President Trump would have us believe that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s interest in a 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his son Don Jr., Erik Prince, and an agent of the Saudi and Emirati governments offering illegal election assistance, is mission creep, and thus evidence of his innocence. The Russia well ran dry, so Mueller moved on to other countries.
“The Witch Hunt finds no Collusion with Russia – so now they’re looking at the rest of the World,” Trump tweeted over the weekend. “Oh’ [sic] great!”
In general, the political establishment lets this daily “No collusion!” mantra slide as another of Trump’s tedious eccentricities, but here we see why it’s important to treat it as a Big Lie. If it were true—if there were “no collusion”—Trump would be rightfully frustrated that the investigation had spread. But it is not true. The media has found collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, which means Mueller has as well. At the very least it is firmly established that the Trump campaign was corrupt enough to solicit help from Russian intelligence for an edge in the election. Mueller’s interest in whether that openness to bad acts extended to other governments is mission creep in the same way that investigating a bank robbery suspect and finding cash bundles from other bank robberies is mission creep.
To the contrary, what we’re watching unfold is in some ways more alarming than the likelihood that Trump simply did more colluding than we thought. The countries that helped see to it that Trump became president, all of which are heavily corrupt, have been rewarded with extraordinary geopolitical spoils that have rendered U.S. interests an afterthought. Trump has frayed the western alliance more in a year and a half than the Russian government was able to do from the outside over the course of decades. He has at the same time thrown the weight of the White House behind a Saudi-Emirati effort to consolidate power in the Middle East at the expense of other U.S. allies.
The scandal of Russian meddling in the 2016 (to hurt Clinton, to help Trump, to weaken the U.S.) may be transforming into a larger story of the corruption of U.S. foreign policy by a transnational consortium of authoritarians, who saw value in having one of their own in control of the American government, and found in Trump a willing coconspirator.
The surfacing of this new Trump Tower meeting has coincided with Trump’s intensifying efforts to discredit the Russia investigation by portraying the FBI’s reliance on an informant—a standard law-enforcement and counterintelligence tool—as somehow improper.
He has extensive support in this endeavor from the Republican propaganda apparatus. Trump’s position, and the consensus position of the conservative movement, is that, having become aware of a foreign intelligence service’s successful efforts to infiltrate a major party presidential campaign, the FBI should have done nothing about it, because the campaign in question happened to be a Republican one.
Ironically, their focus on the FBI’s use of an informant, and on the investigation’s larger origin story, throws into sharp relief how stunningly corrupt his campaign was, and how frontally it threatened the democratic order, in contrast to the political and legal forces arrayed against it. The informant himself is a former Republican operative who has worked with the FBI, CIA and MI6, the British foreign intelligence service, for decades. As FBI counterintelligence veteran Asha Rangappa noted, the FBI tapped him, rather than their in house agents, as part of an effort to “protect the campaign by investigating Russia’s efforts quietly.”
But this informant was not alone in helping American security services figure out whether Trump and foreign agents were engaged in an illegal conspiracy. Part of the predication for the investigation was a tip from an Australian diplomat, Alexander Downer, who learned from George Papadopoulos that the Trump campaign was sniffing out Russians for dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Likewise, the Dutch intelligence service AIVD had real time intelligence on the Russian theft of DNC emails, and reportedly alerted the CIA and NSA to the operation in real time.
The unifying theme of these tips isn’t that Trump was somehow a victim of them, but how strictly all of the informants adhered to proper protocols. Where Trump’s campaign was open for business with high-bidding autocrats, the people who saw what was happening, and understood it was wrong, didn’t think to rush to the Clinton campaign, or leak their intelligence in a manner designed to maximize harm to Trump. As representatives of a rules-based order, they understood that it was a matter for the FBI, which in turn understood that it had to hold its investigation very tightly, in order to protect the innocent and avoid tampering with the election. (This was a norm and a courtesy that the FBI famously did not offer Hillary Clinton.)
The contrast between Trump and his adversaries continues today, as he remunerates his election allies with favorable foreign policy, accepts bribes from those who seek similar accommodations, and directs counter investigations of those who have tried to get to the bottom of the crisis by the book. What remains to be seen is whether the good guys have the time and patience they will need win this asymmetric battle without breaking the rules themselves.