American Hustle – What Mueller Found—and Didn’t Find—About Trump and Russia By Stephen Kotkin

Robert Mueller III played lacrosse and majored in government at Princeton. He graduated in 1966 and soon thereafter volunteered for and was accepted into the Marine Corps. He won a Bronze Star for heroism in the Vietnam War and later attended law school at the University of Virginia. He has since spent nearly a half century in either private legal practice or law enforcement, including 12 years as director of the FBI. Mueller epitomizes the old WASP establishment.
Donald Trump graduated from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 1968. He dodged the Vietnam War, reportedly by asking a podiatrist to dishonestly attest to the presence of bone spurs in Trump’s heels. Trump sought fame and fortune in the private sector, entering his father’s successful real estate business, which he took from New York City’s outer boroughs to the glitzier, riskier precincts of Manhattan and the casino capital of Atlantic City. He tried his hand at running an airline and a get-rich-quick university before finally finding his true calling: playing a fantasy version of himself on a reality television show. Trump is as American as apple pie.
These two lives—establishmentarian and upstart—collided in May 2017, when the U.S. Department of Justice appointed Mueller as special counsel to investigate, as the order defining his mandate put it, “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump,” along with “any matters that arose or may arise from the investigation.” In the two years that followed, Mueller and his investigators interviewed around 500 witnesses, issued some 2,800 subpoenas and some 500 search-and-seizure warrants, indicted 34 individuals and three Russian businesses, and secured guilty pleas from or convictions of Trump’s one-time campaign chair and former national security adviser, among others.
In March of this year, Mueller delivered to the Department of Justice a 448-page report in two volumes, a redacted version of which Attorney General William Barr made public a few weeks later. The first volume scrutinizes the evidence of a possible criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, which, the report states, interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election “in sweeping and systematic fashion,” by spreading disinformation over social media and stealing and disseminating personal e-mails belonging to senior figures in the presidential campaign of Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. The second volume examines evidence of possible obstruction of justice by the president in relation to the investigation—that is, whether Trump violated the law by attempting to make it harder for Mueller to get to the truth.
The first volume reaches a more or less straightforward conclusion. “Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” the report states, “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” The campaign did not break the law in its numerous interactions with Russians. But as the report makes clear, Trump and his senior advisers, including members of his family, were aware that the Kremlin was trying to help them, and, rather than sound the alarm to U.S. authorities, they were thrilled about the assistance.
The second volume’s findings appear more complex. Owing to the Department of Justice’s long-standing internal opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted, Mueller decided that he did not have the legal authority to charge the president. As a result, the report does not render a traditional prosecutorial judgment regarding obstruction of justice on Trump’s part. Whether Trump committed a crime is left open to interpretation. After receiving the report, Barr and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, who had appointed Mueller and had overseen all but the final two months of the investigation, ruled that Trump’s conduct did not constitute obstruction of justice. Still, Mueller’s accessibly written compendium of substantiated facts delivers an unambiguous ethical indictment of Trump’s campaign and presidency.
Mueller’s chronicle of prevarication, moral turpitude, and incompetence is dispiriting, but his presentation of rigorous legal reasoning and strict adherence to statutes, case law, and procedural rules is inspiring. The text serves as an x-ray, revealing a venal politician and a corrupt political system. At the same time, it embodies many of the values that make the United States great: integrity, meticulousness, professionalism, public service, and the rule of law.
Of course, showmanship, a buccaneering spirit, and go-for-broke instincts are also among the traits that made America what it is. Trump, in his nonpareil fashion, characterized the Mueller report as both “total exoneration” and “total bullshit.” Trump is a phenomenon. Only a genuinely formidable personality could withstand such intense, unremitting investigative pressure and hostility, even if he has brought no small degree of it on himself. Trump lacks the facility to govern effectively, but he knows how to command the attention of the highly educated and dominate the news cycle. There is a reason he proved able, in a single election cycle, to vanquish both the entrenched Bush and Clinton dynasties. Trump’s flaws and transgressions are now well documented. Yet he has not perpetrated a catastrophe remotely on the scale of the Iraq war or the global financial crisis.
