In some ways, the Mueller report did not tell us anything that we did not already know. In other ways, it changes everything. To a surprising degree, the special counsel consolidated and confirmed information that had trickled out into the public sphere through reporting in the media. Of course, part of what the special counsel was expected to be scrutinizing were actions that Donald Trump had taken in plain public view. We already knew much of what the special counsel knew, and as a consequence the president’s myriad infractions had already been incorporated into political assessments of him. Republican voters and politicians – reluctantly and unhappily – stood by the president as he invited Russia to “find the 30,000 emails that are missing” and when he confessed to NBC’s Lester Holt that he was going to fire FBI Director James Comey “regardless” because “this Russia thing” is a “made-up story.” They might well continue to stand by him now that the special counsel has provided us with a raft of new details and has confirmed what we already knew – President Donald Trump neither understands nor cares about his constitutional responsibilities.
One complication affecting the reception of the long-awaited Mueller report is that both the president’s opponents and his defenders have been busily moving the goalposts. During the presidential campaign itself, Hillary Clinton accused her opponent of being a Russian “puppet.” Once the votes were tallied, Keith Olbermann apparently gave voice to the views of many in declaring, “We are no longer a sovereign nation. . . . We are the victims of a bloodless coup.” If Mueller could not prove a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign to steal the presidential election, it would be a disappointment to many on the left. With the report now available, Russian Facebook memes, partisan discord, and Trump’s “open hostility to democracy” are now said to be enough to demonstrate that Putin’s “plan worked to perfection.” The outrage that was once said to justify holding up or even overturning the election results was less about Putin stealing the election than with Putin being happy with the election results.
Meanwhile, many on the right – led by President Donald Trump himself – denied that Russia had done anything at all to try to influence the elections. After all, “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.” Certainly if Russia had done anything, it was not done at the direction of the Trump campaign. After all, Trump did not even know Putin, so how could he collude with him? Since the investigation has concluded, we are told that anything less than a smoking gun demonstrating a criminal conspiracy to steal the election should count as total vindication.
Managing expectations is a familiar part of political debate, but we should try not to let it obscure what the special counsel has actually found. Russia was aggressive in its efforts to use cyberspace to influence – and if possible to manipulate the outcome of – the 2016 presidential election. The Trump campaign welcomed any assistance from any source whatsoever and showed a shocking indifference to whether a hostile foreign power was meddling in domestic American politics. President Vladimir Putin seems to have been more politically circumspect than would-be President Donald Trump, however, and did not aggressively pursue direct contact with the Trump campaign. President Trump might well have been saved not by the good judgment of his various campaign aides but by the good judgment of the Russian leader.
Mueller might not have found sufficient evidence to prove a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, but he found plenty of evidence of disturbing behavior. Russia has clearly engaged in extensive efforts to affect American electoral politics. Some of those efforts were almost laughable. By far the most threatening, however, is the evidence that Russia tried, unsuccessfully, to infiltrate the electronic systems of those who manage our electoral system. The threat of a foreign power actually tampering with voter rolls and election counts deserves close attention from American policymakers. Protecting the president’s fragile ego should not take priority over protecting the integrity of our voting systems.
It should come as a relief to everyone that Russia did not rig the election or enter into a conspiracy with one of the two major party candidates to attempt to do so. It should alarm everyone that the president had surrounded himself with individuals, including family members, who were so eager to win an election that they welcomed assistance from entities that are inimical to American interests, whether Julian Assange and Wikileaks or random Russian nationals who promised to pass along “dirt” or “sensitive information” incriminating Hillary Clinton. It is hardly reassuring to learn that the senior members of the Trump campaign were amateurish and amoral but not generally criminal.
One need not deny the reality or legitimacy of Trump’s electoral victory to recognize that the Russian threat should be addressed. The significance of the findings in volume one of the Mueller report should not be a partisan issue. Though the report might support the conclusion of “no collusion,” it thoroughly undermines the president’s own favored narrative that American intelligence agencies were worried over nothing in 2016. Both Russia and the Trump campaign created plenty of reasons for national security professionals to worry and to see the need for a more thorough investigation. That only one of Trump’s campaign managers found himself imprisoned in the aftermath of the election or that Donald Trump’s son-in-law thought it was a “waste of time” when a meeting failed to deliver the promised incriminating Russian government files is no cause for celebration.
Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and the author of the forthcoming book, Constitutional Crises, Real and Imagined.