We now have Robert Mueller’s conclusion that there was no conspiracy between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians who actively interfered in the 2016 presidential election. There was, as Donald Trump said over, and over, and over again, NO COLLUSION.
This is a major victory for the president and a setback for those who hoped that Mueller would unearth evidence in support of an impeachment proceeding.
While it is good news that the president did not collude with Putin, that conclusion leaves us with a host of unanswered questions about Trump’s strange behavior in matters related to Russia.
Mueller confirms that Russia intervened in the 2016 election. He names the Russian government officials who manipulated American social media and hacked the Democratic National Committee and Hillary’s campaign staff. His indictments tell us where the Russians worked, what computers they used, what hacking techniques they practiced, and what tricks they played in order to put false information on American electronic screens.
So why is there a long history of Donald Trump discounting and disputing the rock-solid conclusion about what the Russians did? Why did he say repeatedly that the hacking may have been done by some country other than Russia? Or by an overweight young man sitting on a bed in his pajamas?
And most importantly, what explains Helsinki? In the Finnish capital, with the world watching, the president said that he accepted Vladimir Putin’s denial of Russian election interference. That was an extraordinary moment in Trump’s presidency and in the history of American diplomacy.
If Trump was not hiding campaign collusion with Russia, what was he doing at that Helsinki podium? Could Rex Tillerson be right? On complicated and challenging foreign policy matters, the president is basically a moron. Is there a better explanation for Helsinki?
Some observers note that Trump routinely takes the word of dictators. He believes Putin on 2016, Kim Jung-un on Otto Wambier and Mohammed bin Salman on Jamal Khashoggi. This explains Helsinki by arguing that Trump makes the same mistake all the time—not exactly a reassuring defense.
Here’s a thought experiment. Would you rather have a president who colluded with Russia or one who blindly believes whatever Putin tells him? At least the colluder could claim to be clever. The colluder would have made a pact with the Russian devil and gotten what he wanted in return. That would be a corrupt deal, but not a stupid move. The believer may not have colluded with Russia or committed a crime. But the believer is a fool.
If Trump did not collude with the Russians, why does he have to meet with Putin in absolute privacy excluding all of his advisers? Why does he have to confiscate the notes of his translator? Wouldn’t Trump want trusted witnesses in his sessions with the Russian leader, witnesses who would vouch for how tough he is in these important meetings?
If there was no collusion, and the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower was an amateur hour mistake made by his son, why did Trump have to construct an elaborate lie about what the meeting was about? Why was it so very easy for the FBI and Mueller to catch Trump associates telling lies about Russia and Russians? If the Trump team didn’t do anything wrong, why did they so often act as if they had?
Maybe Trump’s ego is so large, and so warped, that he has to reject any possibility that the Russians may have contributed to his election success. He denies Russian meddling for the same reason he thinks millions of fraudulent votes were cast for Hillary Clinton, or that record-breaking crowds must have attended his inauguration, or that his narrow victory was one of the greatest in history. He doesn’t collude with Russians, but he doesn’t collude with reality either.
Robert Mueller has delivered the reassuring message that the president and his campaign were not in a conspiracy with Vladimir Putin, and for that we should be thankful. The president deserves a victory lap for being right about no collusion. But when that lap is done, there are things about his actions and policies toward Russia that need to be explained. If there’s no collusion, there’s still confusion.
A version of this essay was published in the Roanoke Times on March 27, 2019