For Americans Who Want Clarity on the Trump-Russia Investigation

A theme we are hearing quite often from those who are attacking the FBI and the Mueller investigation on behalf of Trump is that they have unanswered questions. James Freeman summed it up quite well.

…since this controversy goes to the core of our democratic process, Americans desperately want clarity. How and why exactly did leaders of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies end up focusing on a domestic political campaign?

Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he really is interested in an answer to that question because the truth is, we know a lot right now about how this whole thing started. Almost a year ago, we learned this from the Washington Post:.

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

By August of 2016, the CIA knew that Russia was attempting to interfere in the election to defeat or damage Hillary Clinton and support Donald Trump. The culmination of that investigation was a report that James Clapper summarized with this:

We showed unambiguously that Putin had ordered the campaign to influence the election, that the campaign was multifaceted, and that Russia had used cyber espionage against US political organizations and publicly disclosed the data they collected through WikiLeaks, DCLeaks, and the Guccifer 2.0 persona. We documented Russian cyber intrusions into state and local voter rolls. We described Russia’s pervasive propaganda efforts through RT [satellite television], Sputnik, and the social media trolls, and how the entire operation had begun with attempts to undermine US democracy and demean Secretary Clinton, then shifted to promoting Mr. Trump when Russia assessed he was a viable candidate who would serve their strategic goals.

Any attempt to understand or explain what happened has to start there.

In the midst of watching all of that develop, the FBI also noticed that at least three people who worked for or advised the Trump campaign were already on their radar screen because they had extensive business and financial ties to Russia: Michael Flynn, Carter Page and Paul Manafort.

Those are the facts. Is it the contention of these critics that the FBI and U.S. intelligence services should have ignored all of this and the possibility that, in addition to Putin’s attempts to influence the election, he might also try to infiltrate the Trump campaign? Certainly any rational person would agree that it was worth looking into that possibility. According to the FBI, a formal investigation was launched once they got the report from an Australian diplomat that George Papadopoulos was bragging that the campaign had access to dirt on Clinton from the Russians.

There are still some unanswered questions. David Frum compiled a list of 15 that he admits is by no means exhaustive. Here are the first two that deal directly with Russia and the Trump campaign:

  1. Trump campaign aides and associates met with Russian agents in advance of the Russian hacks and releases of Democratic internal communications. Did these meetings lead to any form of coordination between the Trump campaign, the Trump family, or Trump supporters on the one hand and Russian intelligence and its proxy, WikiLeaks, on the other?
  2. Russia engaged in large-scale and illegal expenditures on social media to help elect Trump. Did the Trump campaign, the Trump family, or Trump supporters coordinate or assist in any way with these violations of U.S. law?

In addition to whether or not Trump attempted to obstruct the FBI investigation, these are the questions that Robert Mueller is attempting to answer.

What I hear from critics of the investigation is that they:

  1. Ignore the fact that Russia attempted to interfere with the 2016 election,
  2. Have already decided that the answer to the two questions Frum raised is “no,” and
  3. Are attempting to discredit the investigation before it is concluded.

At the beginning I suggested that we give people like James Freeman the benefit of the doubt when they say that they don’t know how this whole investigation started. But it’s hard to imagine how anyone who has been paying attention could miss the facts as I’ve outlined them here. There is another reason why they might want to ignore the facts. James Clapper summed it up nicely.

Getting its target audience to conclude that facts and truth are ‘unknowable’ is the true objective of any disinformation campaign. . . . If someone actually believes the falsehood, that’s a bonus, but the primary objective is to get readers or viewers to throw their hands up and give up on ‘facts.’ Do vaccines cause autism? Maybe. Was Senator Ted Cruz’s father involved with President Kennedy’s assassination? Anything’s possible. Is Hillary Clinton running a child-sex ring out of the basement of a DC pizza parlor? Who knows?”

If someone is genuinely ignorant of when/how this whole investigation started, we can discuss the facts. If not, they are part of the group Tom Toles was referring to when he described those who are attempting to poison our discourse. I’m pretty sure I know which one of those explanations is the better fit. But feel free to share this with anyone who is still trying to figure it out.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.