I cannot contemplate the havoc of Russiagate without a shudder of horror not only for my country, but also for myself. How very different my life would have been over the past year or more if I had been one of those Trump volunteers assembled in early 2016 to give the campaign the pretense of having a foreign-policy team. For that matter, it would probably have been enough for me to have volunteered as a neighborhood canvasser to get out the Trump vote (what precious little of it there was) in my community in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Once the charge of collusion with the Kremlin had been leveled against Team Trump, my 40-year association with Russia, much of it as a diplomat, would have made me a prime suspect. A swarm of reporters would have descended on my quiet suburban street, observing my comings and goings and pumping the neighbors for information and pithy sound bites (“He seemed like a quiet, unassuming guy; I would never have thought him capable of such a thing.”).
The fact that I am a nonentity would not have spared me, any more than it has spared Carter Page or George Papadopoulos. Certainly, all my personal and business contacts had been with ordinary, working-level Russians, not the ruling elites. Nevertheless, a few of the Russian diplomats I knew 20 years ago have by now risen through the ranks, and no doubt some of them have presumed intelligence links that could have been used to cast aspersions on my patriotism. And although I knew no one at, say, Rosneft or Gazprom, I’m sure I must have known someone who knows someone in those organizations. A veritable cottage industry could therefore have arisen to contrive a daisy chain of connections, however tenuous and improbable, linking me with the inner sanctum of the Kremlin—the conduit along which cash and information presumably flowed in the supposed collusion that many people deem the only plausible explanation for Trump’s electoral victory.
Perhaps some creative journalist would even have fingered me as the American who explained to the Russians what a purple state is.
My sudden notoriety would have come as a most unwelcome embarrassment to my employer, who might well have felt obliged, however reluctantly, to let me go. Combining unemployment with the imperative to “lawyer up,” I would have been staring bankruptcy in the face and contemplating the disheartening prospect of having to crowdfund my children’s college education, and perhaps even my own retirement.
But this would have been only the beginning of my troubles. Ostensibly looking for evidence of collusion, the FBI would have subpoenaed my e-mails, financial records, and computer hard drive, then questioned me on their contents. Failing to find the slightest evidence of collusion (since there would have been none), the FBI would have sought to bring whatever other charges it could engineer in order to secure my cooperation in the broader investigation against Trump. I imagine a conversation along the following lines:
Ah, Mr. Bennett, we see that you sold $50-worth of firewood to your neighbor seven years ago. You don’t seem to have declared that income on your federal or state income taxes. That makes two counts of tax evasion, which is a felony. Oh, and you told us that your last contact with your Russian friend Misha was in 2011, but we’ve located an e-mail you sent him in February 2012. I’m afraid that lying to the FBI is also a felony.
Having no funds to fight a protracted legal battle and hence no real recourse, I would have pleaded guilty to whatever charges the FBI chose to bring against me and proclaimed my willingness to cooperate. The mainstream media, without detailing my precise “crimes,” would have crowed that another Trump associate had pleaded guilty to multiple counts of tax evasion and lying to the FBI. Right-thinking people across the country would have savored the spectacle of yet another Trumpling receiving his just desserts, while speculating whether perhaps this Bennett guy would finally be the one to spill the beans on the whole collusion caper.
But I was not a member of Team Trump, indeed, not even a Trump supporter, and for that reason alone I dodged that hail of bullets.
If you think I’m exaggerating, read the charges against George Papadopoulos and consider the sheer triviality of his “lies to the FBI,” which really consisted of misremembering several incidents nearly a year after the fact. None of his actions during his brief and inconsequential association with the Trump campaign amounted to collusion or any other illegal activity. The situation is similar with Michael Flynn, who, despite all of last year’s hyperventilation about the Logan Act, was charged only with misrepresenting the content of his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The failure to prosecute Flynn under the Logan Act was tacitly to concede that Flynn’s interactions with Kislyak were neither collusion nor a violation of any law. Paul Manafort stands accused of truly substantial crimes in connection with his work for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, but they also have nothing to do with collusion, or even with Russia.1 Moreover, it seems clear that the investigation of Manafort is not the beginning of a long-overdue effort to clean up the reputed cesspool of lobbying activities in this country; rather, it’s a one-off effort driven not by Manafort as an exemplar of all that is wrong with the lobbying profession but as an associate of a certain widely detested political figure.
Setting aside the visceral hatred of Trump and making an objective assessment of the Mueller investigation to date, one cannot fail to be struck by the complete lack of charges related to collusion, the uncovering of which was supposed to be the whole point of the investigation in the first place. What we find instead is a pattern of entrapment and selective prosecution with regard to matters unrelated to collusion. Entrapment and selective prosecution have long pedigrees in international legal practice. In most countries governments employ them against opposition figures and groupings, but in the United States, for perhaps the first time in history, they are being used against a sitting government. Three cheers for American exceptionalism!
The curious spectacle of an elected government under sustained attack by virtually the entire political elite of the country has given rise to the theory of an American Deep State—a collection of bureaucrats, politicians, and members of the chattering classes whose power is supposedly threatened by Trump’s promise to drain the Washington swamp, and who accordingly are hell-bent on destroying his presidency by any means.