The report makes clear that Trump the politician resembles Trump the businessman. Before he became president, whenever he got into trouble (which he constantly did), he would sue, obtaining a settlement to extricate himself. He and his businesses got involved in around 3,500 lawsuits, in a majority of them as the plaintiff. If all else failed, Trump would declare bankruptcy. Between 1991 and 2009, his companies went through six corporate bankruptcies under Chapter 11. But although he had to relinquish many of his properties, he avoided having to file for personal bankruptcy.
His presidency is effectively a seventh bankruptcy. But once again, it might not be a personal one. Instead, it might be America’s bankruptcy: a chance for the country to cut its losses and start afresh.
That would require an acknowledgment by Trump’s supporters that Mueller’s portrait is damning. Trump’s opponents, meanwhile, would have to admit that their portrait of him as a singular threat to the republic lacks context and perspective. (Imagine, for example, if a special counsel had investigated President Lyndon Johnson’s campaigns and White House years while Johnson was still in office: the results would not have been pretty.)
Trump’s campaign and his presidency, too, are x-rays, revealing much of what has gone awry in American politics and society in recent years. His undisciplined depredations could present an opportunity for the United States to prove itself better than Trump and, even more importantly, to rise above the conditions in which he triumphed and holds sway.
Mueller’s report confirms that the president has performed yeoman’s work in corroding norms of democracy and basic decency, but that debilitation far predates him, and it is mirrored by not a few of his political adversaries. Trump fits into a longer and wider arc obscured by the tellingly derogatory use of the label “populism.” His carnival-barker, confidence-man persona is anything but alien to the United States. His marketing prowess, applied to the political world, is outrageously good. Consider the take on the Mueller investigation that Trump tweeted in June 2017: “They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story. Nice.” Pithy—and, in its self-serving way, prophetic.
Trump’s rise looks like a great American hustle, despite the international links. Candidate Trump appears to have desperately wanted to build a high-margin Trump Tower in Moscow at least as much as he wanted to be elected president. Mueller’s report also captures the parallel pursuits of the innumerable wannabes, hangers-on, and swindlers who gravitated toward Trump and his campaign. Like a crime thriller, the report brims with shady characters, and, true to form, some of them beat the rap (or at least they have so far). But they’ve gotten away with it owing not to their criminal ingenuity. “The evidence was not sufficient to charge that any member of the Trump Campaign conspired with representatives of the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election,” the report concludes—but only because doing so was simply beyond them. As Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner privately related to congressional interns back in July 2017, “They thought we colluded, but we couldn’t even collude with our local offices.” It’s a pitiful yet accurate exculpation: not guilty by reason of ineptitude.
What’s more, as I have been arguing for years, Russian intelligence organizations had no need to collude with the omnishambolic Trump campaign. They could manage entirely on their own to hack e-mail accounts, line up cutouts such as WikiLeaks to disseminate damaging material, impersonate Americans on social media, and study elementary research available in open sources about battleground states and swing voters. The Mueller report confirms this point, despite some lingering ambiguity over the Trump campaign’s links to WikiLeaks, which is a genuinely valuable asset for Russia.
As for obstruction of justice, which Trump attempted in plain sight for months on end, the report states that “the president’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons surrounding the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.” (Note the “mostly.”) Many administration officials knew that Trump was pushing them to engage in illegal acts, or at least “crazy shit,” in the words of Donald McGahn, the former White House lawyer and an unwitting star of the report. But in scene after gripping scene, Mueller demonstrates how Trump is merely a would-be mobster, worried sick that his capos are wearing a wire. Forget about burying his enemies in concrete: Trump inspires none of the fear, let alone loyalty, of a real crime boss, instead imploring staffers over and over to carry out his orders, then shrinking from punishing them when they drag their feet. It turns out there really is a “deep state” out to thwart Trump after all, but its operatives are not alleged liberal Trump haters in the FBI but Trump appointees in his administration—and when they secretly manage to thwart him, they shield him from prison.
