Kirk Bennett: “Tying Up the Loose Ends of Russiagate”

File Photo of White House with South Lawn and Fountain

Date: Thu, 4 Apr 2019
From: Kirk Bennett <>
The unfinished business of Russiagate consists of clearing the names of innocent people; holding senior bureaucrats to account for errors of judgment and abuses of power; and restoring the tarnished image of democratic governance.

By Kirk Bennett
Kirk Bennett is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer.

The great import of Russiagate is what it turned out not to be. It is what it isn’t.

With the submission of the Mueller report to Attorney General Barr, Russiagate, as the saying goes, is all over but the shouting. A fair amount of shouting may yet lie ahead, but it will be sound and fury signifying nothing. Publication of Mueller’s redacted full report will generate a torrent of second-guessing, parsing of the language to fabricate a case for obstruction of justice, and fatuous speculation that the text was “really” redacted not to meet legal requirements, but to minimize Trump’s culpability. No matter. The President’s detractors had spent more than two years promising a scandal of absolutely cosmic proportions, and they failed in spectacular fashion to deliver. Ex post facto blathering about obstruction of justice when there was no underlying crime is unlikely to seize the popular imagination.

Now what?

It is up to the Democrats to decide whether they can still make political hay out of Russiagate – whether they can still utilize it to hobble Trump’s presidency and diminish his chance of reelection. Alternatively, however, they run the risk of looking like a cabal of petty, spiteful partisans and end up accomplishing the prodigious feat of generating sympathy for Trump, now appearing in an improbable role as the embodiment of wounded innocence. Prudence is in order here. 1 Delirium Trumpens has probably run its course. While it remains chronic, it no longer appears to be contagious.

Much has already been written about the dismal role of the mainstream U.S. media throughout Russiagate – the bias, the tendentious reporting, the abandonment of basic standards of journalism, the loud, repeated proclamation of unsubstantiated rumint as “bombshells” and “the beginning of the end for Trump.” The minority of journalists – particularly on the left – who never bought into the collusion narrative are basking deservedly in their vindication and calling for some critical self-examination within the punditocracy. Some reporters are already doubling down instead, essentially arguing that their own journalistic malpractice was (and still is?) somehow excused by the sheer unadulterated awfulness of Trump and the absolute moral imperative to remove him from office ASAP. (Evidently there is nothing the man cannot defile, degrading even the professional standards of his critics with his all-pervasive evil.) Other members of the chattering classes have expressed varying degrees of mea culpa – certainly regretting, in any event, that the whole Russiagate imbroglio might actually have the unintended consequence of abetting Trump’s reelection. At least one journalist had the revelatory insight that it just might be better for the country as a whole, when all is said and done, for Trump to be removed from office electorally rather than being led out of the White House in handcuffs.

Apart from the issue of how the President’s enemies deal with the implosion of the collusion narrative, and where in the grief cycle they end up getting stuck, there is a bit of unfinished Russiagate business for the country as a whole. It has to do in the first place with restoring elementary justice. While Trump himself avoided prosecution due to the lack of evidence of any collusion, a number of his associates have not been so fortunate.

The Mueller investigation operated under the logical assumption that, if Trump had indeed collaborated with the Kremlin, then some of his lieutenants would have been co-conspirators and would know where all the metaphorical bodies were buried. That supposition would account for the questionable FISA warrant to surveil Carter Page, the person on Team Trump (albeit a minor figure) with the most visible ties to Russia.2 Since Page was never charged with any crime, some nine months of surveillance presumably came up empty-handed – generating a requirement to take down other members of Team Trump in order to uncover the plot. Frustratingly, none of the President’s men manifested sufficient evidence of collusive behavior to justify even so much as a conspiracy charge. Mueller thus had to resort to the morally dubious approach of selective prosecution for completely unrelated misdeeds (Manafort, Gates, and Cohen) or for contrived process crimes (Flynn and Papadopoulos), thereby securing pledges to cooperate with the collusion investigation.

More than anything else, it was these pledges of cooperation that generated the premature champagne toasts of Trump’s detractors, certain that the President’s days were numbered once Flynn, then Gates, then Manafort, and then Cohen were “flipped.” And let’s face it – if Trump had actually been exposed unequivocally as a Russian asset, a grateful America would not have cared much how Mueller cracked the case. Certainly I would not have quibbled.

