Here's how the story used to go: The Russians interfered in the 2016 US election on behalf of Donald Trump because they knew could count on him to be friendlier to their interests than Hillary Clinton -- and Trumpworld, eager to win at any cost, was happy to colludewith Moscow to vanquish his domestic rival. He'd carry water for the Kremlin once elected to reciprocate Putin's generosity, and he'd feel forced to do so even if he didn't really want to. Why? Because the Russians also had some scandalous dirt on Trump that they could hold over his head as a means of coercive leverage. That was, in broad strokes, the thrust of the Left's unified anti-Trump theory vis-a-vis Russia. We know that Russia's electoral meddling was real and serious, but the "collusion" angle has never been remotely proven, even if this apparent incident of active openness to potential collusion (possibly orchestrated by Democratic operatives) is certainly not a good look.
Much of the commentary and speculation about the direction of the Mueller probe has shifted from collusion to obstruction of justice -- while major indictments against top Trump campaign figures have dealt with alleged crimes having nothing to do with conspiring with Russia to tip a presidential election (though Michael Flynn remains a wild card). It's easy to lose the thread on the Kafkaesque Russia storyline, but it seems rather important to remain focused on whether or not the core, original accusation against Trump is actually true. On that score, I'm reminded by this column by a Democratic communications guru published last month:
In a recent New Yorker piece about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the president, Jeffrey Toobin stated: "Trump’s position looks perilous. ... The portrait is of a president using every resource at his disposal to shut down an investigation — of Trump himself.” Among Democrats, this narrative has created a great deal of excitement, that Mueller will conclude that Trump’s firing of James Comey, the former FBI director, was criminal and an obstruction of justice. Perhaps, but Democrats should temper their enthusiasm. Unless the special prosecutor can prove Trump and his inner circle conspired with the Russian government to defeat Hillary Clinton, it is highly unlikely Republicans on Capitol Hill will sacrifice their president for trying to quash an investigation of a non-existent crime...
An obstruction of justice charge is difficult to prove because it requires the prosecutor to demonstrate the mindset of the accused. It is a subjective determination, and without strong evidence of Trump’s collusion with the Russian government, Republicans are almost assuredly going believe the commander-in-chief when he insists he did not intend to thwart justice by firing James Comey. After all, without proof of collusion, the president has a strong argument: How can he obstruct justice by blocking the investigation of a crime that he never committed?
My stance on Mueller has been unambiguously clear and stablethroughout the duration of his investigation: He should be allowed to complete his work without interference. But I also believe that in addition to unearthing the extent of Russia's malfeasance, his co-primary charge should be to determine whether Team Trump (or any American political actors) had anything to do with it. Those are the pillars of the probe. If such evidence does not exist, chasing down other possible criminality will understandably be seen by many as politicized, 'justify-your-existence' mission creep.
Relatedly, in my mind, a big part of discerning whether Trump and the Putin regime were in cahoots involves examining whether Trump's administration has held up its end of the supposed bargain. In light of the president's decision to stand with the Western world against brazen Russian aggressions by expelling dozens of diplomats and shutting down a consulate -- in response to which Moscow is vowing to retaliate -- it's becoming harder to maintain the claim that Putin is getting any sort of special policy treatment from the Trump White House. This reality is so glaring that even a New York Times correspondent, of all people, recently made this very point on CNN, of all places:
New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger said on Tuesday that it was hard to argue President Donald Trump hasn't been tough on Russian President Vladimir Putin after his recent expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats..."When have we ever done more in terms of sanctions or who we got rid of?" Cuomo asked. "I mean, Obama administration got rid of people but nowhere near this many, and it was only focused in the U.S. When have we ever done more than this?" "In terms of expulsion of diplomats, I’m not sure, Chris, we ever have," Sanger said. "It is getting harder to make the argument that the president has not gotten tough with Putin. This is certainly a tougher move for example than President Obama took when he expelled 30-some odd diplomats after the election issues." Daily Beast editor-in-chief John Avlon mentioned that Trump's expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats was even three times the number expelled by the U.K., the site of the nerve agent attack. "This is big, and it deserves credit," Avlon said.
Meanwhile, here is Trump's UN ambassador lighting up the Russiansyet again over various affronts, including the London poisoning incident. So when the RNC puts out research memos touting this administration's hawkish actions against Russia, it's not just spin -- some presidential equivocations notwithstanding. From lethal aide to Ukraine, to sanctions, to diplomatic expulsions, the US has taken a pretty hard line against Moscow over the last 14-plus months. And the president's new top foreign policy brain trust of Mattis, Pompeo and Bolton can hardly be accused of being Russia doves. If there was a quid pro quo here, where's the quo?
None of this is playing out in isolation, either. These facts must be juxtaposed with Obama's weakness and appeasement as a relevant point of comparison. We're learning more and more about the extent of Team 'Smart Power' evident willingness to excuse and provide cover for Russia's treachery over recent years.