I see the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election as Robert Mueller slowly painting a giant mural from the edges of his canvas and working towards the center, with all of us guessing as to what the final product will reveal when he’s finally done. Through that prism, in the last few days we have gotten to see several more important brush strokes, but where it is all really going is still mostly a mystery.
Opinion on the Russia probe has now become extremely divided, with the two basic sides entrenched in their own realities which have almost nothing in common. The left seems convinced that Mueller is the process of removing Trump from office, maybe even putting him and his family in prison, and eradicating the cancerous polyp from our collective faces that is the result of, what is to them, a catastrophic election. Trump supporters see the investigation as witch hunt designed to stage a coup against Trump while protecting the real criminal in all of this, Hillary Clinton.
As a conservative who loathes Trump as a person, I have been wavering somewhere in the middle of these two groups. If only because their theory is far less insane, I have gravitated more towards the former group, while being VERY cautious about how many of the so-called experts who have gotten large followings on Twitter are TOTALLY invested in their preferred result of Mueller’s mural.
Confirmation bias is both very real and dangerous. We should all be very hesitant to believe media analysis based on fragments of information which just happen to fit perfectly with the self-interest of the commentator, while giving their audience exactly what they want to hear.
I have never doubted that Russia attempted to influence the election. It was pretty obvious to me even during the election that some HIGHLY suspicious things were happening. I have even laid out a pretty compelling case that these efforts were the difference in Wisconsin and Michigan (which, to be clear, technically did not impact the result of the election).
What I have never been sure of was how much the Trump campaign, and Trump himself, were actually involved in this plot. Part of the hesitancy to accept that there was “collusion” is the utter insanity of the charge and brazenness of the act itself. With any other president the entire concept would just be too audacious to even seriously consider. Of course, we have already learned that when it comes to Trump, the normal boundaries of presidential behavior are simply not relevant.
Friday’s indictment by Mueller of 13 Russians was seen by Trump and his supporters in the state-run “conservative” media as a bizarre vindication for their claims that there was no “real collusion” with Russia. When your own people are now saying that it is clear Russia meddled after you have never accepted that claim, and the indictments say your own people did “unwittingly” collude with Russia, but were just too stupid to realize what was happening, that sure doesn’t sound much like “winning.”
But obviously the entire Trump phenomenon is a testament to the awesome power of creating extremely low expectations.
It is quite possible that these most recent indictments are indeed completely consistent with Mueller’s mural not ultimately implicating Trump himself or concluding that there was a campaign conspiracy with Russia. I have always maintained that it is possible that the Trump team was just colossally incompetent/corrupt and that they panicked when the investigation began out of fear of the boss’s great victory being delegitimized and what might be found out about his finances.
However, by no means is an even more nefarious narrative off the table. While Mueller has yet to publicly produce any evidence at all of “collusion” (something which should indeed concern those already invested in that conclusion), a closer look at how the Trump team has responded to this entire issue provides plenty of evidence which points to that possibility.
Here are just some of the things for which no rational explanation has been given and which are totally consistent with the worst possible interpretation of what really happened here:
- Trump constantly insisting that there was no evidence of Russia meddling in the election and then, just this weekend, lying about making those previous claims now that there really is no doubt.
- Donald Trump Jr. blatantly lying numerous times, including at least once with the help of his father, about meeting with Russians, in Trump Tower when his father was in the building, offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.
- Trump lying that he has had no financial dealings with Russia, when we know now that he was negotiating a Trump Tower in Moscow even during the campaign.
- Multiple campaign aides, including Trump’s national security advisor, already pleading guilty to serious crimes uncovered in the probe.
- A systematic and unwarranted attack by Trump and his state-run media on our intelligence agencies, including the asinine claim that the FBI was hindered in its investigation of the Parkland killer because they were preoccupied with Russian election meddling.
- Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey specifically for his handling of Russia, the failed attempt to fire Mueller himself, and the repeated efforts to get those overseeing the investigation to pledge some sort of loyalty to him.
- The highly-hyped release of the deceitful Nunes memo, which not only turned out to be a dud, but which actually further substantiated the case against Trump in some ways, while refusing to make public the Democratic response to it.
- The extreme effort to pretend that Carter Page was not really part of the campaign, until suddenly claiming his surveillance after he left the campaign, and just weeks before Election Day, somehow was a scandal greater than Watergate.
- Trying to muddy the waters of the most recent indictments by highlighting that they didn’t say Russian meddling impacted the results (that wasn’t their job) and that they show Russia tried to spark protests against Trump AFTER the election (so what?!).
- The claim that Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman when Trump won the nomination, played a “very limited role” in the campaign.
- Trump originally saying “100%” that he would speak with Mueller under oath and then backing off that claim completely later once that prospect became real.
- Trump adding “collusion is not a crime” to his mantra that there was “no collusion.”
- Trump never attacking Russia/Putin and refusing to fully implement the Russian sanctions his own party overwhelmingly passed.
- Trump’s overall obsession with the topic and tendency to rage Tweet whenever there is a significant development (rather than just go on Fox News Channel and finally do an extensive interview providing his side of the topic).
We still don’t know what really happened here and we won’t at least until Mueller’s mural is complete. Unfortunately, the evidence is overwhelming that no matter what that final painting looks like it, almost everyone will still see only what they want to.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at email@example.com
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.