It contains a scandal that has dogged Trump’s presidency.
London:Last week, a triumphant President Donald Trump tweeted: “No Collusion. No Obstruction. Complete and Total EXONERATION.” Really? Did he not read the four-page letter summarising the Mueller report written by William Barr, the man he appointed Attorney General just a month ago? One phrase stood out; “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Studying the American media, it’s clear that until the full report is available, political commentators remain deeply sceptical about the generalised conclusions in Barr’s letter, sensing a spin job in an effort to put Mueller’s exhaustive investigation into the most positive light possible for the White House.
Euphoria was not confined to the White House. In Moscow, Evgeny Popov, the host of a pro-Kremlin political talk show, was quick to tweet, “In short, Russia did not elect Trump”. Listen to a prominent Russian Senator, Alexey Pushkov: “The Democrats will still shout that there was a conspiracy. Conspiracy theory maniacs (sic) don’t need facts—they need to whip up passion. A circus.” Wow; which school of diplomacy did this politician attend?
Moscow did, of course, play a large part in electing Donald Trump. Mueller brought criminal charges against Russian military officers who hacked the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organisations during 2016. The troll farm in St Petersburg, otherwise known as the Internet Research Agency, was also charged with sowing disinformation and propaganda during the election campaign. It’s not that Russia didn’t interfere with the election. It appears that Mueller simply didn’t find evidence to a high legal standard that Donald Trump, himself, knowingly and actively conspired with Russia.
There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence of contact with Russian officials by the team Trump. It’s on record that candidate Donald Trump’s campaign manager, together with his son and son-in-law, lied about a meeting in June 2016 with a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, who claimed to have some “dirt” on Hilary Clinton. Transcripts by the Senate Judiciary Committee contain emails and phone records relating to this meeting.
Then there are the negotiations Donald Trump had with Russian officials to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, while he was telling Americans that he had nothing to do with Russia. In his sworn testimony before the House Oversight Committee last month, Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen said, “So to be clear, Mr Trump knew of and directed the Trump-Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it. He lied about it because he never expected to win.” Although earlier reports indicated that negotiations stopped in January 2016, emails confirmed by Cohen show that the negotiations continued to at least June 2016, after Trump had become the Republican Party’s nominee. A headline in Buzzfeed News on 28 November last year claimed that the Trump organisation planned to give Vladimir Putin the $50 million penthouse in Trump Tower.
This is the most sinister thing about this whole matter; Trump’s relationship with President Putin. Few will forget the appalling press conference in Helsinki in July last year, when President Trump sided with the authoritarian dictator against his own intelligence agencies and Department of Justice on the question of whether Russia interfered in the 2016 elections. Standing next to President Putin and asked whom he believed, Trump replied, “He (Putin) just said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it should be.” Did Trump forget that just three days earlier Mueller had indicted 12 Russian GRU agents for interference in the elections? The Helsinki conference remains one of the most bizarre performances of an American President abroad.
What is it about Donald Trump and authoritarian leaders? Does he covet the power they exert over their own societies? Is it simply his negotiating style of flattering and cajoling to get what he wants? Is he so desperate about getting a big diplomatic win? Only last week Trump tweeted his rejection of a new round of large-scale sanctions his administration had just imposed on Pyongyang. An embarrassed White House spokesperson explained: “It’s because President Trump ‘likes’ Kim Jong Un”! Don’t forget that this is a man who assassinated his half-brother and machine-guns his internal foes.
In key respects, the Mueller findings, a complicated document, contain good news for President Trump about a scandal that has dogged his presidency since before he even took office. Setting aside the fact that the 22-month probe led to charges against 37 defendants, which included six Trump associates, 26 Russians and three Russian companies, the determination of how good is the news will have to await the full text of the Mueller report itself. There’s still a whole raft of questions unanswered on the top-line findings in the Barr letter due to the lack of any evidence or legal analysis to underline them. The answers will dictate future headlines. If his conduct was just shy of prosecutable, the future will be ominous for the President.
If you visit the Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi California, you will meet a 3D digital hologram of Ronald Reagan. Smiling, he greets you with his immortal phrase, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” Studying the four pages of the Barr letter, that phrase continually echoes through the mind.
John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently Chairman of the Plymouth University of the Third Age.