In revealing all of this, Mueller’s report is certainly thorough—but also worryingly incomplete. Mueller decided not to issue subpoenas when they seemed guaranteed to be tied up in court, apparently mindful of moving expeditiously in order to wrap up before the 2020 campaign took off. The report notes that some evidence that Mueller obtained was inadmissible and that some witnesses invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, destroyed evidence, or relied on encrypted communications that deliberately lacked long-term retention. Mueller also cites instances of what could be construed as witness tampering: Trump, the report notes, “engaged in efforts” to “prevent the disclosure of evidence to [the special counsel], including through public and private contacts with potential witnesses.” The lies told by people connected to the Trump campaign, the report states, “materially impaired the investigation of Russian election interference.”
The report is incomplete in another way: its primary focus is the criminal investigation into Russia’s interference, rather than the FBI’s parallel counterintelligence investigation—which is where the whole story began. Russia conducted a cyber-assault on U.S. democracy, demonstrating for other potential adversaries, not to mention potential American copycats, that it could be done. This is a clear and present danger. But when investigators discovered the Trump campaign personnel’s eagerness to interact with Russian operatives, the counterintelligence probe was complicated by the need for a criminal investigation.
The sections of the report that treat what Russia intended and achieved are its most heavily redacted parts. The public version of the report attributes the interference to orders from “the highest levels” of the Russian government, but not to President Vladimir Putin specifically. In that sense, Mueller’s report bears almost no resemblance to the last detailed, U.S. government-funded report on a crime committed by a foreign adversary against the United States: the one produced by the 9/11 Commission. That report included a rigorous analysis of how al Qaeda planned and carried out the attacks, explored the nature of U.S. security failures and ongoing vulnerabilities, and put forward a panoply of recommended fixes. The public version of Mueller’s report offers nothing like that. Many of the sections on the role that technology played in making the Russian interference possible are heavily redacted: close to two-thirds of the text dealing with Russia’s activities in cyberspace is blacked out. As a result, it provides limited insight into the relationships, if any, among the many different actors on the Russian side, not all of whom were government functionaries.
Take the infamous episode that took place on July 27, 2016, when Trump, in a campaign speech, requested Russian assistance in undermining Clinton by obtaining personal e-mails that she had declined to turn over during an investigation into her use of a private server while she was secretary of state. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing,” Trump said. Mueller reveals that within approximately five hours, officers of Russia’s military intelligence agency targeted Clinton’s home office for the first time, sending malware hidden in e-mails to 15 accounts associated with her office. “It is unclear,” the report notes enigmatically, how they were able “to identify these email accounts, which were not public.”
How and when did the United States enter the Twilight Zone of the Mueller report and the reactions to it? In a sense, it started with two parallel fantasies of the Cold War era.
The first was the CIA’s. Even though the U.S. diplomat George Kennan, in his “Long Telegram,” had proposed a policy of containment that would eventually produce an internal evolution or the implosion of Soviet communism, not everyone got the memo. The CIA dreamed of something else. Many individuals and groups inside and outside the U.S. government, including the intelligence services, tried to roll back the Soviet menace, backing armed insurgents who sought to bring down the Soviet regime and its allies. Those measures usually backfired.
But then, in 1985, a sorcerer named Mikhail Gorbachev popped up in Moscow. Nested at the pinnacle of power in a hypercentralized system, the Soviet leader relaxed censorship to rally support for reforms, encouraging Soviet journalists to publish one previously suppressed revelation after another, which profoundly blackened the regime’s image. Gorbachev introduced legal free-market mechanisms, unhinging the planned economy, as well as competitive elections, allowing the populace to demonstrate disapproval of the Communist Party’s monopoly. He also demanded that the Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe reform, which destabilized the entire empire. To protect himself against a coup, he even sabotaged the central control over the entire system exercised by the party apparatus, which alone held the federal state together; in other words, unintentionally, he created a voluntary federal union of states that could choose to secede. The general secretary of the Communist Party did what the CIA had dreamed about but could never accomplish: he destroyed that system.
The KGB also had a dream. During the Cold War, its operatives fantasized about weakening and maybe even unraveling NATO and subverting the cohesiveness of the West. Its agents wanted to dilute the alliances of the United States in East Asia, too, by trying to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea or Japan. The KGB worked overtime to discredit the U.S. political system, planting stories to erode Americans’ faith in the impartiality of U.S. courts and judges, to undermine trust in American media, and to have the American public believe that the U.S. political system was rigged. Moscow aimed to divide Americans into tribes, hoping that grievances would turn into dysfunction and maybe even social collapse. But the United States is a politically diverse nation, and its wide political differences are normal and unthreatening, because the country has the democratic institutions to allow their expression and competition. Neither the KGB nor its post-Soviet successors were ever going to destroy the U.S. system from without, try as they might.
