It’s Trump in 2020! That may be the result of Robert Mueller saying that his ‘investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.’ Or as Trump himself put it, in more than 70 tweets over the past 18 months: ‘NO COLLUSION!’ All over Washington DC, you can hear the rushing sound of a large balloon being deflated. The Democrats are shocked, puzzled and bitterly disappointed. They will splutter over not being able to see Mueller’s full report, and they will demand that the Attorney General, William Barr, comes to testify. But in political terms, the public argument over collusion is over, the narrative of a Trump-Russia conspiracy repudiated by the Special Counsel. It is surely only a matter of time before some Democrats turn on Mueller. Over on ‘failing’ CNN, they said Trump had been ‘exonerated’ and ‘vindicated’, winning ‘an unambiguous victory’. How sweet that must have sounded to the president’s ears.
President Trump spoke to reporters as he left Mar-a-Lago on his way back to Washington. CNN called his statement ‘gloating’. It seemed more angry to Cockburn. ‘After a long look, after a long investigation, after so many people have been so badly hurt, after not looking at the other side, where a lot of bad things happened, a lot of horrible things happened for our country, it was just announced there was no collusion with Russia, the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard…It was a complete and total exoneration. It’s a shame that our country had to go through this. To be honest, it’s a shame your president had to go through this.’ Trump said that ‘this began illegally’, referring to the FBI investigation that started during the campaign: ‘This was an illegal take down.’ He added, ominously for his enemies: ‘Hopefully, someone’s going to be looking at the other side.’ He finished with a flourish, ‘So, it’s complete exoneration. No collusion!’– and walked, hunched and glowering, up the steps to Air Force One.
Exonerated? In legal terms, yes. Remember, though, Mueller was running a criminal investigation, looking for proof that would convince a jury ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ – that’s what prosecutors do in criminal cases. But there was also a counterintelligence investigation. Intelligence findings might contain evidence that isn’t enough for a criminal prosecution – but is still evidence. That’s why Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, issued this statement before Mueller’s findings were revealed: ‘Mueller’s report is likely to focus on his prosecutorial decisions and may not shed necessary light on counterintelligence findings of profound significance to our committee and the nation – whether the president or others around him have been compromised by a foreign power.’ Schiff may be flogging a dead donkey, but he said that if his committee did not get the counterintelligence findings, they could subpoena Mueller. After all, Mueller was careful to say he could not ‘establish’ that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia. That one word could span the ravine between intelligence findings and evidence in a criminal trial – is Mueller saying there was no evidence of collusion, or no evidence he could prosecute on?
If Mueller does find himself before a Congressional committee, another question for him would be: did you want to indict the president for obstruction? Did the Attorney General tell you not to ask for that? Those questions arise from the strange way that Mueller threw the decision on obstruction over to Barr. Two weeks ago, Cockburn was told there was a fight between Barr and Mueller over whether to indict Trump. If this was really what was happening, it would explain the odd choreography now. It might explain the Attorney General’s statement in his letter that on obstruction, Mueller had ‘not exonerated’ Trump – though a page later, Barr himself does. Yes, Barr had told Congress on Friday that there were ‘no requests’ of Mueller’s that were denied, but perhaps Mueller never made a formal request about obstruction, knowing that it would have to be denied given Barr’s previous public statements. (He wrote a letter to Congress last summer, saying the president couldn’t be charged with obstruction.) Cockburn’s source has some credibility on this issue as he also said – and we reported here – that Mueller’s report ‘would not make the case for collusion’.
