Trump was reportedly ecstatic that the indictments noted that his associates were “unwitting” in their contacts with Russians. I understand that reaction, but he’s being outmaneuvered here and I’m not sure he realizes it yet.
By laying out a meticulous case for how Russia tried to tip the electoral scales toward Mr. Trump in 2016, Mr. Mueller has made it much harder for the president to dismiss the investigation as mere politics. He may also have made it harder for Mr. Trump to fire Mr. Mueller himself, since, as some Democratic lawmakers argued, that would look like an attempt to help Russia further undermine American democracy…
Far from being rattled, Mr. Trump was elated, according to his advisers, because he viewed it as evidence that Mr. Mueller now knows who the malefactors are — and they do not include him or members of his team. (The indictment refers to campaign officials who met or communicated with Russians, but says they were “unwitting.”)
POTUS has spent the last 16 months questioning Russia’s involvement in the campaign despite the fact that ev-uh-ree-one in his intel bureaucracy insists they’re guilty. It was only a few days ago that CNN reported that he still doubts Russian interference even now. The theory for his skepticism is that he’s succumbed to motivated reasoning: If Russia meddled, he may be thinking, then my great victory wasn’t truly earned. That’s not necessarily true — Russia’s impact on influencing how Americans voted was probably marginal, almost certainly less significant than the eleventh-hour Comey letter about reopening Emailgate. (Russian propaganda on Trump’s behalf also surely mattered much less than the endless tons of free media his campaign received during the primaries from cable news.) But you can understand his sensitivity about the subject. Plenty of Democrats have convinced themselves, however foolishly, that Hillary would have won if not for the sinister schemes of Vladimir Putin.
So here we are, a day after indictments were published alleging with specificity that Russia meddled in 2016 and spent millions of dollars to do so, and Trump is … elated. Mueller just blew a hole through any remaining doubts about Russian interference, validating his appointment as special counsel, to the point where Trump’s own National Security Advisor is crowing about his findings on Russia onstage at an event today. Trump’s skepticism about Russia looks even more feeble now than it did before. You could understand him popping the champagne anyway if Mueller had paired the indictments with an announcement that his investigation into Trump’s campaign was finished and no indictments would issue against the president or his deputies. In that case, having been vindicated personally, Trump might decide that it’s okay to finally acknowledge Russian interference. (Even though that would still leave Democrats free to believe that Putin, not Trump, was the prime mover in the GOP victory.) But all Mueller said was that there was no knowing coordination by Trump associates with Russia in *this prong* of the probe.
That is to say, I think we have an answer as to why Mueller indicted a bunch of Russians who’ll never be extradited to the U.S. to stand trial. To some extent, it was PR: He wanted to prove that the Russiagate investigation was paying dividends and to shore up public support for it before Trump finally tries to pull the plug. Now he has a big vote of confidence in his findings from the president’s own top intelligence advisor, and if Trump tries to fire him later it’ll look like he’s protecting Russia by doing so as much as he’s protecting his own team. That was well played by the special counsel. And well played by Rod Rosenstein too. If I recall correctly, Rosenstein didn’t appear before any cameras when Paul Manafort was indicted or Mike Flynn copped a plea. Manafort and Flynn were top Trump campaign aides and Rosenstein wouldn’t want to be on camera crowing about his boss’s associates getting pinched by Mueller. Yesterday, though, gave him an opportunity to tout Mueller’s work in a matter where the defendants weren’t Trump cronies. And more importantly, it tied Rosenstein in the public mind to Mueller’s fruitful efforts to root out Russian influence. Rosenstein is on even thinner ice with the White House than Mueller is for enabling the Russiagate “witch hunt.” How does Trump fire him now that Mueller has found some witches and Rosenstein himself did the honors in announcing it?
One more thing. Is POTUS still intent on a diplomatic reset with Russia or has that fallen by the wayside? No one would blame him if it has. Just this week alone, news is swirling that Russian mercenaries attacked a U.S. base in Syria (at great cost to themselves) and Trump’s administration announced that it was Russia that was behind a major cyberattack across the globe last year. Trump himself has grumbled lately about Russia evading sanctions on North Korea. Maybe he’s given up on the idea of a fresh start with Putin, as the two men who preceded him in office did after beginning their own administrations with hopes for rapprochement. If he *hasn’t* given up, though — and maybe he hasn’t — then I don’t know why he’d be “elated” by yesterday’s indictments. Sure, they pointed away from collusion, but they also pointed squarely at Russia. Making nice with Putin will be even harder politically now.