WASHINGTON – In the churning, murky pond water of Kremlin-gate, a few things are increasingly clear:
First, the Russian-influence scandal is consuming Donald Trump, and this is likely to get worse as the special counsel’s investigation moves forward. Associates describe the president as obsessed by coverage of the scandal – an impression reinforced by tweets that seem to emerge involuntarily, like myoclonic jerks. Trump possesses nothing of Bill Clinton’s talent for compartmentalization – the ability to prevent flooding in one area from sinking the whole ship. Trump reflects the design work of the Titanic. Breach one compartment and the rest flood as well.
Second, along with the president, Trump’s administration is being consumed. Aides who entered government for at least partially noble reasons are now requiring criminal defense attorneys. This creates both tension and isolation, since it is a bad idea to discuss with fellow staffers anything remotely related to an ongoing criminal investigation. Even for the innocent, locating and surrendering documents and answering the questions of FBI investigators add a layer of distracting stress to already stressful jobs.
Third, Trump’s traditional methods of damage control no longer work. In the past, he has used Twitter feuds and teased policy announcements as shiny, distracting objects. Special Counsel Robert Mueller cares not a whit for any of this. As Trump was attempting to use climate policy as a political page-turner, Mueller was hiring the chief of the Fraud Section of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice to be part of the investigation into Russian influence. Trump is now facing not only the challenge of exploiting the media’s limited attention span but the scrutiny of institutions. His normal repertoire of responses – demeaning, inflaming, vulgarizing – seems like arrows against an advancing tank.
Fourth, the chief advantage of nepotism – a bond outside political calculation – is also a considerable drawback. It is difficult to throw someone under the bus when you are handcuffed to them. This maneuver is not entirely unknown. “I have already given two cousins to the war,” said humorist Artemus Ward during the Civil War, “and I stand ready to sacrifice my wife’s brother.” But the attitude makes for an awkward Thanksgiving dinner. And there is no possible way to claim that Jared Kushner – now revealed as a focus of the Russian-influence investigation – was somehow outside the inner circle, unless that circle is smaller than Trump’s own head.
Mueller now has a job similar to mathematician Urbain Le Verrier. In the mid-19th century, Le Verrier noted some perturbations in the orbit of Uranus and predicted the existence of another, unknown planet exerting a gravitational pull. Neptune was duly found where Le Verrier calculated.
There is some unknown fact exerting influence on all the various parts of the Russian-influence scandal. Some pulling planet. Some missing key.
Why did candidate Trump insist on praising Vladimir Putin, even to the point of slandering America? (“We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?”)
Why did the Russians work (according to American intelligence services) to tip the election in Trump’s favor, perhaps achieving one of the largest intelligence coups in history? And why should Trump, instead of being offended by such manipulation, attack the credibility of American intelligence services in turn?
Why should both former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Kushner fail to fully report meetings with Russian officials and representatives in security background checks?
Why should Kushner apparently ask to use Russian facilities for a back channel that would escape the scrutiny of American intelligence services?
Why should Trump reportedly demand a loyalty oath from FBI Director James Comey, then fire him over the Russia investigation (by his own admission), then assure the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office that the pressure of the investigation had been “taken off”?
Why has Trump insisted – even in the midst of an investigation of Russian influence – on serving long-standing Russian policy goals in Europe (such as raising questions about the NATO mutual defense agreement)?
If Trump’s tax returns and financial information are exculpatory, why not release them? And how does this unwillingness relate to Donald Trump Jr.’s 2008 statement that Trump businesses “see a lot of money pouring in from Russia”?
For Mueller, Trump is innocent until proved guilty. But citizens judge their president according to reasonable inferences. We are now at a point when it is reasonable to believe something disturbing is occurring. A point when it is reasonable for citizens to demand of Trump: disclose, or confirm our worst fears.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.