Trump-Russia Is Still No Watergate

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Back in February, I said that the Trump-Russia scandal already ranked high among the list of presidential scandals — I argued it was already the biggest since Iran-Contra, and perhaps the biggest since Watergate. It’s worth revisiting after the new indictments of Russians, ably analyzed by the folks at Lawfare and at Just Security.

As an overall event, the Trump-Russia scandal has become considerably bigger over the course of the year. As a specifically presidential scandal, however, the new indictments do not appear for now to make it especially larger. We now have plenty of evidence that the attempts by Russia to influence the 2016 election were multi-pronged and aggressive, but that doesn’t necessarily make the numerous contacts between the campaign and the Russians any worse than it already appeared.

Except. The Donald Trump part of the scandal likely involves both initial collaboration with Russia and efforts to cover it up. The more we learn about the the extent of the Russian effort, the more it seems increasingly improbable that there’s a purely innocent explanation for Trump’s behavior — praising Vladimir Putin, downplaying the Russian attack, firing James Comey and more. 

In particular, Trump’s repeated claim that the investigation is a witch hunt, which already required us to ignore previous indictments of both Trump campaign figures and Russians, now is even harder to treat as appropriate for the president of the United States. About the best anyone can say in defense of Trump’s continuing refusal to take Russian actions seriously is that it fits a larger pattern of actions that are entirely inappropriate for a president to engage in. Which itself sort of cries out for some form of sanction.

That’s not all. Both the Lawfare and Just Security teams read the indictments as making it more likely that Trump campaign figures will eventually be charged with criminal activity in colluding with Russia. Now, that’s speculative, albeit speculation by experts based on evidence is worth paying attention to. And of course indictments aren’t proof, but it’s pretty unlikely that Robert Mueller will allow any indictments to go forward — especially concerning anyone close to the president or anything that implicates the president — without overwhelming evidence. 

Careful observers will conclude that both the original collusion story and the obstruction of justice story appear somewhat more serious than they were in February, but not radically so. 

As a presidential scandal, it’s a little easier now to see how additional new information — or new actions by the president — could blow it up to rival Watergate. But there’s no need to get ahead of ourselves. The Mueller investigation seems to be extremely solid (with the conspiracy theories about a Democratic plot utterly discredited) and is moving at a rapid pace, albeit one that sometimes seems slow compared to the rush of news this administration constantly generates. There is good reason for Congress and others to put plenty of pressure on the president over his conduct toward Russia going forward, and it’s still important to be vigilant about any future episodes of obstruction of justice, but otherwise we’re all probably just going to have to wait for Mueller. 

1. Rachel Beatty Riedl at the Monkey Cage looks at Kim Yi Dionne’s new book about why interventions to fight AIDS in Africa haven’t succeeded.

2. Seth Masket on money in the Colorado Democratic primary for governor.

3. I  agree with my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Al Hunt that the Supreme Court could use some politicians — the kind who have faced voters in the past.

4. Garrett Graff on the real FBI scandal

5. Margaret Sullivan on the Bill Shine story. I’ll add: Another even bigger story, the New York lawsuit against the president for fraud, disappeared without a ripple. Understandable? Yes. Good media coverage? Nope. 

6. And one I missed last week, but still worth it: Richard E. Cohen at the Cook Political Report on the demographics of the likely Democratic class of 2019

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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