Then came Trump. Obviously, the Gorbachev-Trump analogy is imperfect. The United States is not a communist regime but a constitutional order with the rule of law, a dynamic market economy, and an open society. Indeed, one reason that most Republicans have not gone berserk over Trump’s behavior is that they believe, correctly, that U.S. institutions are resilient. (Other reasons include the fact that they agree with Trump’s policies, fear electoral defeat without his support, and depend on him to keep the White House out of Democratic hands—a goal supported by almost half the electorate.) Still, a speculative juxtaposition of Gorbachev and Trump can help one fathom how the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation effectively morphed into a criminal probe of the Trump campaign, and then of the president himself, eventually leading to the Mueller report.
Trump was voicing lines straight out of the KGB playbook: the press is the enemy of the people, American law enforcement is corrupt, NATO is obsolete, U.S. trading partners are rip-off artists. All the while, Trump’s family and associates were meeting secretly with Russians and lying first about the fact of those meetings and later about their substance. These meetings took place in the context of Trump’s decades-long attempts to do business in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. Overpriced real estate is, to an extent, a business built on money laundering, with all-cash buyers needing to wash funds of dubious provenance and looking for partners who neglect to perform due diligence. Any serious investigation of Trump with subpoena power that looked into his businesses would pose a grave legal threat to him and his family. (The Mueller report briefly mentions Trump’s attempted property deals in Georgia and Kazakhstan. It remains unclear whether these or related matters are part of the 12 ongoing criminal investigations that the special counsel’s office handed off to other authorities, the details of which are blacked out in the public version of the report.)
Trump’s connections to Russia were hardly a secret during the campaign. In June 2016, Kevin McCarthy of California, who was then the Republican House majority leader and is now the minority leader and a staunch Trump supporter, stated behind closed doors to party colleagues in a secretly taped meeting, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.” (Dana Rohrabacher was a curiously pro-Putin Republican U.S. representative from California.) When some of those present laughed, McCarthy added: “Swear to God!”
The most revealing example of the Trump team’s attitude toward Russia was the campaign’s infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a group of Russians who promised that they had dirt on Clinton. The meeting was arranged by Donald Trump, Jr., and attended by Kushner and Paul Manafort, who was running the campaign at the time. Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart impresario who became Trump’s campaign chair a few months after the meeting and who later served as the chief White House strategist, told the journalist Michael Wolff that the meeting was “treasonous.” Bannon added, “Even if [they] thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit, and I happen to think it’s all of that, [they] should have called the FBI immediately.” Bannon was right, even if he went on to suggest not that the meeting should have been refused but that it should have been organized far away (“in a Holiday Inn in Manchester, New Hampshire”) and that its contents, if damaging to Clinton, should have been dumped “down to Breitbart or something like that, or maybe some other more legitimate publication.”
The phantasm of an all-powerful Kremlin has diverted too much attention from Americans’ own failings.
Given the fact of such contacts, there is no question that an independent investigation of the Trump campaign was abundantly warranted. And yet the Trump-Russia story sent much of the media on a bender that was crazed even by today’s debased standards. In their coverage, Trump’s antagonists in the commentariat sometimes sank to his level. “I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal. “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.” In the past two years, the main source of “truthful hyperbole” has been not Trump alone but also elite media personalities, such as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who have stoked liberals’ desire for the Trump-Russia story to be the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular political scandal in U.S. history.
Among the more comical fulminations has been the claim that the Russians further polarized Americans. In reality, during the 2016 campaign, U.S. citizens created and shared far more divisive material online than the Russians ever could—and American journalists lucratively disseminated even more. Likewise, the indignant posturing about just how unprecedented it was for a hostile foreign power to interfere so brazenly in another country’s election conveniently ignores countless other instances of countries doing just that. The KGB did it to the United States during the Cold War. The British did it to the United States even earlier, in 1939, even accessing sensitive polling data. And the United States has done it all over the world. Great powers meddle in other countries because they can, and they will do so unless and until they pay a heavy price for it.
