WASHINGTON - “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” That single sentence, taken from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, calls for a reckoning.
It’s a reckoning for Democrats who saw almost every development in this almost-two-year investigation as another dot connecting a conspiracy Mueller has not found. It’s a reckoning for many in the media that dutifully passed along this theory without scrutiny or context. And it’s a reckoning for many national security officials who abandoned their traditional nonpartisan role as custodians of state secrets to engage in a campaign against a president they loathed.
Their suspicions, I should note, were not unwarranted. During the 2016 election, there was strong evidence that Russia has hacked the emails of leading Democrats, a fact supported by Mueller’s indictments. The country later learned from Mueller that Moscow conducted a social media campaign to flood Twitter and Facebook with fake news and propaganda to discredit Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Trump, meanwhile, once publicly invited the assistance of the Russians.
But many people who should have known better went beyond suspicion and embraced conspiracy. Remember U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s explosive letter to James Comey, released just a few days before the election, alleging that the FBI director possessed devastating information about Trump and his campaign’s ties to Russia? Reid did not provide many details. We now know that many of the allegations to which Reid referred echoed an infamous dossier prepared by a former British spy at the behest of an opposition research firm paid by the Democratic Party.
Reid wasn’t the only one. Last year the House Intelligence Committee released memos that showed how this dossier was part of the underlying evidence the FBI provided in a surveillance application to a secret court to monitor the communications of Carter Page, a low-level foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. Page has not been charged with a crime, and yet his reputation has been trashed after a top-secret warrant for his surveillance was leaked to the media.
The dossier set the initial narrative for the Trump administration. After CNN reported that it was included as part of a briefing Comey himself provided to Trump and Obama, Buzzfeed published the whole thing with the helpful caveat that it was not verified and was in places incorrect. The most important takeaway so far of the Mueller probe is that this dossier is garbage.
Then there is the matter of Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. He was forced from the administration and into a legal nightmare after his monitored conversations with Russia’s ambassador to Washington leaked a few weeks before Trump’s inauguration. It’s true that Flynn failed to file as a foreign agent for Turkey, a crime that is normally punished as a slap on the wrist. At the time though, the accusation against Flynn was that he was a Russian spy, based on leaked transcripts that are never supposed to see the light of day. How silly do these hyperventilations look today in light of Mueller’s conclusions?
What’s more, it’s a scandal that no one has investigated how those transcripts were leaked in the first place. Given that the FBI’s own inspector general found that leaking with impunity is commonplace, the bureau’s agents should at least be among the suspects.
Finally, there is that handful of former officials who validated the worst fears of Americans about Trump without ever providing actual evidence. The best example is former CIA Director John Brennan. For the last two years, Brennan has been a frequent guest on cable TV to spread the innuendo that Trump is compromised by Russia. Just this month, he speculated that Mueller would be indicting members of Trump world for criminal conspiracy, even as he insisted he had no “inside knowledge” of Mueller’s deliberations. That last part, at least, turns out to have been true.
The saddest part of all of this is that there was a lot of evidence, hiding in plain sight, that could have spared many collusion proponents their embarrassment. Mueller’s indictment of Roger Stone, for example, alleged that Stone was tasked by a senior campaign official to find out what was in the emails that Russia hacked from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. If the campaign were coordinating with Russia’s influence campaign, why would Stone need to go to Wikileaks?
There were also the transcripts of interviews before the Senate Judiciary Committee of participants in the June 2016 Trump Tower meetings where Donald Trump Jr. and others in the campaign took a meeting with a Russian lawyer who initially promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. Under oath, those witnesses said nothing came of the offer.
And Trump, it should be noted, has appointed Russia hawks at the highest levels. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton and his predecessor H.R. McMaster, and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis all have long public records when it comes to Russia. If Trump were a Russian stooge, why would he appoint them to such posts? And despite his own baffling sycophancy toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump has not been weak on Russia in terms of policy.
The end of the Mueller probe is more than just a reckoning. It is also a reminder, if anyone needed another one, that the FBI and the intelligence community can be wrong. And it is a powerful illustration of the importance of keeping spies and lawmen out of politics.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.