But that’s not how things worked out. Gaining the cooperation of Trump’s inner circle proved useless when it transpired that there was no conspiracy after all. The jailbirds simply had no song to sing, and none of them was willing to commit perjury by “composing” bogus allegations. So what then becomes of the men who were convicted or accepted plea bargains en route to the big nothingburger of the Mueller report?
Gates, Manafort, and Cohen were the targets of selective prosecution, investigated solely by dint of their membership in Trump’s inner circle. Nevertheless, these crimes were genuine, not contrived or political in nature. I have seen nothing to suggest that the verdicts were corrupt or the punishments excessive.

Not so with Flynn and Papadopoulos, who pled guilty to lying to the FBI.

Flynn’s conversations with Russian Amb. Kislyak prior to Trump’s inauguration were captured by the NSA’s routine interception of Russian Embassy phone traffic. Ordinarily the NSA would mask the name of any American incidentally so recorded, but in this case Flynn was “unmasked” at the request of the Obama Administration during its final weeks in office. Such unmasking is not illegal or necessarily unethical, but as a safeguard for Americans against domestic surveillance by the intelligence services, it is not supposed to be routine. Moreover, the subsequent leaking of details about the Flynn-Kislyak conversations to the press raises concern about the propriety of how the unmasking was handled.

Armed with a transcript of Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak, FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe dispatched two agents to have “a friendly chat” with Flynn, who was unaware of the unmasking or of the possibility that he might be the target of an investigation – or that anything he said could and would be used against him. The procedural irregularities of the FBI’s approach to Flynn have been documented, as has the assessment of the interviewing FBI agents at the time that any discrepancies in Flynn’s account were inadvertent, and that Flynn was not being deceptive. He was guilty of carelessness, not lying. Nevertheless, the Mueller investigation went after Flynn when it needed to “flip” Trump’s key lieutenants. Lacking the financial resources to wage a protracted legal battle for acquittal, Flynn accepted a plea bargain and cooperated with the Mueller investigation.

It is a similar story with Papadopoulos, whose “lies” to the FBI consisted principally in misremembering the sequence of certain events nearly a year after they had occurred. As with Flynn, there was no underlying crime on the part of the accused. As a means to extract evidence against Trump, the Mueller investigation set perjury traps for Flynn and Papadopoulos. Since there ultimately turned out to be no collusion, it is time to recognize their innocence and clear their names.

Happily, no perjury trap was laid for Carter Page, probably because the FBI’s lengthy surveillance had amply demonstrated the lack of any collusion on his part. Nevertheless, he was shamelessly slandered and deserves some public acknowledgement of his innocence and loyalty to his country.3 Moreover, the justification for the FISA warrant for Page, authorizing the extraordinary4 domestic surveillance of an American citizen, remains murky and suspicious. To ensure the integrity of the FISA process, there needs to be a thorough investigation and public reckoning to elucidate the degree to which the FISA warrant was a) reasonable under the circumstances; b) the result of poor judgment on the part of the authorities; or c) politically motivated and indefensible.

Although not a target of the Mueller investigation, Russian gun activist Maria Butina found herself caught up in the overall American obsession of the past three years with Russian influence. Reflexively denounced upon her arrest as a spy and a slut by much of the mainstream American press, Butina was ultimately charged with the curious and underwhelming offense of conspiracy to avoid registering as a foreign agent. During her travel and study in the United States over the past few years, Butina cultivated relations with American fellow gun enthusiasts, some active in conservative political circles, and had sought to promote improved U.S.-Russian relations generally. The characterization of her rather pedestrian networking and self-promotional activities as “lobbying” is tortured, and the “conspiracy” angle apparently relates to e-mail correspondence about her activities with her Russian patron and fellow gun activist, Aleksandr Torshin, a former Russian legislator and official. Like Manafort, Butina spent much of her incarceration in solitary confinement; like Flynn and Papadopoulos, she copped a plea and agreed to cooperate with the authorities. She is due to be sentenced on April 26, and in the absence of any evidence of espionage or actual harm to the United States, she should be released and allowed to return home to Russia. One can only hope that in due time her case will also be re-examined and she will be – to use an entirely appropriate Soviet-era term – “rehabilitated.”

