THE MUELLER investigation has been running for 81 weeks and counting. For much of that time it has offered those yet to get over the 2016 election a chance to fantasise about an alternative ending to the Trump presidency, one in which the good guys get the bad guys and justice is served. The market for this is so strong that there is even a podcast dedicated to investigation speculation, called “Mueller, she wrote”. Lawfare, a wonky legal blog, has become so popular that it has a merchandise section selling Lawfare-branded babygrows.
Yet the investigation is widely misunderstood. Many Americans seem to be waiting for a final report from Robert Mueller’s team, at which point something will happen. Both those assumptions are wrong. The report, when it eventually comes, will probably not be made public. And the judgment on what that report means for the president will be political, rather than legal. It will rest on the views of Republicans in Congress. And many of them would rather not think about it.
Interviews with Republican congressmen, staffers and strategists in the wake of the most recent guilty plea from Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer and fixer, suggest few have paid it much attention. “I don’t think our members of Congress give a shit about Don Junior, the president’s family, people around the president,” says one. Another likens the party’s situation to the fable of the frog: the water is hotter, but colleagues have adjusted to it. Some quietly calculate that their political futures depend on publicly supporting a president whom they deplore.
Yet the widespread indifference in one party does not mean the special counsel’s investigation is inconsequential. Its seven guilty pleas or convictions are real enough. What has already been revealed, in the hundreds of pages of documents published by the special counsel’s office and the report by the House intelligence committee, is startling. These documents contain a cast of characters that seem drawn from a novel by Eric Ambler or John le Carré: the Maltese professor who vanished, the Azerbaijani would-be pop star and his billionaire father, the financier who smashed a glass in another man’s face in a bar fight, the shady Brits. Though parts are redacted, it is usually possible to infer who is who. ******** “has a unique and colourful background, and described for the committee his path from Wall Street banker to white-collar criminal to government informant.” Hello, Felix Sater.
In other words, much, perhaps even most, of the Mueller report has already been published. What does it say?
The Department of Justice asked Mr Mueller to investigate “any links and/or co-ordination” between the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign. Start with the links.
One set ran through the Trump Organisation, which was attempting to build a tower in Moscow, a project that continued throughout the Republican primaries of 2016. A second set ran through Michael Flynn, a former national security adviser, who took it upon himself to establish a private line of communication with the Russian ambassador in Washington, after Mr Trump won the election.
There are three more links, which look more like Russian intelligence operations. One went via an enthusiastic Russian member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), Maria Butina, and her sponsor, Alexandr Torshin, then the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank. Emails from May 2016 provided to the House Intelligence Committee show that Mr Torshin contacted the campaign, offering an “overture from President Putin.” Both Russians exchanged emails with the president’s eldest son. But the hoped-for meeting, at an NRA gathering in Kentucky, never happened, partly because Jared Kushner counselled against it. Ms Butina has since been indicted as a spy.
Then there is the link that ran through New York, where Donald Trump junior, Mr Kushner and Paul Manafort, then Mr Trump’s campaign chairman, met a Russian lawyer claiming to have embarrassing information about Hillary Clinton. That meeting apparently proved disappointing. Still, Don junior made misleading statements about it and his father dictated a statement about what had been discussed, which was issued in the son’s name and was later found to be false, too.
The final known set of links runs through London, and involves a fifth-rate foreign-policy adviser to Mr Trump, George Papadopoulos, and an equally distinguished Maltese academic and grifter, Joseph Mifsud. Mr Mifsud ran an institute called the London Academy of Diplomacy, which did not exist, and boasted of his links to the Russian government. The pair met in Rome in March 2016 and then twice in London. In April Mr Mifsud told Mr Papadopoulos that the Russian government had “dirt” on Mrs Clinton.
That leaves one last channel, about which there has been much speculation but little proof. Russia’s military intelligence arm, the GRU, which was responsible for hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s email server, used WikiLeaks to publish its material. For the past two years investigative journalists have been trying to find out whether anyone from the Trump campaign co-ordinated with WikiLeaks over the release of the stolen material. Don junior did send a message to WikiLeaks on Twitter, asking for advance notice of a future release of material, but apparently received no reply. The special counsel’s indictments have not yet shed any light on this last channel, either.
