A witch hunt?

Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, a syndicated columnist and author of two best-selling books that I have found permanently relevant, Do-Gooders and Useful Idiots. She is also a friend whom I greatly admire for her honesty and integrity.

Both NRO and Jewish World Review carry Mona’s column. In her most recent column, Mona set forth “16 Things You Must Believe to Buy the ‘Witch Hunt’ Russia Narrative” (posted here at JRB).

Having read the column several times, I wrote Mona:

I’m struggling to understand the “collusion” story. I don’t believe it, but I know I may be wrong. If I am wrong, I should think that we would have more to go on at this point than we do. You go with 16 “shards” to imply that there is something to the story, but you don’t flesh out what is implicit in your “shards” or state directly what you do think (such as why Trump really fired Flynn). Would you be willing to state directly what you think at this point?

Don’t you think you have to account for the policies Trump has actually implemented versus the policies Clinton would have? Isn’t this whole thing subject to a reality test of some kind?

Mona responded:

What I was trying to say is that there is that are a slew of unanswered questions in this matter that don’t seem to me to add up to a witch hunt. There are many reasons to be wary — most of all the lies that tumble out of this crowd daily.

So I assembled my “shards” if you will. Maybe you would like to post the column on your site and then you and I can have a public colloquy about what to make of all this so far?

I want to take up Mona’s invitation to address her column in the spirit of inquiry with a friend. Mona writes at the top her column: “One column cannot accommodate the list of things you must believe if you trust that Donald Trump is truly the victim of a baseless witch hunt. Consider this a mere stab.”

I take it that you are alluding to President Trump’s characterization of the investigation conducted under the auspices of Special Counsel Robert Mueller as a witch hunt, or a “WITCH HUNT.” I think Trump is right. Here I would cite the case made by Andrew McCarthy in the June 21 column “Mueller’s empire.” Andy’s column makes several important points on which I have slightly expanded below.

Mueller’s appointment as Special Counsel by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein fundamentally violates the applicable regulation. The regulation requires that the Attorney General or the Acting Attorney General determine “that criminal investigation of a person or matter is warranted…”

Rosenstein’s order appointing Mueller is posted online here. In his announcement of Mueller’s appointment Rosenstein stated: “In my capacity as acting Attorney General, I determined that it is in the public interest for me to exercise my authority and appoint a Special Counsel to assume responsibility for this matter.”

Nota bene (this is still Rosenstein speaking): “My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. I have made no such determination. What I have determined is that based upon the unique circumstances, the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command.”

McCarthy explains: “The way this is supposed to work is: the Justice Department first identifies a likely crime, and then assigns a prosecutor to investigate it. Here, by contrast, there are no parameters imposed on the special counsel’s jurisdiction.”

Therefore: “Mueller’s probe is the functional equivalent of a general warrant: a boundless writ to search for incriminating evidence. It is the very evil the Fourth Amendment was adopted to forbid: a scorch-the-earth investigation in the absence of probable cause that a crime has been committed.”

At the time Andy wrote his column, Mueller’s team included 14 lawyers and counting. There were “several more in the pipeline.”

A funny thing about these lawyers. They “overwhelmingly, are Democrats. Power Line’s Paul Mirengoff and the Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross have been tracking it: Mueller’s staffers contribute to Trump’s political opponents, some heavily. The latest Democratic talking-point about this unseemly appearance is that hiring regulations forbid an inquiry into an applicant’s political affiliation. That’s laughable. These are lawyers Mueller has recruited. They are not ‘applicants.’ We’re talking about top-shelf legal talent, accomplished professionals who have jumped at the chance of a gig they do not need but, clearly, want.”

Mueller is drawing on a limitless budget to conduct an investigation without boundaries by lawyers hostile to the president.

McCarthy drew on his own experience prosecuting complex cases to ask two questions: “Why does special counsel Mueller need 14 lawyers (and more coming) [as of June 21] for a counterintelligence investigation, as to which the intelligence professionals—agents, not lawyers—have found no ‘collusion with Russia’ evidence after over a year of hard work? What will those lawyers be doing with no limits on their jurisdiction, with nothing but all the time and funding they need to examine one target, Donald Trump?”

On the question raised by the title of your column, I think Andy made a compelling case in support of Trump’s characterization of the Mueller investigation in colloquial terms as a “witch hunt.” This case is not undercut by any of the 16 “shards,” as I call them, that you itemize in your columns.

I am posting your 16 “shards” in italics with my brief responses below.

1) Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner did nothing wrong by meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. The emails requesting the meeting specifically mentioned a “Russian government attorney” and added that the requested meeting concerned “very high level and sensitive information” … that “is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” That doesn’t prove a willingness to collude.

It proves a willingness to accept “incriminating information” from dubious sources on Trump’s presidential rival. It does not prove a “willingness to collude” in any meaningful sense and, despite the hysteria, there is no evidence of “collusion” to date.

2) Concern about Paul Manafort’s extensive links with Vladimir Putin’s former puppet in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, including at least $12.7 million in payments, is, to quote Manafort’s words, “silly and nonsensical.”

