Advancing our understanding
The Akron Beacon Journal
What happened, exactly? That has been the question needing an answer at least since American intelligence agencies reported the Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election, first seeking to sow discord and aggravate divisions, then favoring Donald Trump in an effort to defeat Hillary Clinton. Typically, the task of pulling together a narrative would fall to an independent commission. The hyper-partisanship of today doesn’t permit such an option, a measure of the degraded state of the country’s political life.
What arrived [last week] is the closest thing to a complete narrative. William Barr, the attorney general, released the 448-page report of Robert Mueller, the special counsel tapped to investigate the Russia matter and any links to the Trump campaign. Mueller and his team conducted their investigation by the book and deserve appreciation. If Barr has faltered in his judgment, appearing too much the president’s advocate, losing sight of the independence of the special counsel, the attorney general deserves credit for keeping his word in releasing a lightly redacted report.
The narrative is clear, richly detailed and easily read. The hope is that Americans will take the opportunity and go through the report.
What will they find? The earlier indictment of Russian operatives revealed much about their hacking and scheming to disrupt the presidential election. The special counsel report fleshes out what it describes as a “sweeping and systematic” campaign. The origin actually goes back to 2014, raising questions about why the effort wasn’t detected earlier by the intelligence community during the Obama years.
As it is, the special counsel did not uncover sufficient evidence to establish that the Trump campaign and Russian operatives engaged in a criminal conspiracy or coordination. What Mueller did find are “numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.” The report concludes 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 conveys the scope of the Russian penetration into the Trump circle, from working with Michael Flynn on sanctions relief to Paul Manafort sharing polling data and information about key swing states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. If the many contacts do not amount to conspiracy, this was a relationship of shared interests.
Imagine the outrage if the Clinton campaign engaged in something similar. Yet the past two years or more, the fury about the Russian intervention has been muted, many of the president’s Republican allies apparently keen on looking the other way. So the country hasn’t prepared adequately for the next time. Will the special counsel report provide the necessary impetus? That would be the right response.
Part of the failure to respond sufficiently goes to the other part of the Mueller report, the look at potential obstruction of justice on the part of the president. Candidate Trump not only failed to alert the FBI about the Russian intervention. As president, he has attempted to thwart the investigation at almost every turn. The special counsel chose not to make a judgment on obstruction. What he did was expose the president’s character, from the cascade of lies to making clear Trump would have been in deep trouble if not for aides defying his orders.
The Mueller report hardly ends the discussion. There are trials, and hearings, and other investigations still open. What the report does is advance our understanding. The country is better informed about what happened.