Rick Gates, the veteran high-level political operative who served as Donald Trump’s deputy campaign manager in 2016, told investigators he remembers exactly where he was — aboard Trump’s campaign jet — when he heard the candidate’s desires and frustrations over a scheme to defeat Hillary Clinton with hacked, stolen emails boil over. And he also remembered the future president’s exact words that day in summer 2016.
In one sense, Gates’ confirmation of Trump’s obsession with a conspiracy theory — that 33,000 of his Democratic rival’s emails had been stolen and could reveal damning information — isn’t a total shock. After all, the 2016 candidate famously blurted the quiet part out loud during a public appearance that July, when he famously said “Russia, if you’re listening …”
But in another sense, Saturday’s disclosure — part of 500 pages of previously secret documents from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of the Trump-Russia scandal, revealed because of a dogged Freedom of Information push — was a bit shocking.
Gates’ disclosure to investigators was a key insight into the state of mind of a campaign that was willing and eager to work with electronic thieves — even with powerful foreign adversaries like Russia, if need be — to win a presidential election. Yet that critical information was buried in Mueller’s 440-page report and ignored by the media in a moment that was supposed to tell the American public everything we needed to know about what the president knew and when he knew it, regarding Russia’s election hacking.
Indeed, the 500 pages — including agents’ interviews with key players like Gates, Trump’s now-disgraced former lawyer Michael Cohen, and former top aide Steve Bannon — could be well described as the Mueller probe like you’ve never seen it before.
Among the highlights are that Gates said that a lot of the pressure to find the purloined emails fell on retired general Michael Flynn — soon to be Trump’s short-lived national security adviser — because Flynn “had the most Russia contacts of anyone on the campaign.” The No. 2 man on Trump’s 2016 campaign also gave agents some interesting leads on the wooing of WikiLeaks — the intermediary that did release some stolen Democratic emails and documents — and his belief that the Republican National Committee had advance knowledge of WikiLeaks dumps.
Other revelations from the 500 pages of source material are confirmation that Paul Manafort — now in prison for tax evasion and other crimes — continued to advise the Trump campaign long after his official ouster as campaign chief that summer, in a move tied to revelations of his close links to pro-Russian Ukrainians. More importantly, the papers show that Manafort was also working as far back as 2016 to plant the seeds in the collective minds of Team Trump that perhaps Ukrainians — and thus not Russia — were behind all the hacking.
Manafort’s weird unfounded theory — also promoted by his longtime associate Konstantin Kilimnik, whom the Mueller probe tied to Russian intelligence — would prove to have enormous consequences for the United States and its 45th president. Trump’s obsession with proving Manafort’s idea prompted 2019′s indecent proposal to new Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky that even GOP senators are now conceding was a quid pro quo — the scandal that led to Friday’s historic House vote, making impeachment seemingly inevitable.
The disclosures also bring into much sharper focus something that’s critical for understanding America’s current plight: The so-called Trump-Russia scandal — in which the president falsely claimed “total exoneration” after Mueller’s muddled two-year probe — and the so-called Ukraine scandal which now imperils the White House is really just one giant scandal. It’s a power-hungry demagogue seeking the ego boost and the enriching “brand-building” potential of the American presidency having no moral qualms about trying to work with criminals (2016) or abusing the power of his office (2019) to get what he wanted, even relying on the same shady cast of characters in both occasions.
Saturday’s news about the Mueller memos didn’t cause a huge stir — most on social media were more taken by the schadenfreude of seeing Trump’s narcissistic 2019 World Approval-Seeking Tour draw more boos in Madison Square Garden — yet it tells us three very important things. First — and not to be forgotten — is the role of BuzzFeed journalist Jason Leopold as well as CNN in relentlessly pushing to gain this information through our Freedom of Information laws. In a time when the White House has proclaimed journalists as “the enemy of the people,” Leopold and CNN remind us that the First Amendment is more vital and important than ever.
But here’s a more discouraging takeaway — the powerful suggestion that the Mueller investigation that dominated the news for the better part of two years was never what the millions of Americans who believed in the battle-tested former FBI chief, a functioning justice system, and the truth actually thought it was. Saturday’s revealing memos were just the latest and strongest hint that an investigation upon which too many pinned too much hope — from “Mueller Time” T-shirts to that “Hon, Mueller’s got this. Come to bed” cartoon in the New Yorker — was in fact the gaslighting of America on a massive scale, even for the Trump era.
