Special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings should finally put to rest the “collusion” theory that has consumed the mainstream media and the political class for more than two years. The central question of Mueller’s probe was whether there was any conspiracy between candidate Donald Trump and the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin to secure his election over Hillary Clinton in 2016. And after an exhaustive inquiry with sweeping investigative authority, Mueller has answered it: The special counsel’s office “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
The outcome is no surprise to those who scrutinized the facts as they emerged. Time and again, the available evidence undermined the case for such a conspiracy. None of the characters presented to us as Russian “agents” or Trump-Kremlin “intermediaries” were shown to be anything of the sort. None of the lies that Trump aides or allies were caught telling pointed us toward the collusion that members of the media and political figures insisted they were hiding. None of the various pillars of Russiagate—the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting; the fanciful assertions of the Steele dossier; the anonymously sourced media claims, such as Trump campaign members’ having “repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials”—ever led us to damning evidence. And all of that is likely why Mueller never charged anyone with involvement in (or covering up) a Trump-Russia conspiracy.
A minimally responsible media and political class would have acknowledged this reality. Instead, leading voices from cable news, Congress, and other influential perches promoted Russiagate by ignoring the countervailing evidence and those who pointed it out. They filled in the evidentiary holes with supposition, innuendo, and outright falsehood. That helps to explain the sizable number of discredited or retracted media reports that advanced the notion of a Trump-Russia plot, culminating in the final collapse of that narrative.
The implosion of Russiagate is a humiliation for everyone who promoted it, but it need not be a defeat for the broader anti-Trump “resistance.” Throughout the Trump era, liberal attention and energy has been channeled into believing that the president was a traitor or compromised by Putin and that Mueller would uncover the smoking gun to prove it. With that narrative no longer sustainable, those organizing against Trump have the opportunity to create an opposition centered not on a spy-thriller plot, but instead on challenging the harmful policies that Russiagate overshadowed. The task will not be easy: As some of us progressive skeptics of Russiagate warned, the faith in this conspiracy theory not only sidelined the critiques of Trump’s actual policies, but would benefit him if it didn’t pan out. This is already happening. A senior White House official told The Washington Post of a “feeling of euphoria” throughout the administration over what the newspaper admitted was “an unmistakable political victory for Trump.” According to the Associated Press, Trump and his aides have developed an “expansive” plan “to turn the end of the probe into the launching pad for a new round of attacks on the president’s foes and a moment to reinvigorate his supporters in the run-up to the 2020 campaign.”
This massive gift to Trump should be grounds for a reckoning among those who presented it to him. Prominent media outlets that spun an outlandish tale of a compromised or even treasonous president should be held to account for the most catastrophic failure since the days when the media promoted the fiction of Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” as a reason for the Iraq War. Leading Democrats should explain how it is that their promises of “more than circumstantial evidence of collusion,” as Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) put it, resulted in zero indictments on such charges when #MuellerTime ran out.
Top intelligence officials, both current and retired, also owe us an explanation: not just for their explosive statements—such as former CIA director John Brennan’s prediction earlier this month that a new round of conspiracy indictments was coming—but for their investigatory decisions from the start. That includes relying on the Steele dossier to seek a surveillance warrant against Trump’s former campaign adviser Carter Page, and to open a counterintelligence investigation on Trump himself, motivated in part by disagreement with his public embrace of Russia. Accountability on this front may well serve Trump’s self-promotional claims of a “witch hunt.” But it is vital that intelligence abuses be held to account as well, no matter the partisan consequences. A failure to do so could very well hurt progressives in the future, should overzealous intelligence officials put them in their sights.
A major part of that process should be the public release of the Mueller report and as much of the underlying evidence as possible, as Democrats rightfully demand. But that rallying cry should not be used as an opportunity to double down on the conspiracy theory that Mueller has rejected. There are already rumblings from Democrats and the media about a potential cover-up and unresolved questions about Trump and Russia that only further congressional inquiries can resolve. These same voices were the ones who implored us to put our faith in Mueller as his investigation unfolded. They should heed their own advice now that his investigation is complete.