Editor’s Note: This story has been edited to make it clear that it is analysis and that the allegations of the Trump campaign conspiring with the Russians remain unproven.
The shifting sands
Political and legal danger for President Trump may be sharpening by the day, but the case that his campaign might have conspired with the Russian attack on the 2016 election is still unproven despite two years of investigations, court filings and even numerous convictions and guilty pleas.
Trump has been implicated in ordering a scheme to silence two women ahead of Election Day in 2016 about the alleged sexual relationships they had with him years before.
That is a serious matter, or it might have been in other times, but this scheme is decidedly not a global conspiracy with a foreign power to steal the election.
More broadly, the president and his supporters say, the payments to the women in 2016 are penny ante stuff: Breaking campaign finance law, if that did take place, isn’t like committing murder, said one lawyer for the president.
The “biased” Justice Department is just grasping at straws to use something against Trump because it hasn’t been able to locate a “smocking gun,” as Trump wrote this week, that would tie his campaign in with Russia’s active measures in 2016.
There’s an important kernel of truth in that argument — not only is there no smoking gun, but the Russia case also appears to have been weakening, not strengthening, while America’s eyes have been on the payments.
The charges they didn’t make
Item: Cohen ostensibly played a key role in the version of events told by the infamous, partly unverified Russia dossier. He denied that strongly to Congress. He also has admitted lying to Congress and submitted an important new version of other events.
But that new story didn’t include a trip to Prague, as described in the dossier. Nor did Cohen discuss that in his interview on Friday on ABC News. Could the trip, or a trip, still be substantiated? Yes, maybe — but if it happened, would a man go to prison for three years without anyone having mentioned it?
Item: Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is on track to be sentenced early next year after his conviction in the Eastern District of Virginia and his guilty plea in Washington, D.C.
Prosecutors say that Manafort shouldn’t get any consideration for the information he has given the feds because he has been lying to them; Manafort’s lawyers say he gave the government valuable information.
Nonetheless, the crimes for which the feds want Manafort to be locked up aren’t a Russian conspiracy to throw the election.
Moreover, Manafort took part in at least one event that has attracted endless discussion: the June 2016 meeting at which he and other top campaign leaders hosted the delegation of Russians following an offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton.
But Manafort’s role in that meeting hasn’t figured into either of his federal cases nor been the subject of court documents. Maybe the feds are holding all that back for some kind of big reveal — or maybe there’s no conspiracy here.
Further inference: If Manafort isn’t in any legal jeopardy over his role in the Trump Tower meeting, does that suggest no one else is, either? There were a lot of outside theories that the meeting might have broken federal laws barring U.S. political campaigns from getting opposition research from foreigners.
Does the absence of anything about that in Manafort’s case mean the feds actually don’t think there’s anything to prosecute?
Item: Former national security adviser Michael Flynn has been a very good witness, the feds say. They say it would be fine with them if, when he is sentenced on Tuesday, a judge gave Flynn no jail time.
Does that sound like the attitude they would take with someone who had been serving as a Russian factotum and who had been serving as a foreign agent from inside the White House as national security adviser, steps away from the Oval Office?
And on it goes: Will the feds ever charge Trump’s sometime foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, whom they called a Russian agent in the partly declassified application they made to surveil him?
The surveillance began under FBI Director James Comey and was reauthorized into the Trump era, including by his own appointees at the Justice Department.
That suggests it was yielding foreign intelligence, but Page has maintained all along that he did nothing wrong. Judging by the absence of any charges and his continued liberty, authorities appear to agree.
Shadows and fog
Investigators certainly know more than they’re saying — they often repeat as much in court appearances and documents in their various cases. But an ostensible conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and the Russians who attacked the election is nowhere near close to being proven.
Not only that, a few recent events may delay the verification of any official theory about such a conspiracy. One important one is that Trump has signaled that he’s open to clemency for people in the Russia imbroglio.
If Manafort and others take that as a beacon of hope to stand fast against the feds and fight their cases because they’ll ultimately get a pardon, that could not only add months to this saga but also conceal important facts.
Mueller, as usual, is in the driver’s seat. If he presses ahead with criminal cases against people who don’t accept plea deals, the Russia imbroglio could run well into 2019 or beyond.
If he opts not to prosecute people on whom he has evidence of wrongdoing and he simply writes what he’s discovered in a notional final report, this saga might end sooner but amount to an abdication of justice. That doesn’t seem like the Mueller that America has come to know.
Another thing that Americans have come to know about Mueller is that he can keep a secret. So if he has evidence about a geopolitical conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s active measures, the public probably won’t learn about it until the moment the special counsel’s office wants that to happen.
From what is visible today, however, the case is still Swiss cheese. Unless that changes in a big way, the hottest political story in a generation may lose its place in center stage.
The continued slide of the core Russia “collusion” story, if that is what indeed happens, is politically relevant to the other investigations and potential problems confronting the president.
Because the hush money payments and the potential international contributions to the inauguration campaign aren’t about Russia, it provides a talking point to the White House:
The “deep state” couldn’t make Russia stick, Trump argues, and so its conspirators have gone on an expedition for other mud to sling. That, he hopes, will mean that none of it sticks.