Column:: Actually, Mueller’s ‘witch hunt’ is bagging flesh-and-blood villains
Congratulations, America, indeed.
President Trump was being sarcastic when he tweeted, at 7:28 Thursday morning, “Congratulations America, we are now into the second year of the greatest Witch Hunt in American History ... and there is still No Collusion and No Obstruction.”
A year into the probe by special counsel Robert Mueller, both he and, yes, America, deserve congratulations. Our system — in particular, a Justice Department that is part of the executive branch but that maintains necessary independence from political meddling; prosecutors who operate in appropriate secrecy but within guidelines and with judicial oversight — is working as intended.
The wrap-it-up cries from Team Trump are as wrong as they are predictable.
There was never any reasonable prospect that an investigation this sprawling, sensitive and important could be concluded in a single year. Trump’s lawyers, seeking to calm presidential nerves, did him no favors by suggesting otherwise.
Mueller is no doubt exquisitely aware of the political seasons and the political clock, which advise more emphasis on speed than in an ordinary investigation. But he is also cognizant of the imperative for thoroughness. History hinges on his performance.
Nothing in the conduct of the Mueller probe suggests anything other than the diligent professionalism that he is known for — and that was initially lauded by some of the very folks who now argue that he should move on.
In fact, notwithstanding Trump’s constant claims of “No Collusion and No Obstruction,” the facts look much worse today than when Mueller was named, both about the underlying issue of potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and about the possibility that Trump or others obstructed justice in trying to derail the probe. The information that has emerged — from outside reporting, from the congressional inquiries and from the flurry of indictments and other activity by Mueller himself — presents a far more detailed and alarming picture on both scores.
On collusion: We now know, but didn’t back then, about the Trump Tower meeting — that Donald Trump Jr. responded eagerly to an offer from a purported emissary of the Russian government to offer damaging information about Hillary Clinton and arranged a meeting to obtain it that included Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
When Mueller was named, we had some scattered knowledge of contacts between Trump campaign aides and Russians, most prominently the meetings between then-Sen. Jeff Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and the phone conversations between Kislyak and incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn. Yet we had no inkling of how many Trump associates and campaign aides had dealings with Russian officials and operatives — at least 75 contacts and 22 meetings between Trump’s team and individuals linked to Russia, according to the Moscow Project, an initiative of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
We did not know that, during the campaign, Manafort was meeting with a person with ties to Russian intelligence and, through him, offering to brief a Vladimir Putin ally, Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. We did not know that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and business associate Felix Sater were pushing construction of Trump Tower Moscow during the campaign — indeed, Trump assured the public he had no business there — or that their emails on the subject included this assurance from Sater: “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected.” We did not know that a professor with links to Russia had offered campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos “thousands of emails” with “dirt” on Clinton.
And on obstruction, we knew the essence of the possible case: that Trump asked FBI Director James Comey to “let this go” on Flynn and fired Comey, he said, to relieve the pressure of “this Russia thing.” But we did not know that Trump had ordered his White House counsel, Don McGahn, to instruct the attorney general not to recuse himself in the probe. That Trump ordered Mueller’s firing and backed off only after McGahn threatened to quit. That Trump himself was involved in drafting a misleading statement describing his son’s Trump Tower meeting as “primarily ... about the adoption of Russian children.”
A year in, Mueller has under his belt the indictments of 19 individuals and three companies. He has amassed five guilty pleas, including from Flynn, Papadopoulos and Manafort deputy Rick Gates. What Trump rails against as a witch hunt is bagging flesh-and-blood villains and uncovering real villainy at the heart of our system — which may be why the president is so worked up about it.
Ruth Marcus is a columnist for the Washington Post.