One of the more comical episodes recounted in Robert Mueller’s report occurred in the summer of 2017 when President Trump, days after futilely ordering the special counsel fired, dictated a note to Corey Lewandowski. The president told his former campaign manager to copy down a speech for then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to read. Trump thought Sessions could effectively un-recuse himself from the investigation and clear the president all at once, declaring, according to Lewandowski’s notes, that “there were no Russians involved with him. I know it for a fact b/c I was there. He didn’t do anything wrong except he ran the greatest campaign in American history.”
Last Thursday, for the first time, we could read between the redacted black lines and understand for ourselves what Robert Mueller found out about Russia’s interference in our elections on Donald Trump’s behalf. Discussing it as theoretical, or affixing a “-gate” to it as if it is some kind of media-generated scandal is something I won’t do. Despite the tired protestations of an increasingly desperate few, it is clear that the Russian government did this, that the president and his campaign knew about it and were largely fine with it. I say “largely” only because it is clear that Trump’s ego couldn’t quite handle it. As he sat in the Oval Office dictating that letter to Lewandowski, he had to have known how much help he got from the Kremlin. But not only could he not admit it, he saw self-aggrandizement as a way out of his mess.
Trump’s job makes all of his psychological pathologies our problem, and that is why a Wednesday New York Times story about election security was so alarming. Apparently Kirstjen Nielsen, the former Homeland Security secretary whom Trump pushed out weeks before the Mueller report’s release, was busy with something other than gaslighting the nation about the administration’s grotesque family-separation policy. She was trying to prepare for the evolving ways that the Russians would try to interfere in the 2020 election, whether by further perverting social media, disrupting power grids, hacking election machines, or whatnot. Before she even could convene a White House meeting on the urgent topic, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney reportedly told her not to bring it up in front of the boss, lest he feel that his 2016 victory was delegitimized. She eventually gave up. Nothing got done.
Trump and those closest to him continue to live in a universe where Russia just bought “some Facebook ads,” as son-in-law Jared Kushner incorrectly put it during a TIME magazine event in New York on Tuesday. It would be one thing if that willful ignorance manifested itself merely as the occasional sound bite at a public event, quickly debunked and dismissed. But the report reminds us that John Bolton, the president’s national security adviser, eliminated the position of cybersecurity coordinator last year, even as Silicon Valley was helping DHS to thwart foreign attacks during the 2018 midterms. The job of minding the very problem that the Russians exploited has been left to junior aides while people like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo say such believable tough-guy things about Russia like, “We will make very clear to them this is unacceptable behavior.” I’m sure that Vladimir Putin will take that under advisement.
Mueller’s report addresses Trump’s negligence, as well. While he was president-elect, Trump was fuming about the Obama administration’s December 2016 intelligence assessment that concluded Russia interfered in the election on Trump’s behalf. Former Trump communications director Hope Hicks told Mueller that the president-elect saw the Obama assessment as “his ‘Achilles heel’ because, even if Russia had no impact on the election, people would think Russia helped him win, taking away from what he had accomplished.”
It isn’t about how much or how little the Russians helped. It is that Trump knew that they were trying to help him, and he didn’t have the patriotism or good sense to take the action to stop them. Worse now that he is the president of the United States, and his ego is so weak, frail and easily bruised that he still won’t even entertain discussion of taking action to stop another potential Russian attack. It is more than an abdication of duty, somehow. It borders on treason. And for what? Not for some entrenched ideal or dogma, but because this grown man can’t take the criticism. Or he knows deep down that he can’t win in a fair fight.
Trump has committed many a transgression against the norms of American governance; that was to be expected, since he was utterly unqualified, in experience and character, to hold the position. What that Times report describes is a new abyss, however. We have seen Trump attempt to threaten American democracy before in a hackneyed fashion — encouraging his fans to oversee polls, spreading lies about undocumented voting and even forming that panel that found no voter fraud. Mueller’s report brought us back to the main way that Trump and his allies worked to subvert our elections, even if it was by doing as little as not picking up the phone to call the FBI when receiving offers of help from the Russians. Now, having accepted that help and refusing to own it, his fragility threatens American democracy.
If Trump were so concerned about being awarded full credit for an election victory, he should never have joined the Republican Party, the principal perpetrator of voter suppression. He did it one better by winning the first presidential election in 50 years without the protections of the Voting Rights Act, and he still felt compelled to welcome Russian assistance. Why else was he asking them, publicly, to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails? And in one of the most redacted parts of the Mueller report it divulges how Trump gave his aide Rick Gates, right-hand man to former campaign chief Paul Manafort, a heads-up in the summer of 2016 that more damaging information about Clinton via WikiLeaks was coming. Gates told Mueller that the campaign was planning, per Mueller, “a press strategy, a communications campaign, and messaging” around the leaked emails. You did all that, Mr. President, and still you want to act like you earned this win?
False meritocracy is essential both to the rancor that feeds the president’s politics and to the brand that helped make him a celebrity. If there is anything holding up the Trump name on the sides of those buildings, it is the lie of the American Dream, the notion that anyone can make it if they try. Yes, anyone can make it if they have a father setting them up with a six-figure salary at the age of 3, a father whose businesses Trump and his siblings can later exploit in fraudulent tax schemes to further enrich themselves. Perhaps Trump knows the truth. This is the guy who, after all, immediately dispatched his minions to bury his own grades right around the time that he felt compelled to question Barack Obama’s scholastic record.
Meritocracy is a myth, as I’m sure you realize by now. The notion that you have earned a benefit by virtue of being born who you are is the very invention upon which bigotry relies. This is why it remains essential not only to Trump’s brand, but to America’s. It is a common thread that both share as they seek to forget the truth about themselves.
The Mueller report punctured that narrative, perhaps fatally. Trump’s poll numbers sank after the release of the redacted report to tie his all-time low of 39 percent, but most important: everyone knows. Even the most fringe chatboard extremist will have trouble denying that Trump received help from an adversarial foreign power to win the election (and against a woman, which may truly eat at him).
It is unclear how much satisfaction we can derive from knowing, however. Despite being exposed as a fraud yet again, there is little standing in his way. The Supreme Court’s five conservatives, tipped that direction by Trump’s two picks, appear ready to rubber-stamp a citizenship question on the Census that will have a demonstrable discriminatory impact and may cement a Republican advantage in American politics for a decade or more. The president’s immigration hellion, Stephen Miller, has been given even more power to make life hell for non-white immigrants in the wake of Nielsen’s departure. Trump is stalling congressional efforts to probe his tax returns and interview Mueller’s key witnesses.
If Democrats opt not to use the constitutional tool available to them — despite presidential contenders like Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro making cogent arguments for impeachment — it appears that they are less likely to attempt to hold Trump accountable than to validate him with their inaction. Should he go on to win re-election, possibly even with the conjoined suppressive efforts of the Republicans and Russians, there is little doubt that he will feel that he deserved it. He’ll surely tell us.