Sorry, hon — Mueller didn’t get this.
It’s hard to know how much of this is the fault of Mueller, the taciturn Vietnam War hero who may not have temperamentally been up to the job of grasping such a vast threat to American democracy under the best of circumstances. And these clearly were not the best of circumstances. When Mueller finally testified in public before Congress and appeared hesitant and hazy about his own investigation, it seemed clear that a probe conducted strictly behind closed doors for two years may not have been what people thought it was.
There were, in hindsight, early clues. Why were Trump figures — including Gates, Flynn and others — given relatively sweet deals to plead guilty and provide information, when that information didn’t bring consequences for the president and other higher-ups around him? A warning flag was Team Mueller’s surprisingly public denial of a BuzzFeed article about Trump pressure on Cohen to mislead Congress, when Saturday’s memos suggest there was Trump pressure on Cohen to mislead Congress? Why was Mueller so willing to punt the substantial evidence on obstruction of justice to Congress, ducking any forceful recommendation on what to do with it?
Maybe that’s because, in the end, a probe that was 50 percent about obstruction of justice was thwarted by … obstruction of justice. Some of that likely was the collective impact of the 10 documented efforts to obstruct justice that are outlined in the Mueller report — from the firing of FBI chief James Comey to attempts to oust Mueller himself and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was later removed. We don’t yet know how these reflect other closed-door pressures placed upon the Mueller probe.
But there is no doubt that the knobs of gaslighting were switched to “high” when new Attorney General William Barr — also known as Trump’s Roy Cohn — arrived at the Justice Department in February. Under Barr’s thumb, Mueller appeared newly pressed to quickly wrap things up. The end of his investigation came with a weeks-long delay before his actual report — a vacuum that was filled with Barr’s Trump-serving four-page memo with his own conclusions that there was no obstruction of justice and no collusion with Russia. Barr even staged a press conference hours ahead of the actual report with misleading spin on what was in it.
In the end — as the memos dropped on Saturday reveal — the Mueller report was not the definitive word on what happened with Trump, Russia and the tainted 2016 election. Rather, it was a series of not-always-great prosecutorial decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out, and what conclusions to make of it all — reached by an iconic-but-fading prosecutor no longer on top of his game, under relentless pressure from a justice apparatus that has been politicized and warped by the president and his Cohn-like hatchet man.
What’s telling is that Mueller’s impotent testimony before Congress came just one day before Trump’s extortionist phone call with Ukraine’s Zelensky — suggesting the presidential beatdown on the Mueller probe had inspired the delusion that he was now untouchable. The next few months on Capitol Hill will prove whether Trump was actually right — and if he was right, you can kiss goodbye to the United States of America.
Interestingly, the new Mueller info came just a day after an interview in which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed to confound expectations that she plans to limit the Trump impeachment probe to Ukraine and nothing more.
“What we’re talking about now is taking us into a whole other class of objection to what the president has done. And there may be other — there were 11 obstruction of justice provisions in the Mueller report. Perhaps some of them will be part of this,” Pelosi told Bloomberg Television. “But again, that will be part of the inquiry, to see where we go.”
This is a tough call, because every day that Donald Trump remains in the Oval Office is a danger to America and the world. But it’s increasingly clear that the speediest narrow impeachment — one confined solely to his Ukraine dealings while ignoring the naked corruption of obstructing the Mueller probe and his efforts to become president through lawbreaking, either through stolen emails or hush money, and then use his office to line his own pockets — would be a terrible mistake.
That’s because — as noted earlier — the real scandal of Trump’s presidency is his amoral and narcissistic willingness to do any and all things that are terrible for the country but are good for his own personal power and ambition. The symptoms of that corrupt disease played out on a global canvas from Kyiv to Trump’s golf resort in Scotland to the corridors of the Justice Department. If we don’t make it clear that no president is above the law — all of the laws, including obstruction of justice and the Emoluments Clause — then we will only be setting the stage for a future president who will be even more dangerous than Donald Trump.
Note: Some light editing to make clear that some info in the memos was referenced in original Mueller report but not highlighted by Mueller or, perhaps more importantly, in subsequent media coverage.