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From Russia with Leverage: Why the “But Hillary” Response to the Mueller Probe Fails

Whataboutism is not a four-letter word in my dictionary. Quite frankly, I have no problem with calling out rank hypocrisy when the other side of the aisle has a plank in its eye while criticizing a speck in the eye of the Right. But Russia-gate, if it exists, is not one of those cases.

No question, Hillary’s emails were and are a legitimate scandal. Her campaign’s involvement with the Steele Dossier is fair game for criticism. But there are two reasons these stories simply do not compare to the hornets’ nest of questions surrounding Trump’s Russian connections: 1) The allegations surrounding Trump’s posse go beyond mere campaign faux pas–they portend potential Russian intrusion into our actual governance; and 2) Hillary Clinton is not currently the President of the United States.

To get the more obvious point out of the way, although it’s understandable that supporters of President Trump find themselves frustrated at the focus on his alleged misdeeds in dealing with the Russians while there’s little attention to Hillary Clinton’s related sins (outside of the Fox newsroom, that is), there’s a reason for the imbalance. She isn’t in office. Robert Mueller isn’t vigorously pursuing Clinton crimes because that’s not what he was appointed to do. The Justice Department isn’t in the habit of appointing Special Counsels to investigate private citizens who previously ran for office. Why? Because she has no power. She can’t do anything to affect your life or mine. Can she be criminally prosecuted? Sure. But there’s no need to impeach her–she lost. If you’re obsessed with her campaign violations from three years ago, it may be that you suffer from some level of vindictiveness that has less to do with justice or America than with a hard heart. But Donald Trump is President. Now. Democrat, Republican, or otherwise, the ramifications of major political corruption of the sitting President concern us all. Simply put, the election is over. Don’s more important now.

But the real asymmetrical nature of the allegations boils down to the concerns beyond the 2016 election. For many on the Right (no doubt reacting to the Left’s obsession with relitigating the election), it all comes down to whether the campaign and the vote were fair, and which side, if either, obtained illicit assistance from the Kremlin. But it’s not just about the election. Let me say it clearly before setting foot into the minefield to follow: I don’t know if Trump is guilty, or even if he is, which charges he’s guilty of. I assume nothing. I’m waiting for the final report and hoping for the best.

Let’s not delude ourselves, though. This isn’t about oppo research or email hacking alone. Vladimir Putin is a veteran of KGB. He and other high-ranking Russians were working on business deals with Trump for years prior to the 2016 campaign. It was and is inestimably in their government’s interest to have control, or at least strong influence, over a President of the United States. The shortlist of most-favored Russian intelligence tools consistently includes kompromat–blackmail material for political leverage. Famously, they have a history of conveniently “finding” stashes of underage pornographic content on a target’s computer, for example. Circumstantially, many observers in the political sphere have, of course, asked whether the Kremlin has something compromising on the President that has led to strangely Russia-compliant behavior–especially after the Helsinki conference. It may be more than speculation, however.

Nothing is proven, and I sincerely hope it remains so; but a few too many parties close to the US intelligence community insist, albeit obliquely, that some sort of compromising material on President Trump does, indeed, exist–and not by accident. In the years of courting Trump over business interests, Moscow, having plenty of motive, also notably had every opportunity to arrange, document, and record any number of incriminating circumstances for Trump. If this were only speculation via tin-foil hat, I wouldn’t lose a moment’s sleep over it. Unfortunately, people way smarter than I argue it’s a real, substantive concern. In fact, I have yet to find a serious IC-related analyst discussing this in the political arena who truly thinks this is a nothingburger.