Let’s be realistic—it would be absurd to suppose that the swamp denizens would welcome the hydraulic engineer coming to town with the express purpose of destroying their habitat. Certainly, even by the standards of Republican presidential candidates, Trump fared exceptionally badly throughout the Washington, DC metropolitan area in the 2016 elections.
The Deep State, however, is not so much a conspiracy as a reflex. It is the comprehensible reaction of a skilled engineer/master craftsman who sees his life’s work—the imposing, carefully calibrated, and lovingly constructed machinery of state—being approached by some lummox with a monkey wrench in one hand and a crowbar in the other.
But let’s be clear—the lummox in question is not even Donald Trump so much as the electorate that made himPresident.
What is wrong with those people? Do they not appreciate both the purity of our motives and the consummate skill of our work in fashioning this edifice, this object of wonder and admiration? Or is it conceivable that one could gaze upon the Federal government and perceive neither a well-oiled machine nor an awe-inspiring work of art, but a massively over-engineered, out-of-control behemoth whose onerous expense far exceeds its utility? Could it be that this wondrous mechanism of government simply doesn’t perform the functions that the unwashed masses in the flyover states impertinently expect? Notwithstanding the plaudits and critical acclaim accorded to our masterpiece, has the public given it a resounding thumbs-down?
Perish the thought! Russiagate ensures that we need never face such distressing questions. We can proceed serenely in the conviction that Trump’s election was a fluke engineered by the Kremlin, not a repudiation of American elites by distraught, disenchanted working-class voters. Our grim, relentless campaign to topple Trump is a patriotic effort to reclaim America from Putin’s clutches, and not at all an attempt to overturn a democratic election or to preserve the bureaucracy’s accustomed and supremely comfortable way of running things.
Our frame of reference, it seems, can accommodate all manner of changing facts. We were convinced that Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections was massive and sophisticated. Mueller’s indictment of the culpable Russians, however, makes clear that the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign was highly amateurish, even bumbling. Rather than conclude that Moscow’s interference was irrelevant to Trump’s election, we deprecate the obtuse American working classes for their gullibility in falling for such crude Russian disinformation. “The masses are asses” is the operative mentality. We get the double satisfaction of demonstratively claiming to save the American people at the same time that we patronize them. With a nod to Bertolt Brecht, we perceive that the people have lost the confidence of the elites, and it is therefore time to elect a new people—or at least, as a step in the right direction, to remove their President.
And so, with our fixation on Russian interference, we need never confront the question of why people really voted for Trump. Nor need our minds be troubled by the thought that things like globalization, the explosive growth of government, and the sort of international activism labeled “American leadership” have not been such an unalloyed blessing for people in the heartland as they have been for us swamp-dwellers.
But the self-delusion doesn’t stop there. Even—in fact, especially—for people who pride themselves on defending civil liberties and upholding the notion of equal justice, Russiagate justifies domestic surveillance, entrapment, and selective prosecution in our pious hope that a critical mass of convictions for unrelated crimes will magically crack open the whole Trump collusion conspiracy and ensure the President’s impeachment.
However, this approach is akin to believing that we can unlock the secrets of witchcraft if we just indict enough suspected witches for lying to the FBI.
Still, it seems that no matter how many witches we burn (or at least, convict of perjury and tax evasion), the cattle remain sickly, and the crops are still failing. Obviously there are still some witches out there whom we haven’t caught yet. And so the hunt continues.
As the indictments of individuals directly (though often distantly) associated with Trump have failed to expose any collusion, the Mueller investigation has had to cast an ever-wider net. The latest witchsuspect identified by the American media is Konstantin Kilimnik, an alleged former intelligence officer employed in Manafort’s Kyiv office for many years, apparently as his local factotum. Without the slightest scrap of evidence, he has already been proclaimed as “very likely Manafort’s spy-handler.” It remains to be seen whether Kilimnik will prove to be the devoutly hoped for bombshell, or just another in a long series of duds. In the latter case, rest assured that someone else, at an even greater remove from Trump, will be identified as the collusion conspiracy’s Missing Link—and so forth as long as Trump remains in office.
There is no need for a Deep State conspiracy when the way forward is blindingly self-evident to all right-thinking people. In order to save the country, Trump must be removed. And Trump will be removed, even if we have to tear the Constitution and the country to shreds in order to do it.
Alas, the method of burning a village in order to save it has never been a particularly winning strategy. And Russiagate will be no exception.
1For readers unfamiliar with the subtle distinction between Russia and Ukraine, I offer this link to an explanatory map prepared in 2014 by the Canadian NATO delegation. I would add that the notion of Yanukovych as a puppet of Putin is a grossly misleading oversimplification of a complex and mostly fraught relationship. Moreover, Manafort’s relationship with the Yanukovych government ended in early 2014, well before Manafort’s association with the Trump campaign—indeed, before the Trump presidential campaign was even a glint in the Donald’s eye.