Grifters and fixers
So much for the links. How about the co-ordination? As so often, Mr Trump said the thing out loud that others would only whisper: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you are able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said at a press conference in Florida in July 2016. Other expressions of a desire to work together were more private. Offered dope on Mrs Clinton from the Russian government before the New York meeting, Don junior wrote, “If it’s what you say I love it.”
What the special counsel has not yet found is a clear example of successful co-ordination. At times the published documents read less like a spy thriller and more like a Coen Brothers screenplay, in which a cast of confidence men attempt to use a presidential campaign to make themselves money and become the sort of people who get invited to speak at Davos. “”Buddy,” writes Mr Sater to Michael Cohen, the president’s lawyer and fixer, in November 2015, “our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it.” If “Putin gets on a stage with Donald for a ribbon cutting for Trump Moscow…Donald owns the Republican nomination.”
This exchange, though laughable, relates to a long-standing allegation, namely that the candidate’s policy towards Russia, which on the campaign trail involved praising Vladimir Putin and opposing further sanctions, was influenced by his business interests. In the absence of documentary evidence, this is, in an epistemological sense, unknowable. If somebody acts in a way that is consistent with their financial interest, did they act because it was in their interest to do so, or because they wanted to do so anyway?
In a political sense, though, the answer is already in. The candidate repeatedly said that he had no dealings in Russia. Donald Junior testified to Congress that the Trump Tower Moscow project was on hold by early June 2016. Mr Cohen gave testimony to the same effect. The House intelligence committee concluded that the project was dormant in January 2016. The special counsel obtained Mr Cohen’s emails and proved that the Trump Organisation was in fact still working on the Trump Moscow project throughout the Republican primaries.
The timing matters. In the weeks after Mr Trump sewed up the Republican presidential nomination in Indiana, in May 2016, conservative media outlets were buzzing with rumours of an intra-party coup to deny him the crown. One of Mr Trump’s vanquished opponents, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said he could not “in good conscience” support Mr Trump or attend the Republican convention in Cleveland at which he was due to accept the Republican ticket. There was speculation over whether nominees to the convention might award it to someone else. Had the party’s most recent presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, who had criticised Mr Trump as a “a phoney, a fraud”, stepped forward at that point, perhaps they might have done. Imagine how much shakier Mr Trump’s prospects would have seemed if it had been known that his advisers were simultaneously negotiating with the Kremlin to obtain land and finance for a Trump Tower in Moscow.
Yet behaviour that would have seemed unconscionable two years ago does not now seem to trouble Mr Trump’s party colleagues too much. Given that the president could not be removed by articles of impeachment unless around 20 Republican senators broke with him, almost no matter what Mr Mueller may find, this is great news for Mr Trump.
From the top down
A few remaining chapters in the report have yet to be written. The most important ones relate to the nature of the link between the GRU, WikiLeaks and the campaign. Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to Mr Trump, has been subpoenaed by Democrats in the Senate, and has invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The special counsel will not be brushed off so easily.
Finally, the president himself has already answered written questions from Mr Mueller’s office. There is a real possibility that some of the president’s answers contradict what Mr Mueller now knows. One theme from the hundreds of pages of indictments is that the people around the president lied frequently and easily, even under oath. It is a management cliché that culture is set at the top. That was true of the Trump campaign, too.
Yet even if the president has lied under oath, the Department of Justice’s guidelines caution against indicting a sitting president. Such an offence might not be deemed grave enough to overrule that. There will be no final scene where the detective explains how all the loose ends fit together. The only denouement available is political, and therefore contested.
Correction (December 11th, 2018): An earlier version of this article said that Mr Trump invited Russia to hand over Mrs Clinton’s missing emails at a campaign rally. In fact he did so at a press conference in Florida. This has been corrected.