As we recoil in shock from the events of the past week, when the chief magistrate of our republic met in secret with the Vladimir Putin and publicly sided with the Russian tyrant against his own government, some perspective may be in order.
It was back in the dim mists of time — on Jan. 6, 2017, to be precise — that American intelligence agencies first made public their conclusions about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Their assessment included the following passage:
“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.”
For our often fractious intelligence agencies to conclude unanimously that Russia had interfered in our election with the aim of helping Donald Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton was extraordinary. Even more extraordinary was the conclusion “with high confidence” that this was personally ordered by Putin. Although the press was slow to tumble to this, experienced consumers of classified intelligence in Washington (and Moscow) understood that this judgment about Putin’s personal role would have required a very high evidentiary standard — the interception of Putin’s communications, a mole of unimpeachable credibility in Putin’s office, or both.
That was over a year and a half ago. On May 17, 2017, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Attorney General Sessions having recused himself from any Russia probes because of his own involvement with the Trump campaign, not to mention some dubious statements under oath about his meetings with the Russian ambassador, appointed a special counsel “to ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 Presidential election.” The individual he chose, Robert S. Mueller III, had served as FBI director from 2001 to 2013 under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Mueller, a Republican, was confirmed in that position twice by the Senate — both times unanimously.
In just 14 months since then, Mueller has brought criminal charges against a total of 32 people. They include a former director of the Trump campaign, Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser. Most recently, a few days before the president’s secret meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Mueller laid bare in a detailed 29-page indictment the precise methods used by the Russians to hack into the Democratic National Committee’s servers, and he named 12 of the military intelligence officers responsible.
The reaction of leaders of the Republican Party to the president’s inexplicable performance in Helsinki has been critical. This statement by our Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, was typical: “The President’s statements today in Helsinki demonstrate his continued refusal to accept the unanimous conclusions of U.S. intelligence leaders and the bipartisan findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee. This position is untenable and at odds with the forceful response this moment demands.”
Trump’s reaction so far has been a half-hearted attempt to change “would” to “wouldn’t,” and to double down by inviting Putin to Washington in the fall.
As Mueller’s investigation proceeds, more revelations about the nature of the Russian connection to Trump and his campaign are likely. We know, of course, that on July 27, 2016, Trump publicly urged the Russians to hack into Clinton’s emails, and thanks to the Mueller indictments, we now know that on that same day, by coincidence or not, Russian intelligence launched just such an effort. We may learn more about the president’s business dealings over the years with the oligarchs who are in Putin’s pocket.
For now, it is impossible to say what Mueller and his team know — or more to the point, can prove. For the moment, all that can be said for certain is that thanks to these most recent indictments and the bipartisan shock over the president’s performance in Helsinki, Mueller is more protected from political interference than ever. This particular witch hunt has a long way to go before it runs its course, and there is still hope for the rule of law in America — at least for the moment.
Laurence Pope served in senior positions in the U.S. Department of State during a 30-year career and as charge d’affaires in Libya after the assassination of Ambassador Christopher Stevens. He lives in Portland.
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