One more thing from Cockburn’s informant in that story two weeks ago: the older Trump children, and Jared, would be indicted. The former director of the CIA, John Brennan, had also said in a TV interview that Mueller might indict Trump’s ‘family’ – the older children – or ‘extended family’ – Jared. So where are the indictments? Was the source, along with Brennan, simply wrong about this? Mueller did not announce any indictments. But Brennan also said: ‘I think Robert Mueller wants to be able to conclude his work and turn over the investigative threads to the Southern District of New York, the Eastern District of Virginia and other jurisdictions as appropriate.’ There are multiple investigations of Trump’s businesses going on, the most significant being in New York, both state and federal. For years, Trump’s children have taken the lead in the Trump Organization, Trump himself appearing on The Apprentice rather than running his own business. One source told Cockburn that the New York state attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, was ‘days away’ from charging some of the Trump children when he was forced out in a #MeToo scandal. Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, has been helping prosecutors in New York. Cockburn hears that he’s been telling people that ‘the Trump Organization is done, over.’
Allegations about the Trump Organization are of course about white collar criminality, fraud and money laundering – nothing to do with Russia collusion. Reporting here over the past two years has occasionally speculated that the Special Counsel would struggle to make the case for collusion – for one thing because collusion would require some organization on the part of the Trump campaign. Steve Bannon once said: ‘We couldn’t collude with the Republican party in Pennsylvania, let alone with the Kremlin.’ The shambolic way that Don Jr met a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower to ask for dirt on Hillary did not speak of an organized conspiracy – just a willingness to accept help from the Russians. A former American intelligence analyst told The Spectator that there was no treasonous conspiracy in the ‘wiretaps’ – the top secret signals intercepts of Trump’s people, or Russians talking about Trump’s people – just a suspiciously high number of contacts. Still, Cockburn is told by a former member of the US ‘intelligence community’ that some of his old colleagues are just as puzzled – and angry – about Mueller’s conclusions as the Democrats are.
Mueller appears not to have said anything about whether President Trump could have been blackmailed by the Kremlin – in fact, it’s not clear if he looked into this at all. Certainly Barr’s letter says nothing about the existence – or not – of the famous ‘piss tape’. However, Cockburn is told that Christopher Steele – the former MI6 officer who wrote the ‘dossier’ – has never wavered in his belief that Trump did get prostitutes to urinate in front of him, and so was vulnerable to blackmail. Steele is said to have a ‘witness’ – whether someone in the room, or someone who came along afterwards, isn’t clear. Cockburn has spoken to a former colonel in Russian intelligence who gave an account of senior Kremlin figures watching the (alleged) tape in a dacha outside Moscow in 2013 – and laughing that this was the man they would run for president. There are stories from other sources about other tapes.
Trump being Trump, stories about sex and blackmail are certainly plausible – but it’s just as likely that all this is part of a Russian disinformation campaign. But even if you don’t believe the claims about sex tapes, the Russians might have had another hold over Trump. In his first news conference as president, he told the American people that he had ‘stayed away’ from business deals in Russia. If emails to and from Michael Cohen – set out by Mueller in court filings – are accurate, this wasn’t true. Deep into the campaign, Cohen is shown pursuing the Trump Organization’s most lucrative deal ever – a tower in Moscow. The Russians would have known the president was lying, if that’s what Trump was doing. Telling lies in a news conference is not illegal. But what’s impeachable doesn’t have to be illegal.
For all that, it’s hard to see Democrats keeping the talk of impeachment going – or even continuing some of their own investigations and hearings. Republicans will now challenge them to produce their evidence that the president is a traitor – or shut up. Adam Schiff will be a central figure in Republican fundraising all the way to 2020. Still, despite Trump’s moment of triumph, Cockburn has a feeling that the pendulum might swing back the other way, a little. What if Mueller does tell Congress that, in his opinion, there was a case for obstruction? What if Trump’s children do face criminal charges? What if a Grand Jury says: to hell with it, we’re going to charge the president? Trump is already, in all but name, an un-indicted co-conspirator in Cohen’s campaign finance case – the ‘Individual 1’ that Mueller’s charge sheet says directed Cohen to pay off Stormy Daniels. Trump’s troubles are not over but, as before, his enemies have made the mistake of under-estimating him. He once said: ‘When somebody challenges you, fight back. Be brutal, be tough.’ Trump is a sore winner. Get ready.