Both haters and defenders of President Donald Trump seized on this week’s bombshell Washington Post report that special counsel Robert Mueller’s team told the president’s lawyers he is not a “target” of the long-running Russia probe.
Trump’s supporters contend it is evidence that breathless media speculation about “collusion” is overblown.
Trump critics counter that Trump’s status as a “subject” rather than a “target” makes little difference and that the president is not in the clear.
Both sides are right.
Here are four takeaways on the big revelation:
1. The Post’s reporting suggests strongly that Mueller does not have compelling evidence that Trump conspired with Russian agents to fix the 2016 presidential election.
If Mueller had the goods, presumably Trump already would be a target.
There almost certainly would be other tells, as well. It is hard to believe that a smoking-gun piece of evidence would remain secret for long in leak-happy Washington.
Beyond that, it seems reasonable to assume that there would be some indication of a campaign conspiracy in the prosecutions Mueller’s team already is conducting.
CNN, MSNBC and other news outlets have made much hay over the indictments brought by the special counsel’s office, often conflating the the prosecutions with the unproven collusion narrative.
The fact is, the only case brought by Mueller that has anything to do with the 2016 election is the indictment naming 13 Russian nationals and three companies. And in announcing those charges, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made a point of telling reporters that no American was implicated in the case.
The rest of the defendants in the Mueller probe face charges for conduct unrelated to the election — conduct by advisers predating the campaign — or for lying to the FBI during the investigation.
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz put it best Wednesday night during an appearance on “Hannity” on Fox News.
“I have to tell you, if after a year of very thorough investigation and going after all the low-hanging fruit and getting people not only to sing but some of them even, perhaps, to compose — if they couldn’t have shifted him from a subject to a target, there’s nothing there,” he said.
Much has been made of the fact the defendants ensnared in the probe have agreed to cooperate with the investigation. Many assume that means they are giving up information about a conspiracy. But such cooperation agreements are standard in federal prosecutions, and one would think that if Mueller had evidence against Trump aides who have been charged, he would have included a campaign-related count.
That would only increase pressure on a defendant to give up bigger fish.
2. Trump is not in the clear. As Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) pointed out on CNN on Wednesday, carrying the label of “target” offers no guarantee against prosecution.
“One witness can take you from being a subject to a target,” he said.
It is true that Mueller could make a late Eureka discovery that puts Trump in the crosshairs, although the chances of a new witness at this stage of the game seem low. But Trump could get into trouble the same way his aides have — perjury.
The Post reported that Mueller’s communication to the president’s lawyers that he was not a target came in the context of negotiations over taking Trump’s testimony.
Trump reportedly is eager to testify, but Mueller’s record in the investigation should make the president tread carefully. An untruthful or conflicting statement well could bring a perjury allegation.
Mueller’s threshold does not appear particularly high. Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about a meeting with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition period after the 2016 election.
Mueller did not accuse Flynn of any underlying crime. The meeting was legal — there is nothing wrong with an incoming national security adviser talking with foreign diplomats. Even from a country that has become Public Enemy No. 1. According to court records, Flynn acknowledged that he spoke with Kislyak.
But Flynn told the FBI that he did not ask Kislyak to delay or defeat a vote in the United Nations on a resolution sponsored by the outgoing administration. Flynn also told agents that he did not recall Kislyak telling him about Russia’s decision to moderate its response to sanctions imposed by the outgoing administration.
Those were lies, according to prosecutors.
George Papadopoulos, a low-level volunteer adviser to the campaign, also pleaded guilty to lying about otherwise-legal conduct, misstating the date he spoke to a London professor with contacts to Russia about getting dirt on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton during the campaign.
Papadopoulos told investigators that he spoke with the professor before joining the campaign; in fact it was after. Authorities also contended that he lied when he downplayed the importance he placed on the professor’s information.
Perhaps the biggest danger to Trump is the Mueller writes a scathing report about the president’s conduct, particularly his behavior after taking office. Such a report might offer plenty of grist for articles of impeachment.
That could happen whether Trump testifies or not.
3. Mueller seems to think he could indict Trump. In the kerfuffle over whether Trump is a target or merely a subject, some people missed an important revelation.
In assigning the label, the special counsel seems to be signaling that he could indict Trump. That is noteworthy because the Justice Department’s position dating to Richard Nixon’s presidency is that a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime.
Legal scholars have debated that, and it has never been tested in the Supreme Court.
But if Mueller thinks the president could potentially be a prosecution target, that would be significant.
4. The fact that Trump is a subject is really not all that surprising. But you wouldn’t know that if you watched cable news on Wednesday.
The talking heads treated the news that Mueller told Trump’s lawyers the president was a subject as earth-shattering revelation.
To be sure, it is unusual and significant that the president of the United States is the subject of a high-profile criminal investigation.
But at this point, it hardly is a surprise.
From the time Rosenstein appointed Mueller, it’s been pretty transparent that the entire endeavor has been about trying to find out if Trump conspired with the Russians.
This is not like Watergate, which began as — in the words of Nixon press secretary Ronald Ziegler — a “third-rate burglary” and slowly escalated toward the president.
From day one, the trajectory has been clear — either Trump conspired or it didn’t.
@BrendanKKirby is a senior political reporter at LifeZette and author of “Wicked Mobile.”