The second order of post-Russiagate business is to establish the ratios among honest error, bad judgment, unethical behavior, and illegal activity on the part of senior U.S. officials who did so much over the past three years to inflate the collusion story. By taking a highly visible, partisan posture and nurturing the false impression that the collusion charge was supported by classified intelligence information, John Brennan and James Clapper wreaked untold damage on the reputation of the U.S. intelligence services as an objective, professional, and nonpartisan body. The perception of partisanship reaches deep into U.S. law-enforcement agencies as well. Andrew McCabe’s revelation that senior FBI and Justice Department officials mulled the idea of removing Trump by having him declared incapacitated was shocking both for its brazenness as well as the matter-of-fact manner in which much of the press reported it. Trump, for all his faults, errors of judgment and even personality disorders, comes nowhere near any plausible diagnosis of mental incapacity, and the discussions about engineering his removal under the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution are arguably the closest the United States has ever come to an attempted coup d’état.

Verily, it will be interesting to see the degree to which the collusion narrative was itself a product of collusion.

Finally, the third and arguably most important matter in the wake of Russiagate is the fate of democracy writ large in the 21st century. Various authoritative commentators have decried the rise of populism and sought explanations for the seemingly abrupt and unanticipated fragility of liberal democracy even in places where it is long established. The consensus remedy appears to be firm push-back against Russian interference in Western elections and public discourse, along with lambasting “populism” as a shape-shifting embodiment of racism, xenophobia, isolationism, nativism, and other pathologies, and giving it no quarter domestically.

Would that things were so simple. Russiagate itself demonstrates how little the current travails of liberal democracy stem from the machinations of the supposed Kremlin puppet-master, and how much we have brought our problems upon ourselves.

An attentive observer of the United States over the past three years could be forgiven for concluding that liberal democracy describes a place where selective prosecution and contrived process crimes are used to decimate the entourage of an inconvenient elected leader; where old men and young women arrested for non-violent crimes are thrown into solitary confinement; where an ostensibly free press is overwhelmingly one-sided in its coverage, and rather careless about the distinction between facts and editorializing; where a 20-person, heavily armed SWAT team conducts a theatrical early-morning raid, filmed by CNN, to arrest one unarmed 66-year-old man who would reliably have turned himself in at the nearest police station if asked to do so; where millions of citizens are bitterly disappointed to learn that their elected leader is not an agent of a hostile foreign power; and where the ill-considered partisanship of senior intelligence and law-enforcement officials gives plausibility to the notion of a deep state doing the bidding of elites who remain unreconciled to a distasteful electoral outcome. None of these perceptions would be remedied by Trump’s removal from office, whether by electoral process, impeachment, or invocation of the 25th Amendment; nor by Putin’s departure from power and the transformation of Russia into a gigantic Eurasian Switzerland.

The partisans of the Russia collusion narrative did liberal democracy no favors, and if proponents of liberal democracy want to revive the “brand,” they need to tackle these perception problems in earnest. Tying up the loose ends of Russiagate would be a salutary start.

1 Let me express my heartfelt admiration for Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who, notwithstanding her profound political differences with Trump, had the uncommon good sense to conclude that having a President who is not a Russian agent is actually a good thing for our country. “Mueller reported Trump did not collude with Russia to influence our elections. Now we must put aside partisan interests, move forward, and work to unite our country to deal with the serious challenges we face.” I fear that Rep. Gabbard, in our current toxic political environment, might pay dearly for her Lincolnian sensibility.

2 In this connection, let us hear no more nonsense about Paul Manafort’s work for Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions in Ukraine constituting a tie to the Kremlin. Ukraine is not Russia, Yanukovych was not Putin’s Ukrainian proconsul (indeed, their mutual dislike was notorious), and Manafort’s work with Yanukovych was largely about orienting Ukraine toward Europe and away from Russia.

3 Public apologies to Page from journalists such as Luke Harding for their acts of character assassination would be entirely fitting, but are disappointingly improbable.

4 Let us hope.