Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr Creative Commons
On May 17th, Robert Mueller, a FBI director under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, was appointed as the head of the Special Counsel Investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. In a rare moment of bipartisanship, both Democrats and Republicans praised his nomination. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) declared Mueller was the ‘‘right kind of individual for this job’’, Orrin Hatch (R-UT) commended him for being an ‘‘independent voice’’, and House Speaker Paul Ryan ‘‘welcomed his role’’.
Following his appointment, Mueller and his team of sixteen lawyers worked from a secret suite of offices. Their objective was to discover evidence of Russian ties to last year’s election. While Trump tweeted that the investigation was ‘‘the single greatest witch hunt in political history’’ and hinted at firing Mueller, most politicians were willing to let him do his job. On October 27th, it was announced that indictment charges had been filled by Mueller. On October 30th both Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, and Rick Gates, a former Trump campaign official, surrendered to Mueller. Both men had been indicted on 12 charges, including conspiracy against the United States. The same day, George Papadopoulos, a former member of Trump’s campaign foreign relations panel, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts with Russian officials during the 2016 election.
Then all hell broke loose.
The White House downplayed Papadopoulos’s involvement with the campaign; Trump tweeted that ‘‘few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar’’. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed ‘‘no activity was ever done in an official capacity on behalf of the campaign’’, even if there was photographic evidence of Papadopoulos attending at least one official campaign meeting with Trump. Meanwhile, Trump insisted that all charges Manafort had been indicted with happened years ago and had nothing to do with his campaign. While no charge is directly related to his work on the campaign, some of the charges relate to events taking place in 2016 and 2017.
Trump also introduced his own Russian collusion story to the mix. Using the well-versed Trumpian tactic of diversion, the President claimed that Mueller was not investigating the right candidate. In fact, according to Trump, the real Russia scandal involves Hillary Clinton. In 2010, while Secretary of State, she approved the sale of Uranium One, a mining company, to Russia. At the same time, the Clinton Foundation received donations from Uranium One investors. Thus, Trump claims Clinton sold the company in order to enrich herself from Russian donations. However, the deal was also independently approved by eight other government agencies, meaning that Clinton could not have colluded with those Russian investors.
In 1987, in his book The Art of the Deal, Trump talked about the ‘‘truthful hyperbole’’, which he describes as ‘‘an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion’’. He did not seem to have much respect for the truth then, and his attitude has not changed over time. Trump’s lying to save himself from the Mueller investigation should not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed him through the campaign and the first year of his presidency.
What does come as a surprise, or rather as a disappointment, is the GOP’s reaction to the scandal. Some members of the GOP who previously applauded Mueller’s nomination are now asking him to resign, while others refuse to comment. On the morning Manafort and Gates were indicted, while other major news programs were covering the indictment, Fox News instead interviewed Kellyane Conway. In typical fashion, Conway avoided the matter at hand and insteadpleaded for an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s ties to Russia, and then went on to debate over the new hamburger emoji. Sean Hannity, who had once praised Mueller, changed his tune and claimed his investigation was trying to distract the public from the Uranium One scandal.
The right wing and the GOP as a whole are playing a dangerous game. They are normalizing ignorance of reality and a distortion of truth in order to protect the party . They are prioritizing myopic self-interests over concrete facts. While Paul Ryan and other prominent Republicans are in favour of the investigation, they have not condemned those asking for Mueller’s resignation. They are allowing conspiracy theorists to change the narrative, and weakening their own. They are content to be bystanders as members of their own party, and their President, refuse to accept the evidence from an independent investigation.
This could have very serious consequences. The White House is creating a culture in which fact is no longer objective. This is more serious than typical politician tactics of pandering and spinning facts to improve their press image.. It is deliberately ignoring the work of independent investigation, and inviting the public to doubt of the validity of Mueller’s claims. They are creating a divide within American society, between those who believe Mueller and those who don’t. This divide is not only problematic for the current investigation, but also for the future of American politics. It creates the potential for an eternal fight over plain and simple fact. Political discourse itself becomes meaningless, if there is no consensus over facts put out by an independent investigation.
The principles of checks and balances and independent supervision are discredited if the politicians have the ability to disprove factual information, and an audience willing to listen to and believe them. The integrity of independent investigations is what gives democratic procedures legitimacy. If that is taken away, democracy itself risks a trip into the Twilight Zone. .
The truth should matter, above everything else. But in this era of fake news and alternative facts, it is increasingly hard for the truth to be believed.With rumours of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn being indicted soon, Mueller and his investigation are here to stay. Let’s make sure the investigation will change American society for the better, and not for the worse.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.