The phantasm of an all-powerful, all-controlling, irredeemably evil Kremlin has diverted too much attention from Americans’ own failings, and their duties to rectify them. Today in Russia, conspiracy theories still abound about how the CIA brought down the Soviet Union and how Gorbachev was in reality an unwitting (or perhaps a witting) agent of the Americans. Never mind that Gorbachev was a proud product of the Soviet system. Gorbachev’s reformed communism, too, was utterly homegrown. Acknowledging all of that, instead of latching on to a canard about Gorbachev, would have compelled Russian society to come to grips more fully with the internal factors that caused the Soviet system’s implosion. Likewise, in the United States, the obsession with Russian interference and the madcap speculation that Trump is a Kremlin asset have helped occlude many of the domestic problems that made Trump’s homegrown victory possible.
Meanwhile, Trump’s supporters have spun a conspiracy theory alleging that the investigation of Trump’s campaign was a sinister plot hatched within the FBI. The rival tales—Trump as a Russian asset, the FBI as the deep state—uncannily mirror each other, and continue to shape politics. It is as if Mueller never wrote his report.
Leadership no longer gets enough attention from historians. Too few in the field seek to better understand when and how individuals find ways to transform a political conjuncture—to perceive and seize opportunities that others fail to recognize, to turn impossible situations into breakthroughs. No small degree of luck is involved, but a vision of the future and supreme tactical adroitness are decisive. Also, those transformative individuals usually occupy the highest positions in political and social life: presidents (Ronald Reagan), secretaries of state (George Marshall), Federal Reserve chairs (Paul Volcker), movement leaders (Martin Luther King, Jr.). The office of the special counsel—a temporary employee of the Department of Justice—does not lend itself to such transformative powers. Those who hoped that Mueller would rescue the republic freighted his role beyond its capacity. But did taxpayers nonetheless have a right to expect more than what Mueller delivered?
Rarely have Americans been treated to so much truthful—and attributed—information about the workings of their government’s executive branch. For all the media malpractice, the Mueller report vindicates much of the investigative reporting of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Unlike those publications, Mueller was under no obligation to protect his sources by granting anonymity. Notwithstanding the enormous leverage derived from the ability to subpoena witnesses and levy criminal charges, moreover, the special counsel bent over backward to be fair to Trump by presenting exculpatory evidence alongside the incriminating, employing a high bar to define what would count as “coordination” of a criminal nature. Mueller also refrained from imputing corrupt motives to the president, even though Trump reneged on multiple promises to testify in person and then suffered improbably severe amnesia when replying to written questions. Arguably, this fair-mindedness renders the picture of Trump’s behavior all the more damning.
The Mueller report models the civic virtues that could enable American leaders to renew the country. The tools they would need are readily at hand, in the form of the country’s formidable democratic institutions and sound underlying mores of moderation, fairness, and common sense. That will not happen, of course, certainly not in the near term. For now, politics trumps technocracy. Mueller acted as a restrained professional awash in a foam of partisan blather. But as it turned out, he is not a master tactician. (By contrast, Barr managed to publish almost the entire report—the sections on Trump’s squalid behavior are the least redacted—without incurring the wrath of the president, who instead blamed Mueller for the embarrassing revelations.) The public version of the report offers no victory for either the pro-Trump camp or the anti-Trump one, nor—what is genuinely disappointing—any possible reconciliation of the two. It has served mostly to intensify the deadlock.
Perhaps the circumstances permitted nothing more. From the get-go, Mueller was tasked with a criminal prosecution that could not be prosecuted. Predictably, any decision not to charge Trump was going to be taken by the majority of Republicans as an exoneration, even though the report literally says that it “does not exonerate him.” No less predictably, Mueller’s explicit refusal to absolve Trump was going to be taken by the majority of Democrats as a de facto indictment. Mueller did something more, as well. He addressed Congress, a step the special-counsel regulations do not discuss. The report contains 21 pages on the president’s executive authority, the separation of powers, and the Constitution, as well as pointed advice: “The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the president’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.” Some Democrats and Trump critics have seized on this as an “impeachment referral.”
