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Grappling with a Legitimacy Crisis

When White House lawyer Ty Cobb tells Donald Trump, in defiance of all available public evidence, that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will wind down shortly, and in a way that exonerates the president, it raises the obvious question of what Trump will do when the investigation continues inching closer and closer to him every day, well into next year.

It also raises the question of how the rest of us should process and respond to the things we already know about Russia’s efforts to subvert last year’s election, and the Trump campaign’s involvement.

It’s possible, indeed it seems increasingly likely, that Cobb is wrong—that Mueller’s investigation will widen over time and eventually expose a conspiracy so contemptible and lawless that it threatens to end Trump’s presidency.

But let’s imagine for a moment that Cobb is right—that Mueller is reaching the end of the trail of evidence, and it doesn’t really touch Trump; that Trump’s political interference in Justice Department investigations of his campaign, and his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, didn’t amount to obstruction of justice.

If that is the case, then multiple perverse incentives—ones that drive decision-making at technology companies, major media outlets, in the Republican Party, and elsewhere—will align to place the controversy behind us. They will outweigh the countervailing incentive to treat it as a political scandal of globally historic proportions—one that very likely threw the U.S. presidency to someone who would’ve otherwise not been elected. But the countervailing incentive reflects the truth, and if the truth loses this battle for narrative control, the collateral damage to the integrity of our elections will be extensive and lasting.

In a way it should be obvious that even a narrowly-cast version of the Trump-Russia scandal should define the Trump presidency. Mueller has already indicted Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, along with Manafort’s former business associate Rick Gates—who remained in Trump’s orbit well into his first year in office—as criminal agents of foreign powers trying to throw the election to Trump. Mueller has also flipped a Trump campaign foreign affairs adviser, George Papadopoulos, who admitted to feloniously lying to the FBI. In exchange for lenient treatment, he has been a cooperating witness who’s testified, at the very least, to the fact that the Trump campaign was aware of Russia’s desire to pass along dirt on Hillary Clinton months before Donald Trump, Jr. eagerly accepted a meeting with yet-more Russian agents offering yet-more dirt on Clinton in June of last year.

As I argued recently, the case that the Trump campaign “colluded” with Russia to sabotage Clinton’s campaign is basically airtight. What’s less clear is the exact extent of their cooperation.

But to that end, even if Mueller were to wrap up his investigation early next year, it’s all but certain he’d indict Flynn first. After Flynn, the next most exposed individual is Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The list of people in legal jeopardy is almost certainly longer, but it is remarkable how successful Cobb and others have been at casually portraying as exculpatory a scenario in which many of Trump’s top aides—including presumably at least one member of his family—end up charged with committing federal crimes.

To dismiss this all as old news, so long as Trump manages to avoid an indictment or a damning referral to Congress, would artificially diminish Russiagate as a kind of folly that ensnared a handful of bumbling knaves, when it is more properly understood as the attempted (and probably successful) theft of an election through a mix of criminal and non-criminal means.

Nobody will ever be able to make that claim definitively, because it is impossible to prove counterfactuals, but it is indisputable that Trump’s victory last year was one of the most overdetermined election results in modern political history. Trump lost the national popular vote by millions of ballots, and only won the presidency thanks to razor-thin margins—70,000 votes total—in three states.

We have been reminded endlessly since the election that no single factor can explain Hillary Clinton’s defeat, because essentially everything does. Nate Silver has argued persuasively that then-FBI Director James Comey cost Clinton the election by sending a letter to Congress announcing the FBI had found and was reviewing yet more of Clinton’s work-related emails. In an interview with Crooked Media on Monday, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) made the convincing point that Bill Clinton’s past sexual indiscretions may have muddied the waters of Trump’s own videotaped sexual assault confession enough to cost his wife the presidency. Clinton’s detractors will gladly list many shortcomings (both of her own and with her campaign) that might have been determinative on November 8.

But comparably few prominent public figures are willing to suggest Russian interference changed the outcome of the election. Some are reluctant because they don’t want to look like sore losers. Others are reluctant because it implicates their own conduct. Yet more will refuse because nothing less than the legitimacy of the president is at stake.

This explains the credulous and dissonant spectacle of platform monopoly executives, who boast endlessly of the revolutionary power of their products, but now downplay the political impact of the foreign propaganda content that thrived on their networks last year.

It explains why CIA Director Mike Pompeo contradicted the intelligence community (which understand how counterfactuals work) to declare that Russian meddling didn’t sway the U.S. election result, and why the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee began a hearing on Russian social media agitprop with special pleading on Trump’s behalf.

If the U.S. citizenry were immune to foreign propaganda, there’d be no need to conduct any oversight. The implication of the hearing, and of the multiple Russia investigations, is that foreign propaganda can sway voting decisions. But once you acknowledge that, you have to contend with the possibility that foreign propaganda might be capable of swaying enough decisions to tip a close election—and elections don’t generally come closer than the election Trump won. Running away from that inescapable logic sends a clear signal to future saboteurs that American institutions are too paralyzed and self-interested to protect their own elections, which will thus be vulnerable to future meddling and a massive crisis of faith.

Of course, none of that accounts for the impact of the endless disclosure of stolen Clinton campaign and Democratic Party emails, which the Trump campaign solicited and Trump himself drew public attention to on a near-constant basis. Even if it turns out nobody on the Trump campaign had any influence over the nature and targeting of Russian propaganda, they are complicit in the other half of the subversion campaign, and the subversion campaign very likely tipped the election.

That can’t be forgotten, even if Ty Cobb gets his wish and Mueller closes up shop in January without alleging that Trump himself committed any crimes. A stolen election doesn’t become legitimate just because the thieves include a ragtag bunch of dopes.