Robert Mueller Might Have Found A Trump-Russia Conspiracy, But He Was Scared
The Atlantic has a report this week on Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation, the new book from top Mueller investigation prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, now an MSNBC contributor, and it sounds like that investigation and the report it produced could have done a hell of a lot more good if it hadn't been for everybody always being so scared of making Donald Trump mad.
To be fair, Weissmann isn't talking shit about his former boss, and he also expresses that the great fear throughout was that Trump would be triggered and shut the investigation down entirely. So there's that.
Weissmann offers a damning indictment of a "lawless" president and his knowing accomplices—Attorney General William Barr (portrayed as a cynical liar), congressional Republicans, criminal flunkies, Fox News. Donald Trump, he writes, is "like an animal, clawing at the world with no concept of right and wrong." But in telling the story of the investigation and its fallout, Weissmann reserves his most painful words for the Special Counsel's Office itself. Where Law Ends portrays a group of talented, dedicated professionals beset with internal divisions and led by a man whose code of integrity allowed their target to defy them and escape accountability.
That's disheartening. Weissmann writes, "We could have done more." He writes that parts of the Mueller Report were "mealymouthed." He says Mueller, ultimately, let the American people down.
Weissmann is frustrated the Mueller Report didn't go as far as, say, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee did in actually making decisions and assessments. For instance, remember how pleasantly surprised we all were that SSCI went ahead and called Paul Manafort's Russian spy buddy Konstantin Kilimnik a fucking Russian spy? Mueller's report didn't go that far, and that kind of clear assessment might have been helpful in telling the story of how PAUL MANAFORT SPENT THE 2016 CAMPAIGN HANDING SECRET TRUMP POLLING DATA — RUST BELT POLLING DATA — TO A FUCKING RUSSIAN SPY.
You know, considering where Trump "won" the 2016 election.
Weissmann led the investigation into Manafort, and he has thoughts on that:
Team M [...] came close to establishing a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. On August 2, 2016, Manafort dined in New York City with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Ukrainian-born business associate with ties to Russian intelligence and oligarchs. Manafort, a lavishly compensated hired gun for some of the oligarchs, had been sharing campaign strategy with Kilimnik, including sensitive polling data. Over dinner, Manafort described Trump's strategy in four battleground states; Kilimnik in turn presented for Trump's approval a Russian "peace plan" that would amount to the annexation of eastern Ukraine. Last month's Senate report, going further than Team M, named Kilimnik as an actual Russian intelligence officer and revealed his likely connection to the 2016 election-interference operations. "This is what collusion looks like," the committee's Democratic members wrote in an appendix. [...]
Weissmann and his colleagues were thwarted by chance—Manafort's No. 2, Rick Gates, arrived late for the dinner with Kilimnik and was subsequently unable to tell investigators all that was discussed. They were hamstrung by Mueller's decision not to look into Trump's financial dealings with Russia, which might have established a source of Russian leverage over Trump, but which the president had declared a red line not to be crossed. And they were frustrated by perjury—for Manafort never stopped lying to Team M. His lies were encouraged by the president, who made sympathetic noises about Manafort with the suggestion that stonewalling might earn him a pardon. Trump's pardon power was an obstacle that the prosecutors didn't anticipate and could never overcome. It kept them from being able to push uncooperative targets as hard as in an ordinary criminal case.
In court, Weissmann told Judge Amy Berman Jackson that the August 2, 2016, meeting went to the "heart" of what Mueller's team was investigating. That was in a hearing about Paul Manafort breaching his plea agreement, by brazenly lying to investigators. Weissmann told us right then and there, and we have always interpreted it as such, that they were pretty sure they knew exactly where the conspiracy was, and that was centered on Manafort and that meeting.
So they couldn't get there on Manafort, because Rick Gates didn't have the goods and they couldn't get Manafort to stop lying to protect Trump, who they knew would pardon Manafort anyway. They weren't following the money, because Mueller thought that wasn't his job. (Also because it seems like former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein intentionally memory-holed that part of the investigation, by making it seem like the FBI was handling the counter-intel part, while the FBI thought Mueller was. Asshole.)
And again, they were scared they were going to get shut down entirely, by the criminal president they were investigating. "The specter of our being shut down exerted a kind of destabilizing pull on our decision-making process," Weissmann writes. They didn't subpoena Donald Trump Jr. about his Russian conspiracy Trump Tower meeting. They didn't even try to interview Ivanka, because they were scared of Fox News yapping about how they were "roughing up the president's daughter." They didn't subpoena Trump, even after he straight-up lied in his responses to the take-home test of written questions they gave him.
Weissmann specifically calls out Mueller's right-hand man in the special counsel's office, Aaron Zebley, who sat next to Mueller as he testified to Congress last year:
"Repeatedly during our twenty-two months in operation," Weissmann writes, "we would reach some critical juncture in our investigation only to have Aaron say that we could not take a particular action because it risked aggravating the president beyond some undefined breaking point."
Weissmann described to me this failure of nerve on Zebley's part, an aversion to confronting the ugliness coming from Trump. I pointed out that all of these were ultimately Mueller's decisions. Weissmann agreed.
For all that, though, the Mueller Report absolutely did show collusion, and the outlines of conspiracy. And though Mueller refused to say out loud that Trump obstructed justice — a decision Weissmann was not pleased with — it was painfully clear he had, multiple times. You just had to read the report yourself — a tall order in present-day America, which is bad at reading — and you had to get past Bill Barr brazenly lying about the report's contents and declaring Trump TOTALLY EXONERATED for weeks before it was actually released to the public.
Here is The Atlantic's conclusion, based on Weissmann's book and its interview with Weissman:
Mueller? He was incapable of navigating the world remade by Trump. He conducted himself with scrupulous integrity and allowed his team to be intimidated by people who had no scruples at all. His deep aversion to publicity silenced him when the public badly needed clarity about the special counsel's dense, ambiguous, at times unreadable report. His sense of fairness surrendered the facts of presidential criminality to an administration that was at war with facts. He trusted his friend Barr to play it straight, not realizing that Barr had gone crooked. He left the job of holding the president accountable to a Congress that had shown itself to be Trump's willing accomplice. He wanted, above all, to warn the American people about foreign subversion of our democracy, while the greater subversion gathered force here at home.
In our interview, I asked Weissmann if Mueller had let the American people down. "Absolutely, yep," Weissmann said, before quickly adding: "I wouldn't phrase it as just Mueller. I would say 'the office.' There are a lot of things we did well, and a lot of things we could have done better, to be diplomatic about it."
You know, we've had the idea of norms on our minds this week. It's been a theme of the Trump presidency, how many norms Trump has violated and destroyed, and how if only one side is respecting norms, then they really aren't norms anymore, now are they? We've been thinking about people who meet the moment, and people who don't meet the moment. We've been thinking about how it's time for us to be absolute motherfuckers now that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died, if we want to save American democracy.
We see people like Senator Dianne Feinstein clinging to norms about the filibuster and packing the courts, because of how that's just not proper, how uncouth!
None of this is proper. Nothing Democrats want to do is illegal or unconstitutional — if you got the votes to fuck the filibuster, pack the courts, and add DC, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands as states, you got the motherfuckin' votes! — but it is certainly not norms.
We liberals and progressives — hell, all patriotic Americans who hate President Authoritarian Shithole McGee — have to fall out of love with norms, at least for now. We're almost four years into this. The time has passed for us to be bellyaching about "THIS IS JUST NOT HOW IT'S DONE!" Now we have to just fucking do what has to be done. We have to meet the moment.
Robert Mueller, sadly, did not meet the moment.
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