To all of my fellow progressives lurking in the shadows.
We probably all agree (okay, not the trolls, but the rest of us) that Trump needs to be removed from office. None of us voted to make him president in the first place, because his politics was destructive and what could be discerned of his public policy positions was even worse. And since assuming office, he has added significant abuses of that office to what we knew pre-election, and has exceeded the worst pre-election fears on how he would handle the politics and the public policy of being president. At the very least, he’s a bum who clearly needs to be thrown out at the next election. Not much less clearly, he suffers from dementia that impairs his ability to fulfill the duties of his office, and he should be removed under provisions of the 25th Amendment. You could even make a good case that he has mishandled his office in ways that justify conviction on impeachment.
None of those positions on why Trump needs removal rest at all on what we know of Trump-Russia. And while the general reaction at this site to this latest plea deal with Flynn is that Mueller is closing in on Trump, and will soon have him dead to rights on something big, I think that a more reasonable view is that it actually limits the extent of what we can expect from Trump-Russia, and that limit falls far short of anything reasonably impeachable.
Flynn has pled guilty to lying to the FBI, which is exactly what the administration has said all along was one of the two reasons he was fired by Trump, lying to the FBI and lying to Pence. Lying to Pence is probably not a criminal offense. The point is that the administration claim is that they reacted to finding out that Flynn had lied by firing him. It’s a crime to lie to the FBI, something they agree is true, so they fired Flynn for lying to the FBI. Trump dissociated himself from Flynn’s lie rather forcefully, by firing him; so Trump can claim he wasn’t a party to that crime that Flynn has confessed to.
Yes, of course, Flynn must have lied to the FBI for some reason, he must have been covering up something. So, sure, there is the implication that he was covering up some crime that perhaps in some way implicates Trump. But of course people also lie to cover up things that are merely personally or politically embarrassing, not criminal. And even if what was being covered up was criminal, illegal actions come in all grades of severity, from speeding and entering the country illegally all the way up to murder.
The indictments of Manafort and Gates, and the plea deal with Papadopoulos, all suggest that what was being covered up was collusion by the Trump campaign with Russia prior to the election. And there is also this new element of contacts with Russia after the election but before Trump assumed office, that could amount to violations of the Logan Act, the 18th Century law that makes it a crime for private persons to negotiate with a foreign power in a matter in which that power is in dispute with the US.
So, the criminal activity we have outlined so far that Mueller is closing in on consists of collusion with Russia in the campaign, and violation of the Logan Act. Lord knows there’s lots more criminality that these two matters may be tangentially involved in, that an aggressive investigation seeking to remove this president from office might delve into, using these two initial areas of more easily provable crime as the means to get people to talk about the really good stuff. There’s Flynn’s various cloak and dagger adventures including at least kidnapping Gulen, and God knows what else. There’s Trump’s apparent career of money laundering for Russian mobsters, and God knows what else.
My point is that you really, really need the God knows what else level stuff to remove Trump by impeachment. The Logan Act and collusion stuff, even insofar as criminal, is speeding ticket criminal and entering the country illegally criminal, not murder criminal. Not even a D House and 2/3 majority D Senate is going to impeach and remove over collusion and the Logan Act. And Mueller cannot, at all, be presumed to be going any further than his mandate to investigate theTrump campaign collusion with Russia. He may surprise us, but don’t expect him to delve into the past 20 years of the Manhattan real estate market, or Flynn’s free lance spy business.
The Logan Act business is easier to dispose of. Only two people, in the 218 years it has been the law of the land, have ever been indicted under its provisions, and those were two private citizens who very clearly had no business entering into negotiations with foreign governments. And neither of those two cases even went to trial. The Trump campaign, in contrast, was late in the transition to taking over the presidency. Even if whatever they did was dead to rights illegal under the Logan Act, and Trump can be proven to have ordered those illegal activities, unless their violations of the act can be shown to have resulted in people being killed, none of them committed a crime for which they would ever be prosecuted, much less impeached or convicted.
Collusion with Russia during the campaign itself is a bigger and messier question. In general, the very fact that we call it “collusion” is a pretty good indicator that we don’t, at least yet, have any actual good stuff crime to talk about. Putin wanted Trump to win, that seems likely, close to certain. Putin used Russian state resources to launch a disinformation campaign designed to help Trump win, that also seems solid. The Trump campaign knew about at least some of what Putin was doing to help them win, that also seems solid. That Trump helped them do any of these things seems less certain. Did the Russians need those hopelessly incompetent amateurs in the Trump campaign to go about their work? Does that seem likely?
