After disappearing for the midterms, Russiagate has reemerged front and center. This week’s barrage of developments in the cases of indicted Trump campaign figures Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, and George Papadopoulos have renewed long-running declarations of a presidency in peril. They coincide with a fresh round of alarm over the fate of Mueller’s investigation following Trump’s ouster of Jeff Sessions and the installation of Matthew Whitaker in his place as attorney general. Leading Democrats now see the probe as so paramount that, despite having recaptured the House running on health-care issues, protecting the investigation has been deemed “our top priority” (Representative Jerry Nadler) and “at the top of the agenda” (Representative Adam Schiff).
There is nothing objectionable about wanting to safeguard the Mueller investigation, nor about concerns that Trump’s appointment of an unqualified loyalist may jeopardize it. Mueller should complete his work, unimpeded. The question is one of priorities. After all, the fixation on Mueller has not just raised anticipation of Trump’s indictment, or even impeachment—it has also overshadowed many of the actual policies that those seeking his political demise oppose him for. At this highly charged moment, it seems prudent to reconsider whether the probe remains worthy of such attention and high hopes.
Although Mueller’s final report has yet to be released, the issue that sparked the FBI investigation he inherited has already been resolved. The FBI began eyeing potential Trump-Russia ties in July 2016 after getting a tip that unpaid campaign aide George Papadopoulos may have been informed that Russia was in possession of stolen Democratic Party e-mails well before WikiLeaks made them public. But that trail went cold. It turns out that a London-based professor, Joseph Mifsud, told Papadopoulos that the Russian government might possess thousands of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. The FBI interviewed Mifsud in Washington, DC, in February 2017, but Mueller has never alleged that Mifsud works with the Russian government. Papadopoulos was ultimately sentenced to just 14 days behind bars for lying to the FBI about the timing and nature of his contacts with Mifsud. He reported to a federal prison on Monday.
The Russia probe’s other instigating figure, Carter Page, was also a low-level, unpaid campaign official. The information that led to his investigation is even more suspect. In its October 2016 application for a surveillance warrant on Page, the FBI claimed it “believes that [Russia’s] efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with [the Trump campaign].” But a key source for that supposition turned out to be the Steele dossier—the salacious, Democratic Party–funded opposition research compiled by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele. And while the FBI got Papadopoulos on lying to them, Page has not been accused of any crime.
With the Russia investigation’s catalysts coming up all but empty, there is little reason to expect that the remaining campaign members who face prison time will reverse that trend. Former national-security adviser Michael Flynn awaits sentencing in the coming weeks on charges similar to Papadopoulos’s. Just as the evidence used in Manafort’s bank- and tax-fraud case underscored that he worked against Russian interests in Ukraine, Flynn’s indictment turns up another inconvenient fact for the collusion hopeful: The foreign government that Flynn colluded with on Trump’s behalf—against the US government—is not Russia but Israel.
Despite much hoopla to the contrary, Muller’s new indictment of former Trump fixer Michael Cohen contains more inconvenient facts. Cohen has pleaded guilty to a single count for lying to Congress about his role in a failed attempt to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. According to the plea document, Cohen gave Congress false written answers in order to “minimize links” between the Moscow project and Trump, and to “give the false impression” that it was abandoned earlier than it actually was. Cohen told the court that he made these statements to “be loyal” to Trump and to be consistent with his “political messaging.”
As I noted in The Nation in October 2017, the attempted real-estate venture in Russia “does raise a potential conflict of interest” for Trump, who “pursued a Moscow deal as he praised Putin on the campaign trail.” But nothing in Cohen’s indictment incriminates Trump. Much of what it details was previously known, and rather than revealing an illicit transatlantic collusion scheme, it reads more like a slapstick mafia buddy comedy. As Buzzfeed News reported in May, Cohen communicated extensively with Trump organization colleague Felix Sater—identified in the Cohen plea as “Individual 2”—who had promised to secure Russian financing for the proposed Moscow project. But the Russians never signed on, and Cohen only grew increasingly frustrated with Sater’s failure to live up to his lofty pledges. “You are putting my job in jeopardy and making me look incompetent,” Cohen wrote Sater on December 31, 2015. “I gave you two months and the best you send me is some bullshit garbage invite by some no name clerk at a third-tier bank.”
Cohen then took matters into his own hands. As was previously known, he did not have an e-mail address for a Russian contact, so he wrote to a generic e-mail address at the office of Dmitri Peskov, the press secretary for Vladimir Putin (“Russian Official 1,” in the indictment). We now learn from Cohen that he managed to reach Peskov’s assistant, who asked him “detailed questions and took notes.” But as The New York Times noted when the Trump Moscow story first emerged: “The project never got [Russian] government permits or financing, and died weeks later.” Sater tried to save the project. He discussed arranging visits to Russia by both Cohen and Trump, but Cohen ultimately backed out after allegations of Russian e-mail hacking surfaced in June 2016. According to Buzzfeed, Sater even proposed giving Putin a $50 million penthouse as an enticement, but “the plan never went anywhere because the tower deal ultimately fizzled, and it is not clear whether Trump knew of” Sater’s idea.
