Don’t be fooled

On Sunday, James Comey, the former FBI director, tweeted a picture of himself staring up at a stand of towering redwoods. His message: don’t get too engrossed in the trees lest you lose sight of the forest.

Comey was commenting on Attorney General William Barr’s letter to Congress summarising the “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election” submitted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller the previous Friday. Recall that it was President Trump’s May 2017 dismissal of Comey that precipitated Mueller’s appointment.

Barr, newly Senate-confirmed to replace Jeff Sessions who incurred Trump’s wrath for letting the Russia enquiry proceed, wrote that Mueller had found no evidence Trump or his campaign “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities”.

As to whether Trump had obstructed justice, Barr quoted Mueller as failing to exonerate the president. Nonetheless, Barr wrote, he and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, determined that the evidence was “not sufficient” for them to mount a prosecution.

On cue, Trump and his cult-like followers proclaimed complete vindication and attacked the press, the Democrats and the “Deep State” for cooking up the entire “Russia hoax”. The White House demanded apologies, even sent television networks a list of Trump traducers it felt should be banned from the airwaves. In the face of this howling, if fatuous, chorus, some in the mainstream media lost their nerve and started blaming colleagues for having rushed to judgement.

Perhaps a little self-examination was in order, both in the Fourth Estate and among the self-styled Resistance. Collusion was a delusion. On the other hand, Trump Derangement Syndrome is a real thing. It is, after all, hard to preserve an open mind in the face of the man’s cosmic mendacity, his cynical appeals to America’s worst angels, his clinically-diagnosable narcissism, his incessant grifting. He invites anyone not in his thrall to put the worst interpretation on everything he does, even on those rare occasions such an interpretation may not be fully justified.

His critics, Scott Adams, Dilbert creator and — bizarrely — Trump mbongi, argues, run the risk of being gaslighted as much by Trump himself as by their own confirmation bias. Does he really think as highly of Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and other thugs, as he says he does or is this part of his dictator “persuasion” technique? When, on the campaign trail, he asked the Russians for Hillary Clinton’s emails was he issuing a serious request or simply being flip? I’ve wondered that myself.

But back to Comey’s trees and the forest he does not want us to miss.

Even without seeing Mueller’s full report, from the indictments he obtained last year against Russian military intelligence officers and the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency we know that official Russian efforts to hack the 2016 election in Trump’s favour were no hoax. We also know that Trump and his creatures knew the Russians were trying to help them. Mueller, Barr wrote, identified “multiple offers from Russia-affiliated individuals to assist”. Yet Team Trump did nothing to discourage these efforts, let alone alert the authorities. To the contrary, they pooh-poohed the intelligence community’s consensus that Russia was meddling.

By his own account, Donald Trump Jr. gladly sat down with a Kremlin lawyer offering dirt on Clinton. When that become known, his father dictated lies to cover it up — but not under oath or to an FBI agent, just to his own staff to have them deceive the public, and so committed no prosecutable crime. Politicians, like marketers, are given legal leeway to con.

Some think Mueller has rescued Trump’s presidency. That’s the message of the trees. The forest says otherwise: not only did Trump win with 3 million fewer votes than his opponent, he did so with the help of a regime that wishes America to be anything but “Great Again”. The arm of the universe is long but it tends towards denying Trump a second term.

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