified “multiple occasions” on which “members and surrogates of the Trump Campaign promoted … pro-Trump or anti-Clinton content published by the IRA” or engaged directly with IRA trolls. Mueller notes that the “investigation identified no similar connections between the IRA and the Clinton Campaign.” To some degree, no doubt, this was because the IRA message was hostile to Clinton and thus not something her people would want to engage. But no doubt the Trump folks were also particularly vulnerable to this sort of manipulation. While they weren’t active partners in this scheme, they were suckers.”
Do you want a sucker to be president? We all know how easy it is to manipulate Trump through flattery, and not only the Russians are successful at doing it. We know he overestimates his personal power of persuasion, and disdains content expertise and government experts and historical evidence. He thinks his gut tells him more than anyone else knows.
There’s no larger story about democracy for Trump and his voters; the relationship is transactional, with a big dose of reality TV to spice things up. He gives his supporters conservative judges, deregulation, and tax cuts. He entertains them. They give him unquestioning support. That he’s a sucker when it comes to selling out the country and its core values is apparently irrelevant to that exchange.