Nor does it matter that I believe any public report Mueller files about the president should be succinct. Yes, Mueller is merely a prosecutor; he is not counsel to a congressional committee conducting an impeachment investigation. The Justice Department is not supposed to speak publicly about the evidence against uncharged persons — in fact, Comey’s violation of this principle was Rosenstein’s rationale for recommending his dismissal. To my mind, either there is enough evidence to charge a crime, in which case Mueller should ask the Justice Department for permission to indict (and address the standing DOJ guidance against indicting a sitting president), or there is not, in which case Mueller should state that prosecution should be declined owing to insufficiency of the proof.
But again, what I think is beside the point. This has been a highly irregular investigation from the start. There is every reason to suspect that the same politicians who rebuked Comey for publicizing the Clinton evidence will demand full disclosure of the Trump evidence, even if Mueller recommends no criminal charges. And the new Democratic Congress will have a sound rationale for doing so: High crimes and misdemeanors need not be indictable offenses, so even if Mueller has not found prosecutable crimes, he could conceivably have found impeachable offenses.
This brings us to my 2019 caveat: If Mueller’s highly elastic warrant is to probe Trump “collusion” with the Kremlin, why would he stop if the president keeps giving him reasons to continue?
The first cabinet meeting of the new year found the president making the appalling claim that “the reason Russia was in Afghanistan” — i.e., the reason the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 — “was because terrorists were going into Russia.” Trump astonishingly added, “They were right to be there.”
For a guy under investigation for colluding with the Kremlin, the president’s remarks are also noteworthy because they are exactly what Putin would want Trump to say.
.. ‘Collusion’ — the Evidence
Just sticking with what we know (as if Mueller has no other information): Cronies of Putin told Trump-campaign officials that the Russian government wanted Trump to win the election. Trump recruited into his campaign the likes of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, who had close ties and multi-million-dollar business dealings with Putin cronies, including leaders of the Kremlin-backed Ukranian political party that was largely responsible for the strife in Ukraine that has led to civil war and Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Manafort, who became Trump’s campaign chairman, offered briefings on the campaign to Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch so close to Putin that the latter has interceded on Deripaska’s behalf to protest U.S. travel restrictions. The Trump campaign also recruited as a foreign-policy adviser Carter Page, an obscure figure best known for being so sympathetic to the Kremlin, and so financially involved in the Russian energy sector, that Russian intelligence attempted to recruit him as an asset in 2013 (apparently unsuccessfully).
Meantime, top Trump-campaign officials elected to take a meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer at which they expected to receive incriminating information on Hillary Clinton that came straight from Russian-government files. The meeting was a bust — the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, appears to have used it as an opportunity to lobby top Trump associates against the Magnitsky Act, a notorious pet peeve of Putin’s. Yet the president’s son, Don Jr., apparently at the president’s urging, attempted to mislead the New York Times about the genesis of the meeting, coming clean only after learning that the Times had, and was about to publish, Trump Jr.’s emails detailing the expected transmission of campaign dirt about Clinton.
For leaders like Trump and Putin, telling big lies isn’t about persuasion — it’s about power.
“Firehosing” — drowning people with lies
President Trump’s remarks on Afghanistan at his Cabinet meeting Wednesday were a notable event. They will be criticized heavily, and deservedly so. The full text is available on the White House website.
Mr. Trump ridiculed other nations’ commitment of troops to fight alongside America’s in Afghanistan. He said, “They tell me a hundred times, ‘Oh, we sent you soldiers. We sent you soldiers.’”
This mockery is a slander against every ally that has supported the U.S. effort in Afghanistan with troops who fought and often died. The United Kingdom has had more than 450 killed fighting in Afghanistan.
As reprehensible was Mr. Trump’s utterly false narrative of the Soviet Union’s involvement there in the 1980s. He said: “The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there.”
Right to be there? We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan with three divisions in December 1979 to prop up a fellow communist government.
The invasion was condemned throughout the non-communist world. The Soviets justified the invasion as an extension of the Brezhnev Doctrine, asserting their right to prevent countries from leaving the communist sphere. They stayed until 1989.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a defining event in the Cold War, making clear to all serious people the reality of the communist Kremlin’s threat. Mr. Trump’s cracked history can’t alter that reality.
The narrative that Russia is under attack has long dominated Kremlin propaganda, with Putin positioning himself as the commander of a fortress besieged – militarily, economically, and even in the domain of international sports – by a hostile West. This propaganda, already building in volume in 2012, after Putin won his third presidential term, reached a crescendo in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea.
So far, there has been no diminuendo, and there is unlikely to be one so long as Putin’s siege narrative strategy continues to yield political dividends. Prior to the annexation of Crimea, his approval rating had dropped to record lows; afterwards, it surged to more than 80%.
But, since last summer, Putin’s approval ratings have again dropped precipitously, to 66% in October and November. Beyond “making Russia great again” on the international stage, Putin was supposed to improve Russians’ standard of living. Instead, after four years of falling real incomes, the government announced deeply unpopular pension reforms, which included an increase in the retirement age.
Addressing Russians’ economic grievances will not be easy. Russia’s economy is under severe strain as a result of the sanctions imposed by the West over Crimea. More important, Russia’s state-capitalist model has led to weak competition and declining incentives for private investment and entrepreneurship.
With few options for rallying public opinion, Putin may well have decided that it is time to “remind” Russians that they are under attack. (Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, may also benefit politically from escalating tensions as he seeks to lift his dismal approval ratings ahead of his reelection bid in March.).. To be clear, Ukraine is not attacking Russia. The Ukrainian naval vessels were in full compliance with a 2003 bilateral treaty governing access to the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov. But, by asserting that the vessels entered Russian waters illegally, not to mention escalating tensions with the West, Putin may be hoping to breathe new life into the siege narrative, thereby inspiring the kind of primitive patriotism on which he has long relied... But Putin is likely also to draw more public attention to Russia’s military-industrial complex and weapons development, while celebrating past glory, especially the mythologized version of World War II that he has established as a component of his own legitimacy... For example, the veneration of Stalin, with whom Putin shares more than a few traits, has no doubt contributed to many Russians’ greater willingness to accept repression. The grand military parade commemorating the anniversary of the end of the Siege of Leningrad, planned for January 29 in St. Petersburg, may inspire patriotism, but it will in no way reflect the real drama of the city’s starving inhabitants... In the “Great Waltz” of July 1944 – which the Novgorod event will reenact – 57,000 German prisoners of war were marched through the streets of Moscow, Stalin’s goal being to humiliate the Germans and remind Muscovites of their hatred for their enemies. But, in the event, many Russians pitied the prisoners, and some even threw bread to them... When sociologists from the Levada Center recently asked 20-year-old Russians to identify the country they view as a model for others, they chose
- Germany, followed by
- China and Putin’s favorite villain, the
- United States.
While these young people support Russian greatness, they define greatness not only in military terms, but also on the basis of economic prosperity and social progress.
.. It does not help that Putin’s foreign-policy gambits have become increasingly dubious. It is hard for many Russians to see why their leaders have channeled so many resources to Syria when there are such pressing challenges at home. Watching a Russian boat ram a Ukrainian boat is no substitute for economic opportunities.
For a long time, the slogan “we can repeat” – a reference to the Soviet Union’s WWII victory – was popular in Russia. But the truth is that we cannot. We lack not only the resources, but also the will to let our young people die fighting another country’s young people. Indeed, the last thing Russians want is to repeat a war that left 27 million of their countrymen dead.