The latest New York Times story on Manafort’s work for Viktor Yanukovych is Andrew Kramer’s article in this morning’s paper. Manafort departed the Trump campaign on August 19. You seem to be saying that Manafort should be investigated for the payments he received from Y.’s party. Maybe, but nothing in the most recent Times article seems to support the proposition. Even so, this seems to me far afield from the “collusion” hysteria.

3) That Jared Kushner’s attempt, during the transition, to secure a back channel with the Russian government using their secure communications equipment in the Russian embassy was not alarming/inexplicable.

An explanation is warranted and I would like to hear it.

4) That Donald Trump’s stubborn refusal ever to breathe a critical word about Vladimir Putin, even as he has freely criticized U.S. allies, or acknowledge Russian meddling in our election, is not strange.

I thought it was strange during the campaign and found it troubling. I have been reassured by Trump’s policies in office that subvert Russia’s interests. I am grateful that he is undoing key Obama administration policies that served Putin’s interests. I think Trump’s policies (and personnel, for that matter) belie the “collusion” hysteria.

5) That Michael Flynn’s firing after less than a month on the job was really just because he had misled Mike Pence.

You imply that there was another reason. It never occurred to me that there was. I was hoping you would tell me what I am missing.

6) That Donald Trump’s pressure on James Comey to go soft on Michael Flynn was purely a measure of loyalty and friendship from a person who has rarely shown those traits before.

You imply that there was another reason. Maybe there was. I don’t know.

7) That Comey’s firing, at least according to evolving White House accounts, was due to his mishandling of the Clinton file — no, wait. It was due to poor management of the FBI, which was suffering from low morale — uh, no. It was because of two factual errors Comey made in congressional testimony. Finally, that it was really over the “Russia thing” — but only because Trump was an innocent man frustrated by Comey’s unwillingness to clear him publicly.

Honesty is not Trump’s default mode. The implication of your question is that Trump fired Comey to kill investigation into the “Russia thing.” I have no reason to believe Trump thought he could kill investigation into the “Russia thing” by firing Comey.

8) That it was irrelevant that Trump told the Russian ambassador and foreign minister in the Oval Office the day after Comey’s sacking that the FBI director was a “nut job” whose removal had relieved “great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

These comments tell against my response to 7) above.

9) It’s pure coincidence that one of the only foreign policy advisers on the Trump campaign was Carter Page, who was under FBI investigation for Russia ties. In Moscow, he gave a speech denouncing U.S. policy, saying, “Washington and other Western capitals have impeded potential progress through their often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change.” Anti-anti-corruption isn’t disturbing.

Carter Page had virtually nothing to do with the Trump campaign. As I say, I look to the policies the Trump administration has actually implemented to date.

10) That White House objections to sanctions against Russia, which passed the Senate 98-2, are purely procedural.

I think the executive branch always seeks to preserve its discretion to waive sanctions in the furtherance of foreign policy. That is how I understand the substantive White House critique of the sanctions bill. I don’t think the White House critique of the sanctions bill has anything to do with “collusion.”

11) That former Manafort partner and Trump surrogate Roger Stone, who boasted about links to WikiLeaks founder and America-hater Julian Assange, and accurately predicted in August 2016 that John Podesta would be next “in the barrel,” was just lucky.

This seems to be an Adam Schiff special. I will rest on the analysis of FactCheck by Robert Faricy.

12) That statements by Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. about Russian financial ties are not revealing. Golf writer James Dodson quoted Eric as explaining in 2014 how the Trump organization was able to get financing for various golf courses even after the Great Recession. “Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia. We’ve got some guys that really, really love golf, and they’re really invested in our programs. We just go there all the time.” Donald Trump Jr., who also traveled to Russia frequently, spoke at a 2008 real estate conference and noted that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” When Donald Trump stated, “I have zero investments in Russia,” he did not say that Russia had zero investments in him, but we should believe his other claim, “I have nothing to do with Russia.”

If this is one of the predicates of Mueller’s investigation, it seems to me illustrative of the “witch hunt” that Andy McCarthy describes.

13) That President Trump’s failure to release his tax returns, despite repeated promises to do so, is because he is under audit.

I don’t think Trump’s failure to release his tax returns has anything to do with the audit. I think the returns would prove embarrassing for political reasons that I doubt have anything to do with the “collusion” hysteria.

14) That it’s unremarkable that presidential spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders refuses to say whether Russia is an adversary, a friend or a nation about whom we should be wary.

I find it lamentable and worthy of note, but I look to administration policies to ascertain the reality of Trump’s views.

15) That Donald Trump is the first president since 1949 to cast doubt on America’s commitment to NATO, but this is overdue and good for the U.S.

Again, I look to administration policies to ascertain the reality of Trump’s views.

16) That Donald Trump’s obsessive attacks on “fake news” are not an attempt to inoculate himself against future revelations but just good old-fashioned right-wing hatred of liberals.

I think the Democrats and their media adjunct reject the legitimacy of the Trump presidency. I think they have jointly undertaken the project of removing Trump from office. Trump’s critique of CNN et al. has much of substance to it and is a legitimate form of political self-defense.

Thanks for your invitation to take up your column on Power Line. Nothing I say above should be construed to question the several congressional investigations that are underway regarding Russian meddling in the election. Nevertheless, I don’t think that your 16 “shards” lend much in the way of substance to what you call the “Russia narrative” and I call the “collusion” hysteria.

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