Donald Trump’s possible connections to the Russian government and billionaire oligarchy came roaring back into the headlines last week with the announcement that the special investigation headed up by Robert Mueller had indicted three officials from the Trump presidential campaign.
Trump’s one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort faces 12 charges, including money laundering, failing to register his activities as a lobbyist for a pro-Russian party in Ukraine and then lying about that failure to federal investigators. Manafort’s business partner Rick Gates was also charged, and so was a lower-level foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, who is accused of lying to the FBI about his interactions with Russian officials.
None of the charges are against Trump or anyone in his administration, but it’s widely expected that these indictments are an opening shot — and that Mueller, the former head of the FBI, intends to squeeze Manafort and Co. to rat out people higher up on the food chain.
That’s why last week’s announcement left Trump and his supporters furious — and Democrats with new hope that they can somehow defeat Trump without having to do anything themselves.
The actual violations that Mueller is investigating are undoubtedly far less dramatic than the ongoing neo-Cold War baloney about how “the Russians” brainwashed millions of Americans with fake news to vote for Putin’s orange-toned Manchurian candidate.
But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be nice to see the Trump administration held accountable for at least some of its many crimes — the most obvious two in this case being perjury and obstruction of justice.
If anything, it’s bizarre to have to wait months for federal agents to uncover evidence about crimes that are already well known. We know for sure that White House officials like Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied during their confirmation hearings about their history of meetings with Russian officials. And Trump himself is blatantly guilty of obstructing justice by firing FBI chief James Comey, which Trump admitted was at least in part because of “this Russia thing.”
This isn’t exactly a job for Sherlock Holmes.
But the outcome of the Mueller investigation will be determined less by legal proof and more by the balance of political power. Trump’s considerable powers as chief executive will only be challenged within mainstream politics if he’s overwhelmingly viewed by American elites as a negative who is hampering their ability to continue business as usual.
That kind of challenge is only likely to come about if those elites are put under more substantial pressure from protest movements mobilizing the people most affected by Trump’s attacks — immigrants, workers, women and more.
And right now, the main organizations that claim to speak for these millions of people — and that have the resources to turn anger into action right now — are mostly committed to a narrow electoral strategy of trying to win Congress for the Democrats in 2018.
If that continues unchallenged from below, then the investigation of Trump’s crimes is most likely to remain a partisan football, contained inside the theater of mainstream politics.
The Russia investigation might seem to be dragging on forever, but according to many legal observers, Mueller is moving quite quickly and aggressively by the standards of a federal investigation.
There’s a strong likelihood that Papadopoulos, who has already pled guilty to lying to investigators about his attempts to arrange connections between Russian officials and the Trump campaign, is cooperating with Mueller to get a reduced sentence.
And it’s widely assumed that Mueller also has his sights on Trump’s one-time National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who is being investigated on similar charges of lying about his Russian contacts and failing to disclose lobbying work for a foreign country — in his case, Turkey.
Federal prosecutors have an outrageous amount of power — which is normally used to go after the vulnerable, rather than rich and powerful figures like Manafort and Flynn — to stray far beyond the allegations that started an investigation. Even if they don’t find enough evidence to prove a crime, they can often nab suspects on perjury charges for lying to investigators.
There are basically three kinds of crimes Mueller’s team might uncover. The first is crimes directly related to the election — if the Trump team engaged in a criminal conspiracy to help hack Hillary Clinton’s e-mails (stealing documents is illegal) or violated campaign finance laws by soliciting help from a foreign source, for example. The second kind is crimes committed during the investigation itself: witness intimidation, perjury, obstruction of justice and the like. And the third is crimes committed by Trumpworld members even before they joined the campaign.
Most of Mueller’s indictments so far are in the second and third category and not the first, leading Trump and his supporters to claim they face a witch hunt by the “deep state.”
It is, in fact, unusual for lobbyists to be given anything more than a slap on the wrist for not properly registering their work for foreign governments (let that sink in for a second as you ponder the hypocrisy of a country that routinely spies on Muslim citizens with the excuse of their usually unproven ties to foreign forces).
Nor is this just a Republican issue. Manafort’s indictment led immediately to the resignation of Democratic power broker Tony Podesta from his lobbying firm, which was caught by Mueller lobbying without disclosure for the same Ukrainian Party that Manafort worked for.
But Manafort and Flynn have only themselves to blame for lying to federal investigators — just as Trump certainly made matters worse for himself by firing Comey, and being too stupid to repeat the party line that this had nothing to do with the Russia investigation.
Whatever Trump could possibly be charged with by Mueller will pale in comparison to his larger crimes, committed each and every day. But that doesn’t mean there might not be some real dirt that should see the light of day.
The underlying question about Trump and Russia has always been whether the president of the United States could be vulnerable to pressure from either Russia’s billionaire oligarchs or its autocratic state — either because Trump’s business empire is propped up to a great degree by Russian investors or because someone in Moscow has the dirt on some of Trump’s past illicit business activities.
Federal prosecutor Preet Bharara, for example, was investigating money laundering at the Russian real estate firm represented by the lawyer who infamously met with Donald Trump Jr. last June, which makes Trump’s firing of Bharara earlier this year especially troubling.
Whether there is something to these allegations or not, no one should get carried away by the Russia hysteria being put forward on a daily basis by the non-Fox corporate media. This report from the New York Times is typical: “More than 126 million users potentially saw inflammatory political ads bought by a Kremlin-linked company.”
