The Russian Cloud

Ever since evidence emerged during the 2016 presidential campaign that the Russian government was attempted to interfere in the election, suspicious eyes have turned on Donald Trump. This is not because any evidence has implicated Trump directly, but because he keeps inserting himself into the middle of the story. This was true during the campaign when he invited Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails, and it’s been true since, like when he bragged to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister about how he had lifted the cloud of the Russia investigation by firing FBI director James Comey. Right now, the strongest evidence that Trump assisted the Russians in their meddling is simply that he keeps acting like he did.

At this website, we’ve consciously avoided speculating about the Russia story. There’s simply too little information and too much innuendo to make for responsible analysis. More and more, my hunch is that Trump himself probably did nothing criminal or even scandalous with the Russians. Associates like Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Carter Page all seem to have had shady relations with Vladimir Putin’s regime, but no evidence so far has connected their unseemly dealings with Russia to then-candidate Trump. If any plot materialized I imagine it would have been carried out in the same sloppy, disorganized manner in which Trump initiatives usually go down. Lindsey Graham wasn’t kidding when he offered this defense of Trump: “He can’t collude with his own government, why do you think he’s colluding with the Russians?” It is not a defense that reflects well on Trump’s leadership, but it makes a strong case for his innocence.

Assuming for a moment that Trump did nothing wrong, it’s worth considering how Trump might have behaved. In the face of vague allegations, he could have remained quiet. He could have taken the assessment of the intelligence community at face value. He could have condemned Russian interference in the election as an attack on our democracy. He could, every once in a while, act as if Russia is not a friendly nation to us, and Putin isn’t a pal. He could have said publicly that he supported the FBI’s counter-intelligence probe, and would do everything in his power to see that nothing like what happened in 2016 could ever happen again.

Trump didn’t do any of that, though. Trump has railed ceaselessly against the Russia probe, calling it a “witch hunt” and “fake news“. He has publicly questioned the intelligence community’s determination that Russia tried to interfere in our election. He has never, to my knowledge, made any public statement that could be seen as a condemnation of Russia’s actions. He has continued to speak kindly of Putin, and has resisted the pressure to talk tough on Russia. Instead of supporting the probe, he has tried to de-legitimize it – culminating in the firing of Comey in early May.

It’s tempting to view Trump’s behavior as the behavior of a guilty person. In addition to what I listed above, Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, and asked him repeatedly to publicly announce that the president was not under investigation. After Comey refused both requests, Trump fired him. It’s not difficult to view this as a case of a guilty person doing whatever he can to discredit and impede an investigation on course to uncover his guilt.

I think, though, that Trump’s actions don’t necessitate or indicate underlying guilt. Trump is notoriously unable to let things go. He holds longstanding grudges, he seeks revenge, and he cannot tolerate any slight. In the case of the Russia investigation, Trump seems incapable of helping himself. He wants the investigation to go away, but it won’t, and that fact drives him insane. To him, admitting that Russia interfered in our election means admitting his victory was somehow tainted. To him, letting the investigation take its course means allowing a thick cloud to hang over him and everything he wants to do as president. So he gives way to his anger, and in turn damages his own cause.

According to both Trump and Comey, Comey told the president three separate times that he was not personally under criminal investigation (an assurance that does not cover members of his campaign and does not preclude the investigation touching the president in the future). Now, though, Trump is being investigated, though not for a nefarious link to the Kremlin. He’s being investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller for obstruction of justice. The reason he’s being investigated for obstruction of justice is simple: 1) he asked the FBI director to knock down an investigation; 2) when the FBI director refused, Trump fired the FBI director; 3) he bragged to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister about how firing the FBI director meant the investigation would no longer be a problem; 4) he went on TV, with Lester Holt, to talk about how he fired the FBI director because he was sick of the Russia investigation.

I don’t know if that amounts to obstruction of justice. It seems like a pretty clear abuse of power. But whether it constitutes obstruction or an abuse of power is almost beside the point. The point is, Trump is now being looked at because he made a number of very obvious, easily avoidable mistakes. Any lawyer or competent adviser would have told Trump not to ask Comey to knock down an investigation into his friend. They would have told him not to fire someone leading an investigation into your campaign. They would have begged him not to say anything to the Russians about it, and would have implored him emphatically not to go on TV and discuss firing the FBI director because he hoped it would end the investigation. Had Trump not done those things, he would not be under investigation. Had he not felt the need to put himself at the center of the narrative, public suspicion of him would be less intense. Did he not feel the need to tweet about it every day, it would not be at the center of every news cycle.

Trump has yet to deal with a crisis not of his own making. He is almost entirely at fault for his low approval numbers, for his bureaucracy’s hostility toward him, and for the lack of inertia on his policy goals. There will come a time, however, when he faces a crisis outside of his control. Handling such a moment successfully will require more discipline, more poise, and more focus than Trump has so far shown.

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