President Trump recently tweeted: “Did you ever see an investigation more in search of a crime?”
It is usually a bad idea to raise a rhetorical question when the answer is both obvious and unfavorable. In the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, there are at least three offenses that could lead to indictment or impeachment. There is obstruction of justice – which Trump seems to attempt persistently, publicly and shamelessly. There is possible financial corruption concerning Russia on the part of Trump and the imperial family – about which the recent plea deal with Michael Cohen hints. This is likely to be interesting reading in Mueller’s report. And there is the initial matter of collusion with a hostile foreign power to influence a presidential election. This is hardly a fanciful charge, given that Trump, while a candidate, publicly invited Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton’s emails as a way to influence a presidential election.
What else do we know related to this charge? We know that Trump adviser Roger Stone allegedly told associates he was in contact with WikiLeaks, the conduit for emails hacked by Russian intelligence. (Stone denies this.) We know that Stone contacted conservative author and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, encouraging him to gather information on hacked Clinton emails. We know that Corsi responded to Stone: “Word is friend in embassy plans 2 more dumps … Impact planned to be very damaging.” (The “friend” in this email – amazingly and disgustingly – appears to be the anti-American cybercriminal Julian Assange.) We know that Stone issued the tweet, “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the barrel,” six weeks before WikiLeaks began releasing 50,000 emails that Russian agents had reportedly stolen from Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta. And we know, from Corsi himself, that he and Stone conspired to lie about the motivation of this tweet.
President Trump is left to claim -- which he has now apparently done in written testimony -- that he never discussed these matters with Stone or Corsi. This would have required candidate Trump to adopt a strategy of plausible deniability -- in this case, encouraging Russian hacking in public, but carefully avoiding the topic in private conversations with Stone.
How likely is this? On the evidence of two matters, not likely at all. In spite of initial denials, it is now clear that Trump took a personal role in facilitating hush-money payoffs to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. He also discussed with his legal fixer, Michael Cohen, how the source of funds to Daniels could be hidden. Also, in the matter of Donald Trump Jr.’s 2016 meeting with Russians at Trump Tower, President Trump reportedly dictated a misleading description of the meeting in the name of his son.
I have seen scant evidence that Trump delegates unethical activities. Instead, he evidently spends hours a day on the phone with friends and informal advisers, making plans and chewing over gossip and grievances. Are we really to believe that Trump publicly invited Russian hacking of his opponent, that one of Trump’s advisers claimed to have information on the hacking, but that the two never discussed the matter?
I don’t believe it. Which means there is a serious possibility that the president of the United States has committed perjury. But it may also be difficult or impossible to prove such perjury unless Stone, or someone else with direct knowledge, were to testify against the president. So Trump probably feels safe in his deception.
Stone has raised the I’m-a-mendacious-windbag defense – essentially claiming that he is a serial liar who inflated his own contacts and influence to get attention. This has a level of credibility. He is, in fact, a mendacious windbag. But the argument “Believe me now, I have always been an inveterate liar,” has practical, as well as logical, limitations.
Here is one fact beyond dispute. Look at the men whom Trump has traditionally surrounded himself with: Roger Stone, Jerome Corsi, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen. These are some of the least reputable people in American politics. Trump’s inner circle has always been a cesspool.
And there is a reason for this – a reason Trump has traditionally employed unethical people to serve his purposes. It is because he has unethical jobs for them to do, involving schemes to remove political threats and gain electoral advantage. And there is every reason to believe that Trump has fully participated in such schemes.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.