Cohen now claims that he spoke to Trump about the project more than the three times that he informed Congress about. For their part, Trump’s attorneys do not seem concerned, saying that his recently submitted answers to Mueller align with Cohen’s account. That Cohen perjured himself to Congress raises problems for him, but it is hard to see how his lies about a project that failed and a proposed trip to Russia that never happened can hurt Trump. That could only change if, as part of his new cooperation deal with Mueller, Cohen has more to give.
As for Manafort, his case took a major turn when Mueller canceled their cooperation agreement and accused him of “crimes and lies.” The crucial questions are what does Mueller allege he lied to him about and what evidence is there to substantiate that charge. Mueller is expected to provide details in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we can only speculate. The revelation that Manafort’s lawyers shared information with Trump’s attorneys even after the plea deal was struck in September has inevitably fueled speculation that Manafort is lying to benefit Trump, or even hide evidence of a Russia conspiracy. That is certainly possible. But theories that Manafort is then banking on a pardon from Trump do not square with the prevailing view that his agreement with Mueller—which included admitting to crimes that could be re-charged in state court—was “pardon proof.”
It is also possible that Manafort’s alleged lies have nothing to do with a Russia conspiracy; after all, his case, and that of his deputy Rick Gates, pertained not to Russia or the 2016 campaign, but instead to financial crimes during Manafort’s lobbying stint in Ukraine. The Wall Street Journal suggests that is the case, reporting that Manafort’s alleged lies “don’t appear to be central to the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election that Mr. Mueller is investigating.” Earlier this month, ABC News claimed, citing “multiple sources,” that Mueller’s investigators are “not getting what they want” from Manafort’s cooperation deal. When it comes to collusion, perhaps there is just nothing to get.
The latest explosive claims and suppositions on the collusion front do not inspire confidence. The cancellation of Manafort’s cooperation deal was followed by a report in The Guardian asserting that he met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy in 2013, 2015, and spring 2016. Both WikiLeaks and Manafort vehemently deny it, and even devoted proponents of the collusion theory are skeptical. Writing under a pen name for Politico, a former CIA officer even posited that the Russian government may have “planted” the story in a bid to discredit the Guardian reporters who wrote it. Among many other reasons to question the story, it is implausible that the intelligence services constantly monitoring Assange would not have evidence of such a meeting and unlikely that they would not have produced it by now.
The attempt to link Manafort to WikiLeaks comes amid speculation about whether Trump friend Roger Stone and his associate Jerome Corsi in fact served that intermediary function on the campaign’s behalf. Newly disclosed court documents suggest, at minimum, that Stone and Corsi lied to Mueller’s team about their own conversations pertaining to WikiLeaks. But whether their own apparent duplicity means that these two far-right conspiracy theorists served as secret go-betweens between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks is a whole other matter. On top of WikiLeaks’ categorical denials, the only communication that has turned up between the two sides shows WikiLeaks imploring Stone, in October 2016, to stop making “false claims of association” between them.
Meanwhile, Mueller appears to have backed off of his other main focus: the question of whether Trump obstructed justice in the firing of FBI director James Comey. After Trump submitted written answers to Mueller, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani claimed that Mueller’s questions did not even raise the obstruction issue—or any other actions during Trump’s time in office. This apparent omission on Mueller’s part might reflect his recent acknowledgement, as reported by The New York Times, “that executive privilege and other issues complicated questioning the president about obstruction.”
With Mueller now said to be working on his final report, the combination of the fact that the collusion investigation’s supposed catalyst—Papadopoulos—failed to lead to evidence of a conspiracy and will serve just two weeks in prison, the absence of collusion-related or even campaign-related charges to date, and the collapse of a key cooperating witness makes for an unlikely time for Trump to suddenly stop the special counsel in his tracks. Those convinced that Whitaker will intervene to thwart Mueller should perhaps find encouragement in the fact that Whitaker stayed clear at his first known opportunity to meddle, the indictment of Cohen. But even if we want to be vigilant against the prospect of a new Saturday Night Massacre, we would do well not to let a hypothetical threat to the Mueller investigation distract us from the actual threats posed by Trump’s policies.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what is occurring. Just over 24 hours after Sessions was forced to step down, tens of thousands of people turned out for protests in dozens of cities under the banner of “Protect Mueller.” While Sessions’s ouster elicited widespread anxiety over Mueller’s job safety, there was near-uniform silence over an outgoing decision by Sessions that puts at risk real lives. In his last day on the job, Sessions virtually eliminated the ability of the federal government to use consent decrees to monitor police departments accused of abuses and civil-rights violations. Billy Murphy, the veteran Baltimore attorney and civil-rights activist who represented the family of Freddie Gray, told me that he fears “a return to the dark ages” as a result of Sessions’s act. “This emboldens police corruption, police misconduct, police brutality in particular,” Murphy warned. “You’re going to see a real overkill and a real return to the worst kinds of policing that we’ve seen probably in the past 25, 30 years.… That would be a grave injury to communities of color, to women, to immigrants all over the country.”
This is not to suggest that those unnerved by Sessions’s ouster are indifferent to the police brutality and systemic racism that he emboldened on his way out. But the fact that the attorney general’s departure triggers one of the largest nationwide protests of Trump’s presidency, while major policy moves that endanger vulnerable communities remain overlooked, should make us reflect on our priorities—and their consequences. Given what it has yielded to date, if Russiagate is still topping Democrats’ agenda, it is Trump’s agenda that might benefit the most.