To begin with, there are the double standards of the US complaining about its elections being interfered with by foreign powers. Vladimir Putin will have to seriously step up his game to have anywhere near the impact that Bill Clinton’s administration did in helping discredited President Boris Yetsin get re-elected in Russia in 1996, a fact that is surely not forgotten in Russia, even if few Americans know it.
As for social media shenanigans during the election, Ryan de Laureal explained last month at SocialistWorker.org that while there are “genuine concerns raised by the issue of Twitter bots and fake accounts,” the Democrats are showing selective outrage:
[T]he Democrats’ only apparent concern is the use of bots and fake accounts by the Russians — even though bots have become a fairly regular feature of US political campaigns over the past few years, with Republicans and Democrats alike investing in automated Twitter traffic to spread their campaign propaganda, alongside more traditional advertising routes.
It’s also easy to forget that beyond social media, we’re barraged by billions of dollars of homegrown political propaganda — far more than any other country spends — via campaign ads funded by big-money donors.
Even when it comes to foreign meddling, it’s worth remembering, hard as it is these days, that not everything Trump does, or is accused of doing, is unprecedented.
Other countries have “meddled” in US elections before. In 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly lobbied for Mitt Romney against Barack Obama, but that didn’t cause a Democratic freakout because their party is just as committed to Israel as the Republicans.
More crookedly, in the 1968 election, Richard Nixon’s campaign plotted to wreck peace talks in Vietnam that Nixon feared would give Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey an advantage. And it’s long been suspected that Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign sabotaged negotiations with Iran over the release of hostages held at the occupied US embassy in Tehran.
Nevertheless, there are two somewhat contradictory factors worth keeping in mind about Trump and Russia.
The first is that there is a coherent policy agenda at stake: The Trump administration’s desire to shift American imperial strategy by seeking better relations with Russia in order to more aggressively confront China, an approach that goes against the previous bipartisan consensus.
The second is that whatever shards of a coherent agenda exist in the Trump White House are often overshadowed by the staggering incompetence and blatant self-interest among the collection of liars, grifters and fanatics gathered together under its roof.
Trump stands out from past presidents for his failure to show loyalty to the ruling class to which he belongs. For his right-wing supporters, this is a sign that Trump is his own man and is looking for them. To everyone else, it’s obvious that Trump is just out for himself.
The indictments are a reminder of why the ruling class really didn’t want this guy to become president — and how his victory is a sign of instability and division at the top of US society.
There’s nothing new about corruption at the top of US society — see “Clinton, Bill/Hillary.” But it’s pretty much unprecedented, at least since the US became a major imperial power, that a US president might be a weaker party in a relationship with a foreign government — another humiliating symbol of America’s relative decline as a pre-eminent superpower.
So does Mueller’s aggressive prosecution of the Trump administration represent the “deep state” getting its revenge on the candidate it didn’t want to win? Or is it a logical response to the potential of serious crimes committed by the White House?
The best answer might be: yes.
So what happens now? Trump is reacting with sputtering rage and demanding that the FBI investigate Hillary Clinton for…well, just about anything: uranium sales, Donna Brazile’s book and, probably soon, Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests.
But Twitter tantrums are clearly standard operating procedure in the Trump era. The bigger question is if Trump feels threatened enough to try to obstruct justice again — either by pressuring the deputy attorney general to fire Mueller or pre-emptively stating his intention to pardon the indicted so they don’t feel any pressure to testify against the higher-ups.
If Trump does that, it would precipitate a real crisis in Washington and raise the question of impeachment. But that’s a less likely outcome, even if the Trump White House and Congress come to blows.
The Republicans control both houses of Congress for the next year at least, and probably longer. Getting enough Republicans on board with impeachment is going to require some devastating accusations.
That can’t be ruled out — particularly considering that Mueller could expose some of the truly filthy secrets that must lie at the heart of the Trump business empire.
What’s more likely, however, is a continuation of the same pattern we’ve seen through Trump’s first year in office: the Mueller investigation slowly turns up the heat on Trump, who responds with more erratic attacks, while the Democrats continue to feel validated in their strategy of doing as little as possible and waiting for Trump to be brought down by his own incompetence.
For our side, that’s a recipe for failure at best, if not an outright political disaster. Relying on elements of the political and business establishment to take down Trump will radicalize Trump’s right-wing base without building the capacities or organization of the left in any way.
And remember: Corporate America and the state want stability, not justice. They might ultimately move against Trump if he is too much of a threat to business as usual, but it might be more effective for their interests to work around him — or to simply do nothing and wait for Congress to pass tax cuts.
As TheNation.com columnist and SW contributor Dave Zirin recently emphasized in a different context, politics is not a spectator sport. Rather than hope that the “deep state” will do the dirty work of bringing down Trump, we need to concentrate on building our own struggles for justice against the Trump administration — for Puerto Rico, for health care, for immigrant rights and women’s rights.
If the Trump scandals give us more ammunition — proposed slogan: “Immigrants aren’t illegal! Trump is!” — so much the better.
Protests and struggles that translate Trump’s unpopularity into effective resistance to his policies will make him more politically vulnerable among Democrats and Republicans alike.
But sitting around waiting for him to be brought down by his own will make that less likely. It can’t be said enough: No one — least of all the FBI — will save us from Trump but ourselves.