Chalk this up to the “Deep State” if you wish, and there’s no question many, especially in the FBI, have sought to undermine the Trump presidency at every turn; but at some point a conspiracy’s just too big. Is everything thrown at the President a joint, nefarious plot by the FBI, CIA, NSA, and Homeland? Is the entire United States intel apparatus so Leftist and corrupted that it’s effectively useless in any capacity, save for a covert arm of the DNC? Apologies to Sean Hannity, but that requires a level of partisan credulity that simply doesn’t pass muster. If six high-ranking Obama cronies had been indicted or found guilty of felonies related to questionable dealings with Russian mafiosos or intelligence officers, not to mention two dozen other connected parties including a number of Russian nationals, NO ONE in the GOP would dismiss it as a “witch hunt”. And certainly, it would go without saying that any claim that Obama was ignorant of such shenanigans would be laughed out of the room.

“If there was anything to find, we would have heard about it by now,” so the retort goes. Not so, at least not necessarily. The FBI leaks. The SDNY leaks. The Mueller Special Counsel team? They don’t really leak. The response they released to the BuzzFeed debacle was unusual specifically because they don’t talk. And that’s how investigators should operate. They take a long time, and they don’t reveal evidence before the case is ready.

Any eye-rolling over concerns about Trump’s foreign policy commitments should have ceased with Mattis’ resignation letter. This wasn’t uninformed observation from the outside, but a voice of inside experience no longer able to go along with what he saw–and he was concerned enough to send clear signals, in public, as to his belief that the President is making policy decisions in line with our enemies’ (Russia and China both specifically cited) interests, rather than those of our allies. This came on the heels, of course, of the announcement US troops would withdraw from Syria… Whatever your view on that particular tactical decision, it’s clear that the sitting Secretary of Defense at the time believed the policy was chosen for reasons beyond the national security of the United States of America. That’s disturbing in and of itself, regardless of your political preferences.

And then of course there’s the donkey in the living room: in 2017, the FBI apparently opened an investigation into the question of whether President Trump was operating on behalf of the Kremlin. Look, I’m no Pollyanna on the machinations of the FBI vis-a-vis the White House the last couple of years. We know there were elements within the Bureau who have been loyal to Comey and out to get Trump. Granted. The fact remains, and this is truly unprecedented, members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation believed it was incumbent upon them, given their knowledge at the time, to formally investigate the possibility that a President of the United States had been compromised by Russian intelligence and was acting on their behalf in some capacity. Did it go nowhere? We don’t know yet. Shortly thereafter, it was passed on to the newly-formed Mueller Special Counsel. Was it purely a political act? In personal motives, perhaps; but we didn’t learn about it until a year and a half later–it wasn’t a stunt for headlines when it commenced; investigators within the FBI believed, whatever their reasons, that there might be fire behind the smoke.

There’s a confusion over terminology that I think clouds much of the discussion on the Right here. If the question is “Is Donald Trump a ‘spy’?”, or “Is POTUS a Russian ‘agent’?”, of course it’s nonsense. But the concerns being expressed among the IC and NatSec analysts are regarding the possibility that the President is a functional asset for Russia. That’s a big difference. Agents are willing operatives of an intel service. But assets are simply tools of such services. They may be used unwittingly, or under extreme duress (such as blackmail/kompromat), but the end result is the agency pulling the strings gets done what it wants done. And that’s the worry here. Does the Kremlin have undue sway over policy decisions made by the President of the United States? If not, great. But if it’s possible…

Bottom line, as many more thoughtful political commentators have recommended, let’s wait for the report. My prayer is there’s nothing in it. Or even if there is, there’s nothing suggesting Russian compromise of the White House. I’m not expecting that to be the case. I’ll rest easy when/if it’s debunked altogether. But be absolutely clear on this: no “owning of the libs”, no border wall, no conservative policy at all should outweigh the cost of an Oval Office run from Moscow. As a Reagan-era kid, I can’t in good conscience shrug at that nightmare scenario, however remote it may be.

Put it this way: if you could guarantee me a 9 to 0 textualist Supreme Court, a Balanced Budget Amendment, and immediate deportation of the IRS, I still wouldn’t be willing to take that in exchange for a commander-in-chief who is owned by a hostile foreign power.

Just wait for the report.

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