The Trump-Russia investigation effectively ended on July 24, 2019, the day special counsel Robert Mueller testified on Capitol Hill. Mueller’s halting presentation of his 400-plus-page report troubled both Republicans and Democrats. But of greater concern was this fact: After two years of investigating, with all the powers of law enforcement at his command, Mueller failed to establish that Russia and the Trump campaign conspired to fix the 2016 election. It was the central allegation the special counsel was hired to investigate, and he could not establish that it ever took place.
As I report in my new book, “Obsession: Inside the Washington Establishment’s Never-Ending War on Trump,” for a while after Mueller’s testimony, some Hill Democrats struggled to keep alive the idea of impeaching President Trump over the Russia affair. The number of House Democrats who supported impeachment actually increased after Mueller’s testimony. But their plans changed as others in their party whipped up excitement about a new line of attack against the president — the Ukraine matter, which became the basis of the partisan impeachment of the president in December 2019.
But now, believe it or not, Russia is back. Two new books — “Donald Trump v. the United States: Inside the Struggle to Stop a President” by New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt, and “True Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Investigation of Donald Trump” by CNN analyst Jeffrey Toobin — revive the Russia allegations against Trump. Both begin with the assumption that Trump was guilty in the Russia matter — a highly questionable way to start — and then ask why Mueller, with all his resources, was unable to bring the president down.
The Schmidt book made news by claiming that the Justice Department forbade Mueller and the FBI from probing “Trump’s decades-long personal and business ties to Russia.” The result, Schmidt said, was that Mueller “never fully investigated Mr. Trump’s own relationship with Russia, even though some career FBI counterintelligence investigators thought his ties posed ... a national security threat.” Thus, investigators never found the fabled evidence that might have proved Trump’s guilt.
That’s the ticket! Even though the FBI and special counsel investigated Trump for three years, he was never really investigated! No less than Andrew Weissmann, the top Mueller deputy known as the special counsel’s “pit bull,” shot down Schmidt’s claim.
For his part, Toobin argues that Mueller was simply too principled and upstanding to go after Trump. To Toobin, Mueller’s big failures were 1) not demanding to examine Trump’s tax returns and 2) not issuing a grand jury subpoena to force Trump to testify. “These two decisions are the most revealing, and defining, failures of Mueller’s tenure as special counsel,” Toobin wrote. Mueller was too “reticent” and “rule-following,” Toobin concluded, and his report was a “surrender.”
A third book, by fired FBI official Peter Strzok, the man made famous by his anti-Trump texts with girlfriend and fellow FBI official Lisa Page, says that no matter what Mueller found, Trump was a national security threat. Even if the president did nothing illegal, Strzok claims, he was “unpatriotic.” (Strzok appears not to have thought deeply about whether it is a good idea for the FBI to investigate a major-party presidential candidate based on a subjective notions of patriotism.) Strzok and the FBI, the book suggests, were forbidden from getting the facts about Trump. Indeed, in best conspiratorial fashion, the Atlantic magazine speculated that Strzok was fired because he was “getting too close to the truth.”
The bottom line: Schmidt, Toobin and Strzok are all trying to convince Americans that Trump was really guilty, that collusion was really a thing, and that law enforcement and journalists were right to obsess about Russiagate for three straight years.
But to repeat, here’s the problem: The Trump-Russia affair was about one big allegation — that the Trump campaign and Russia conspired to fix the 2016 election. There was a huge investigation. It could never establish that the crime even took place, much less who might have committed it. Every other problem Mueller and Democrats faced stemmed from that one failure. Trump’s defense team knew that from Day One. Read “Obsession” and you’ll learn some of the extraordinary things that went on behind the scenes. But as you hear some voices now trying to revive collusion, remember: We’ve been there and done that.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.