Don’t get me wrong. Even just that is clearly immoral and wrong. But was any of what Russia did illegal, and if so, was the campaign aware of this illegality, much less aided in the commission of any of the illegal things the Russians did? Perhaps the Russians hacked computer systems, and I assume that’s illegal. But what we know is that Wikileaks hacked material was discussed and put on offer, but it’s unclear how much that was really Russia’s to offer, or was not already available. Trump, as a not atypical evidence of his dementia, had the persisting belief that Clinton’s “30,000 deleted e-mails” could only have been deleted to hide evidence of some truly good stuff level criminality on her part, and it isn’t clear that he was much interested in hacked material once the Russians made it clear that they didn’t have any smoking guns in the material they had. You’re going to impeach a guy for looking into whether Clinton was a criminal, just not being very careful of how he got the evidence of criminality, but then backing away from the fishy evidence once it became clear that there was nothing there to indicate that someone guilty of really serious crimes was on her way to the presidency?
Who was hurt in Trump-Russia, at least so far as what we know now? Were votes stolen? Was anyone killed or injured? What property was stolen? Sure, you could blame the disinformation campaign for “stealing” the election. Even if you’re right and the disinformation campaign was what tipped it for Trump, we don’t impeach and convict for metaphorical crimes, however grave. Disinformation in a political campaign is as legal as church on Sunday. The very most the campaign could be legally on the hook for the Russian disinformation campaign would be if that was considered an illegal campaign contribution. Maybe the FEC needs to impose a fine. Big whoop.
As I said at the outset, Trump needs to be removed from office. But that need cries out from a thousand obvious and proven words and deeds of his far more loudly than it does from the whole mass of what he might have done in secret in Trump-Russia. He’s got dementia with behavioral disturbance, and his finger rests on the nuclear trigger. Imagine the worst that could come out of Trump-Russia, and it’s like arresting Hitler for jaywalking to say that he should be removed from office for Trump-Russia.
I’m not against arresting Hitler for jaywalking, or Capone for tax evasion, if that’s the best that you can do, because the important thing is to stop the ongoing damage a Hitler or a Capone or a Trump is doing. It just seems unlikely to me that Trump-Russia will result in removal. If Mueller’s investigation surprises me in how far he is willing to go, if he does go after the decades of money-laundering that for me is the only really good stuff mentioned so far, genuine impeachment-grade, criminality, I will not look that gift horse in the mouth. There would be the issue of selective prosecution, since it seems that in at least the high-end, real estate money-laundering has been winked at for decades, but I would say go for it and prosecute every one of those malefactors of great wealth most unselectively.
But Mueller impresses me as a very straight arrow, who will not go further than his mandate to investigate the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia. He is indicting speeding ticket and illegal entry level criminality because that’s straight arrow his mandate. You can interpret the indictments over low-grade criminality in little fish as the first steps in a careful legal siege of the big fish, but it seems to me most likely that he is just indicting as the investigation finds crimes in the people he investigate. There may be no grand plan to topple Trump. Trump may simply have not done anything very noteworthy, or very criminal, in Trump-Russia, however great and destructive his many actual metaphorical crimes in office, or his literal crimes before he ran for office.
There is a sense in which religion is the opiate of the masses, and revolution is the opiate of the intellectuals. Trump-Russia is an opiate to many of us. Imagining Trump taking a perp walk out of the WH is a fantasy quick fix for the very real and pressing problem of Trump remaining in office. Our side can’t start the 25th Amendment process, or the impeachment process, to get him out of office now. We have to wait until 2019 to have even the prospect of the power to remove him before his term ends, and we have to wait until 2020 to throw the bum out the standard issue way we have to remove presidents from office. The nation really needs a fix long before any of those standard issue means of removal, and Mueller seems to be the best prospect of timely deliverance.
But Mueller isn’t Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. He’s just seems to be among the last remnants of a species thought to be extinct — the honest Republican. Maybe he’ll do his job conscientiously and well, but it’s not his job to save America from itself. That’s our job. Keep the heat on the people who can remove early, the cabinet and the Congressional leadership, to do their clear duty under the 25th. If they don’t, use their collusion with the idiot and his very real and obvious, if metaphorical, crimes against our already great nation to throw those bums out next year. Even if we don’t get 2/3 of the Senate, and have to wait until 2020 for actual removal, losing either chamber defangs most of his ability to do further harm. We shouldn’t let ourselves be distracted from our real job by the vain hope that Mueller will do it for us.