However the current standoff plays out between a stonewalling White House and an overzealous Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, Trump’s tax returns and many of the other important documents and testimony that Congress is seeking will eventually become public. The adversarial political and legal system will conduct oversight and, if necessary, hold the president accountable, within the remedies established by the Constitution and, above all, through the sentiments of the electorate.
Ultimately, what have we learned? The report might seem merely to recapitulate, albeit in more granular detail, what we already knew. But in fact, it contains an enormous surprise. A few observers, myself included, had long assumed that during the 2016 campaign, Russians who were operating at the behest of the Kremlin (or were seeking to ingratiate themselves with it) were not trying to collude with the Trump campaign. Rather, they were trying to gain unfettered access to the campaign’s internal communications in order to obtain operational secrets and compromising material (kompromat) on Trump and his people or to implicate them in illegal acts. I took the real story of Trump and Russia to be one of penetration and assumed that Russian intelligence eavesdropped on the cell phones not just of Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, but also of Trump himself and his family. I assumed that Russian intelligence had implanted devices on the cables running underneath and into Trump Tower and wondered about those Russian-owned apartments upstairs, not far from Trump’s operations. (Trump did not return to the tower for the first seven months of his presidency, as if it were not a secure facility; in 2017, when he accused the Obama administration of wiretapping phones in the tower, I took it to be a typical Trumpian falsehood about something that was true in another way.) The idea that such surveillance was under way during the campaign seemed like a no-brainer. After all, officials in Russia whom I have known for a long time were bragging about it, and the tradecraft was elementary.
So imagine my astonishment when I read in Mueller’s report that Russians approaching the Trump campaign could not figure out whom to contact, who was in charge, or who mattered. Russian operatives and intermediaries were coming at the campaign from all angles, exploring channels with individuals who had no influence whatsoever on policy positions, to the extent that the campaign even had any. The reality was that no one was in charge and no one mattered except Trump, and he swiveled one way, then the next, capriciously, in his executive chair. But the Russians essentially failed to gain access to him, even when the campaign and the White House flung open the doors. (The report reveals that the Russian ambassador to the United States at the time, Sergey Kislyak, rejected Kushner’s suggestion that they communicate using secure facilities at the Russian embassy in Washington.) I was wrong, in an important way.
Petr Aven, a principal in Russia’s largest private bank and a former Russian government official, told the special counsel’s investigators about the first time after Trump’s election that Putin convened his regular quarterly meeting of Russia’s top 50 or so oligarchs. “Putin spoke of the difficulty faced by the Russian government in getting in touch with the incoming Trump Administration,” Aven testified, according to the report. “According to Aven, Putin indicated that he did not know with whom formally to speak and generally did not know the people around the President-Elect.” Of course, this could have been misdirection, disinformation that Putin wanted spread widely. But that is not how Mueller treats it. “As soon as news broke that Trump had been elected President, Russian government officials and prominent Russian businessmen began trying to make inroads into the new Administration,” the report states. “They appeared not to have preexisting contacts and struggled to connect with senior officials around the President-Elect.”
This is the report’s great revelation: Putin, supposedly, could help Trump get elected but could not talk to him, despite the publicly expressed eagerness of Trump and his people to enter into contact and make deals.
In fairness to the Russians, they did manage to convey “peace plans” for Ukraine to Trump’s family members, only for the proposals to languish in inboxes while the Russians repeatedly begged to know—on behalf of “the boss” (Putin)—if there had been any movement on the issue. Genuinely important players in the campaign, such as Donald Trump, Jr., and Kushner, turned out to have an underwhelming grasp of foreign policy and no sense of how to make anything happen in government.
Putin and his operatives appear to have been no more prepared for Trump’s victory than Trump and his people were. To be sure, it remains possible that Russian intelligence did surveil the internal communications of the Trump operation. But if so, the information they gleaned delivered little operational value, at least in terms of enabling useful dialogue to advance Russian interests. Trump world may be too disorganized to manipulate. But Russian intelligence may be less skillful than it is typically made out to be, particularly when attempting to operate on U.S. soil and under FBI counterintelligence surveillance, as opposed to when acting anonymously from afar via computers.
