The most respectable conspiracy theory in Washington
A year into Donald Trump's presidency, with the end of Robert Mueller's painstaking investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election nowhere in sight, I have a confession to make.
On multiple occasions over the last several years I have attended private meetings with individuals who are members of a Moscow-based international organization that opposes gay marriage, the European Union, globalism, and secularism. Also present at some of these meetings were right-leaning journalists, heads of think tanks, and even federal officials. Over drinks — sometimes, yes, vodka — and cigarettes, political issues were discussed, the Obama administration roundly criticized, and at least once there was a long conversation about Russian intelligence. Between meetings I communicated via email and Twitter with these individuals, who were based for a time in Australia, where both were involved in politics and even lobbying. On more than one occasion I was responsible for ensuring that payments in the four-figure range were made into the bank account of one of the individuals. A few months before the first of the above encounters, I met Trump himself at a D.C. hotel. At a later meeting, the individual I had been compensating appeared at another meeting in Manhattan with prominent social conservatives at which she made arguments on behalf of Trump. A few months later he was president.
I hope Mueller's people are taking notes. The fact that the individuals in question are old friends, one of whom contributed to a magazine where I used to be an editor, that the Russian group to which they belong is the Orthodox Church, that one of these gatherings was their wedding reception, and that the discussion of foreign intelligence was actually a conversation about the old BBC television adaptation of John le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are probably irrelevant. Written vaguely enough, filtered through two or three other sources in a kind of telephone game, they sound like a breathless Daily Beast scooplette about what I like to think of as "the Russia thing." If I lied to a federal investigator about any of this — claiming, for example, that I was not in any way involved with the payments in question even though I negotiated the rates because our accounting department was responsible for mailing the check or getting the timeline of my first meeting with the president wrong — I could be writing this column under house arrest. Which might be fair, but would hardly prove "collusion."
That Trump in some unknown and indescribable but absolutely significant manner "colluded" — whatever that might involve — with "Russia" — a vague entity that might refer to anything or anyone from a nameless academic to Vladimir Putin himself — in order to steal the 2016 election from Hillary Clinton, who was otherwise an attractive candidate with a firm base of support even in the states she didn't bother to visit, is now one of the most begged questions in American history.
It's time to stop begging it. The investigation that began under James Comey and has continued under Robert Mueller has turned up absolutely nothing to support this thesis. Michael Flynn lied to the FBI about a conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place after the election, which is shocking if you want to pretend that there is anything out of the ordinary about a member of a presidential transition team contacting foreign officials. An obscure character named George Papadopoulos once emailed an equally obscure character known only as "the Professor," an exchange that went nowhere. Paul Manafort has pled not guilty to money laundering, which is as unsurprising as it is far removed from what the investigation is supposed to be about. The Russia thing is a tedious and lurid spectacle, a shooting match, like Whitewater before it, in which armed participants are allowed to circle endlessly, at taxpayers' expense, around invisible targets that they mysteriously never manage to hit but whose existence is as obvious to one group of partisan onlookers as it is unthinkable to the other.
It is also a master course in how to construct a political narrative, something reporters and commentators do without realizing it. Most of them have memories as short as those of their readers and a frame of reference that, except for a handful of clichés about McCarthyism and Boss Tweed and the Compromise of 18-something-or-other, doesn't extend much further than Pizza Rat. It doesn't matter. Start with an irresistible general narrative, sprinkle in some suitably exotic if unconfirmable details about obviously grotesque characters, quote a handful of decontextualized communications, throw in some legalese that you don't understand, and you have an appalling scandal that deserves the attention of the entire American public, one that makes a mockery of the august values upon which this country was founded.
If the Russia thing has legs, so does Benghazi, a story about how individuals in the State Department actively worked to cover up the woeful under-preparedness of the security forces at a U.S. consulate in a war-torn country at the behest of the individual responsible for its ill-fated bombardment by NATO forces. So too does the new right-wing comic strip about a sinister "deep state" plot to prevent Trump from taking office — we even have a text message from an actual FBI agent admitting they have an "insurance policy" against it, guys! The news that a special prosecutor marched in to the offices of an obscure federal department and demanded records instead of obtaining them via subpoena is not going to keep me up at night agonizing over the future of the republic. But neither is anything that the Russia investigation has turned up or is ever likely to turn up.
I am not a partisan. Trump is a wicked man and his presidency a colossal failure. I would gladly see him impeached tomorrow, removed from office, and replaced with Bob, a guy I know from the coffee shop by my house.
That doesn't mean I'm going to pretend that "Russia" rather than the voters of Macomb County elected him president or that it is a good use of anyone's time to spend any more than a year of federal resources combing through Nigerian prince emails and asking gotcha questions trying to prove otherwise.