If I asked, could you explain what exactly President Trump did wrong in regard to Russia's effort to help him win the 2016 election? Almost certainly not, which illustrates the fact that while the special counsel's investigation is working its way toward the Oval Office, it hasn't gotten there yet.
But here's what's odd: While the president's allies in Congress and the media don't know what he did wrong either (if anything), they sure are acting like he's guilty of something.
While we've already learned about a lot of contacts between certain colorful Russians and high-ranking members of the Trump campaign — Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Donald Trump Jr. — the degree of the president's involvement remains a mystery. Other than reports that Trump dictated the laughably dishonest statement about the meeting a number of those advisers had with a group of Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton, we don't know much about what he did, let alone what he ordered.
While some Republicans are trying to remain calm, to watch conservative media figures or hard-right Republican members of Congress, you'd think they all knew that if they don't man the barricades their leader could wind up behind bars or be impeached. There's an all-out war against Robert Mueller's investigation underway; Fox News has now begun referring to it as a "coup," amidst the network's unceasing coverage of the supposed "corruption" it represents. If Trump's allies thought the facts would prove the president's innocence and that of everyone else involved, they wouldn't be in such a panic. But as it is, it sounds as if they're sure this is an existential threat to the Trump presidency.
That's an assumption about Trump's guilt, because the really monumental scandals (Watergate, Iran-Contra, Lewinsky) are the ones that involve wrongdoing on the part of the president himself, not just his underlings. I'd guess that they're probably right in assuming Trump is guilty of something, but we don't know for sure, not yet anyway.
But there's one Republican who's convinced Trump will be fully exonerated: Donald Trump.
CNN reports that "Trump is boasting to friends and advisers that he expects Mueller to clear him of wrongdoing in the coming weeks." That opinion is apparently based on the assurances of his legal team, who haven't exactly shown themselves to be a bunch of geniuses so far. It's clearly false, since each week brings news of someone Mueller has flipped or a new avenue the investigation is pursuing; most knowledgeable observers think there's a long way to go. On the other hand, promising Trump that he's in the clear and it all will be wrapped up soon could be a clever way of keeping him from sabotaging himself with attacks on Mueller.
The latest twist, however, is one that could bring the scandal to an entirely new level. Over the weekend we learned that Mueller's team has obtained thousands of emails written by members of Trump's presidential transition team, which included pretty much every major player involved in this affair. Trump's lawyers were apparently caught completely by surprise, and were left complaining that Mueller shouldn't have been allowed to get the emails from the General Services Administration, which runs government operations, making absurd claims that the emails are privileged and private.
But as a number of experts have pointed out, those emails were written to and from .gov accounts and housed on government servers, with no expectation of privacy. And let's pause to appreciate the irony of Republicans complaining that the Trump team's government emails should be private, when they spent a couple of years screaming that every email Hillary Clinton ever sent should be revealed and are now insisting that the private text messages of FBI agents working for Robert Mueller should be scrutinized to see if they have any anti-Trump leanings.
It would certainly be a poetic turn if what finally lifted the curtain on this scandal was a bunch of emails that Trump's associates were too dumb to realize might one day be visible to the public. Now I suppose it's possible that those emails will reveal nothing more than a group of people acting with nothing but the highest degree of professionalism and integrity. But from what we know about the people Donald Trump gathered around him, how likely is that?
Not too likely. In fact, I'd be surprised if the content of those emails didn't embody all the breathtaking naïvete, ill-earned hubris, and outright stupidity we've come to expect from the knuckleheads in Trump's employ (and in his family). Perhaps none of them were dumb enough to incriminate themselves in emails, but I doubt it. As Mueller's spokesperson said in response to the White House's assertion that the GSA shouldn't have given Mueller the emails, "When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner's consent or appropriate criminal process." The repetition of the word "criminal" should send shivers down a few people's spines.
No matter how bad this scandal gets, President Trump will always have a powerful media apparatus supporting him and working to discredit the investigation and its conclusions, as well as allies in Congress who will not abandon him no matter what gets revealed. We could see a video of him kneeling before Vladimir Putin and pledging his eternal loyalty to the Kremlin before biting the head off a bald eagle, and he would still retain a core of supporters willing to go to any length to defend him.
They don't yet know what those lengths are, but given what they've already said, you can tell they think it's going to be a long journey.