After months of getting themselves worked up about hearings featuring a hero once accused of rigging the election for Donald Trump and Don Jr.'s inability to sniff out Nigerian prince emails, spectators of the Russia game have finally gotten what they wanted: indictments.
Unfortunately, the indictments of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his business partner Richard Gates have nothing whatever to do with "collusion," however broadly defined. Politically speaking, we have learned nothing except what we already knew: namely, that a shady businessman who briefly worked for the Trump campaign is, in fact, a very shady businessman indeed, one who has just pled not guilty to failing to register as a foreign agent on behalf of the Ukrainian puppet government and not declaring all of his income derived from his essentially pro-Kremlin lobbying.
Dot connectors will, of course, continue to connect dots. It could be that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is hoping to secure testimony from Manafort or Gates that will give him the dirt he needs to bring more appropriate charges. It could be that he already has that information and is just waiting for goodness knows what occasion. At the very least, obsessives will say, the hiring of Manafort indicates — these comments almost write themselves — a very serious lack of judgment on Trump's part. You don't say? The man whose idea of a feel-good national unity speech following an act of domestic terrorism was to suggest a degree of moral equivalence between the KKK and its opponents has horrible instincts, often fails to think things through, is a bad judge of character, etc.? Gosh.
Even George Papadopoulos' guilty plea is no smoking gun. The former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign admits that he lied about email exchanges with a shadowy figure known as "the professor" who had promised Russian "dirt" on Clinton. But as far as we can tell, his communications with Dr. Dirt went nowhere. Papadopoulos also made vague references in his emails to "meetings" with Russian officials that probably did not end up taking place, which seems important only if you ignore the fact that presidential candidates, especially after securing their parties' nominations, routinely meet with foreign leaders, even heads of state.
The most significant thing about Monday's Mueller bonanza is that it reminds us what is wrong with these hysterical wide-ranging special prosecutor investigations that take place in public. Whitewater went on for nearly a decade before it concluded in 2003. Does the fact that Bill Clinton lied about sleeping with Monica Lewinsky prove that he and Hillary and the McDougals broke the law in the course of their real-estate dealings in the late '70s? If you ask enough people enough questions about enough topics, sooner or later you're going to catch somebody in a lie. Monday's revelations don't in themselves mean anything other than that Jeff Sessions' Justice Department is keeping Mueller on a very long leash.
It needs to be shortened. The purpose of the investigation is to determine whether the presidential campaign of Donald Trump knowingly colluded with the Russian government in the hope of altering the outcome of the 2016 election, not to see whether any person even loosely connected with the former could be found guilty of any crime, including perjury. The resignation of Tony Podesta from the prominent lobbying group he founded in the wake of Manafort's indictment suggests that we are getting very far afield indeed.
There are many problems with the Mueller probe, not least its show-boating obsession with keeping its business in the newspapers, but the biggest one is that its parameters were never well defined. What would count as actual collusion? Idle language is thrown around about people having "ties" to Russia or being "Kremlin-connected." How do you define "Kremlin-connected"? What would be the broad equivalent in the United States from Russia's perspective? A former congressman? Anyone who does business on K Street having a meeting? Defense contractors? Given the country's autocratic structure, there are very few living Russian nationals of any wealth or distinction who are not "Kremlin-connected."
If it's not going away, the least we could do is broaden the investigation's scope. Why not appoint another special prosecutor to investigate British meddling in our sacrosanct democratic process? The facts are there in plain sight. A former member of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service collaborated with a presidential campaign in an attempt to alter the outcome of the 2016 election. So did a former member of the British Parliament, who peddled disgusting conspiracy theories on Twitter and even attempted to collude with the Clinton campaign on advertising strategy. The speaker of the British House of Commons attempted to discredit Clinton's opponent. Should we see whether the Right Hon. John Bercow has ever emailed anyone who has ever in any capacity ever been in contact with anyone in the Obama White House? Hillary Clinton thinks we are in the midst of a "new Cold War." Are we also in the throes of a rebooted War of 1812?
The real lesson of the Russia non-story is that globalization, the great theme of the 2016 election, is more pervasive than any of us wants to acknowledge. No one who works in consulting or lobbying or finance is lacking in ties with Russia. Our press corps is largely made up of enthusiastic children. These 20- and 30-somethings who have never read a book were raised to excel in "critical thinking," but they are amusingly bad at it. Anyone can write a decontextualized story about a person or a group having "ties" to any malicious foreign power because having "ties" is what it means to exist somewhere in the sinuous continuum of depersonalized financial accretion that is late capitalism.
In 2017, everybody is working for somebody, somewhere.