The American public needs to understand not only what the Russians did but also what they did not do. Russia did not choose the respective party’s presidential candidates, and it did not invent the Electoral College. Clinton ran the only possible Democratic campaign that could have lost, and Trump ran the only possible Republican campaign that could have won. Whatever the marginal impact of Russia’s actions, it was made possible only by crucial actions and inactions in which Russia was never involved. Above all, Russia did not design the preposterous patchwork and vulnerabilities of the United States’ election machinery.
Putin, moreover, did not plant a sleeper agent in a Harvard dormitory in 2002 and then have him study psychology and computer science, develop social networking algorithms, drop out in 2004, insinuate himself into Silicon Valley, and set up a private company that attains phenomenal profit by monetizing Americans’ love of oversharing and constant need to feel outraged. Nor did Putin force the very media outlets that this Russian sleeper agent’s company was helping put out of business to praise that agent to the skies. Nor did he compel investors to pour money into this latent Russian weapon, thereby expanding its reach and power. No: Facebook fell into Putin’s lap in 2016, and it is still there. In Mueller’s report, U.S.-based technology firms do garner some attention: one section is titled “Operations Through Facebook”; another, “Operations Through Twitter.” But there is nothing about what authorities should do to mitigate the vulnerabilities that social media create.
It remains unclear whether the public will ever learn more about the crucial FBI counterintelligence investigation into Russian intrusion. FBI personnel worked with Mueller’s office and obtained information from it, “not all of which is contained in this Volume,” the report notes. But the report is silent on what became of that information. If the counterintelligence investigation is ongoing and involves sensitive sources and methods, then Barr may well be right to refuse to comply with Congress’ demand for the full report and for Mueller’s underlying materials—a refusal that caused the House to threaten to hold him in contempt.
In the end, the Mueller report provides no answer to the puzzle of what motivates Trump’s obsequiousness toward Russia. In discussing Trump’s sensitivity to any mention of Russian interference and his bizarre public statements accepting Putin’s denials, the report refers to Trump’s insecurities over how his election could be seen as illegitimate, as well as to his wish to build a windfall Trump Tower in Moscow. The report contains no section analyzing Trump’s long-standing envy of strongman rulers. Nor does the report address the mutual failures of the U.S.-Russian relationship. The three presidents who preceded Trump, all of whom served two terms, could not figure out how to manage U.S.-Russian relations over the long run. Each tried engagement, or a “reset,” followed by some version of attempted isolation, culminating in sanctions and no visible way forward. In important ways, Russian interference in U.S. domestic politics stemmed directly from those failures; so, in part, have Trump’s conciliatory gestures. But Trump did not even get his reset: despite his over-the-top expressions of admiration for Putin, his administration went straight to the phase of sanctions and recriminations.
In this light, the Russian attack on American democracy cannot be viewed as even a tactical success. Instead of getting his dismemberment of Ukraine legally recognized or sanctions lifted, Putin got slapped with additional sanctions. The cyber-intrusions and special operations to disseminate stolen e-mails were a technical success, but their contribution to Trump’s victory was at most marginal. The Kremlin did get Washington to obsess about Russia in unhealthy ways, and Moscow’s actions did play a part in launching a fury-raising investigation of a U.S. president. But the United States has resilient institutions (as opposed to Russia’s corrupt ones), a gigantic economy (as opposed to Russia’s medium-sized one), and a powerfully self-organized civil society (as opposed to Russia’s persecuted one). That is why highly educated, entrepreneurial Russians continue to immigrate to the United States.
This is also why, notwithstanding the unmet, unrealistic expectations of the Mueller report, the Trumpian moment is an opportunity. The best of the United States is there to be rediscovered, reinvented, and repositioned for the challenges the country faces: the dilemmas posed by bioengineering, rising seas and extreme weather, the overconcentration of economic power, and the geopolitical rivalry with China. Above all, what the country needs is massive domestic investment in human capital, infrastructure, and good governance. Trump’s instinctive exploitation of Washington’s recent failures offers an emphatic reminder that the country must attend to those elements of American greatness. At a high cost, Trump could nonetheless be a gift, if properly understood.
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