Colin Kahl, who used to be the national security advisor for VP Joe Biden, has a long, detailed column at Foreign Policy about what we already know about the Mueller investigation and that, even without collusion in election interference during the campaign, what we know is more than bad enough. Key portion:
Fast-forward to after the election and Flynn’s conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — conversations Flynn now admits he did at the request of the Trump transition team but lied to the FBI about. On Dec. 29, 2016, the Obama administration announced a series of retaliatory steps against Russia for its activities during the election, including expelling 35 “diplomats” and targeting several Russian individuals and entities with sanctions. According to court documents, that same day Flynn spoke with a senior Trump transition official staffing the president-elect at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort about the appropriate message to convey to Moscow. On that call, Flynn and the unnamed transition official (reported to be incoming deputy national security advisor K.T. McFarland) discussed the transition team’s view that an escalatory response by Russia to Obama’s sanctions could undermine Trump’s desire to improve relations with Putin. Flynn then called Kislyak to ask Russia not to retaliate, and in a subsequent call, Kislyak told Flynn that “Russia had chosen to moderate its response to those sanctions as a result of his request.” On Dec. 30, Putin announced that Russia did not intend to retaliate, prompting a tweet from Trump: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!”
Although the Obama administration had explicitly requested that the Trump transition team not take any steps to undermine or contradict the administration’s response to Russia’s election interference, that is precisely what Flynn — at the direction and with full knowledge of Trump’s team — did. Think about that for a moment. The Russians had just assaulted the integrity of our presidential election and Team Trump’s first instinct and top priority was not to defend our democracy but rather to reassure the Kremlin that it was no big deal.
He includes the text of this email from KT McFarland, Flynn’s deputy, which was recently revealed by the New York Times. It was sent in response to discussions about meetings Flynn had with Kislyak, which she lied and said she had no knowledge of:
Obama is doing three things politically:
—discrediting Trump’s victory by saying It was due to Russia interference
—lure Trump into trap of saying something today that casts doubt on report of Russia’s culpability and then next week release report that catches Russians red handed—box trump in diplomatically with russia. If there is a tit for tat escalation trump will have difficulty improving relations with Russia which has just thrown USA election to him.
And Kahl’s entirely correct take on this:
Some have taken this email to be smoking-gun evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. But even the most generous interpretation of McFarland’s email suggests that, at the very least, the Trump campaign knew Russia had intervened in the election and remained committed to improving ties despite (or perhaps because of) this intervention — but they also worried that going soft on Putin would be perceived as payback for Russia’s help even if there was no actual collusion. So they decided to lie, systematically from Trump on down, about the reassuring outreach to Russia during the transition, either because the engagements with Kislyak proved the quid pro quo at the heart of the collusion hypothesis or to avoid the politically costly perception that that was the case.
Spot on. Forget collusion. I think it’s very unlikely that they’re going to find any real evidence that the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to interfere in the election. I think Putin did what he did without any quid pro quo agreement with Trump or anyone associated with him, understanding that flattery would get Trump to do his bidding later. It’s still possible that there was pre-election collusion, of course, and if there was I won’t be at all surprised to find out it included financial considerations (like the approval of a Trump resort in Russia). But so far, we don’t have evidence of that.
But Kahl is right, what we already know is bad enough. Trump is so adamant that nothing be allowed to distract attention from his unexpected (even to him) win in November that he continues to downplay the claim of Russian interference despite overwhelming evidence for it. His ego won’t allow him to accept it as true, so much so that he’s ignored the threat entirely and has done nothing at all to protect our elections from future interference. And that’s very dangerous.
By the way, I’m old enough to remember judging Colin in high school debate. He was one of the best I’ve ever seen, absolutely brilliant and one of the most decorated debaters in both high school and college in the history of the activity (for those who understand such things, he was runner up at both TOC in high school and the NDT in college, one of very few who have achieved that; one of the others is Rebecca Tushnet, who debated around the same time at Georgetown Day School and then at Harvard. She’s the daughter of Georgetown legal scholar Mark Tushnet and a very respected legal scholar in her own right now. A lot of the kids I judged in debate are now in positions of serious power and influence, as they should be.