Foreign: The Observer view on Donald Trump’s Russian connections

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Robert Mueller has not yet proved that the US president colluded with Moscow but he will get another chance

Sun 18 Feb 2018 00.02 GMT Last modified on Sun 18 Feb 2018 12.56 GMT

Special counsel Robert Mueller has charged 13 Russians with interfering in the US presidential election.
Special counsel Robert Mueller has charged 13 Russians with interfering in the US presidential election.

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There will be understandable disappointment in many quarters that the latest indictments delivered by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, once again failed to nail Donald Trump. Although the charges levelled against 13 Russians and three Russian entities are extraordinarily serious, they do not directly support the central claim that Trump and senior campaign aides colluded with Moscow to rig the vote.

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But Trump is not off the hook. Far from it. His oft-repeated argument, contradicting US and British intelligence agencies, that stories of covert Russian meddling were “fake news” has been exposed as false. The US, like other western countries, is incontrovertibly under sustained assault from the Kremlin. Why does Trump continue to defend Russia? With Trump, it is difficult to talk about credibility. What little he does retain has just measurably diminished.

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The justice department stressed that any collaboration between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the 13 named Russians was “unwitting” and that these activities did not change the election’s outcome. But despite Trump’s crowing about vindication, that does not mean there was no collusion. It does not mean there was no wider conspiracy. Nor does it mean there was no impact on the election.

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Mueller’s investigation is ongoing. He already has extensive evidence of contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign. For example, the president’s eldest son sought political dirt to use against Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent, from a Russian lawyer. Mueller has obtained two guilty pleas, from Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and from a former campaign adviser. They admit lying to federal authorities about their Russian government connections.

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Trump’s former campaign chairman has been charged with crimes including money-laundering. Steve Bannon, his disaffected former strategist, was interviewed at length this month. And the special counsel has yet to announce his findings concerning Russian hacking of Democratic party email systems, which Trump publicly encouraged in 2016.

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Crucially, perhaps, Trump still faces accusations that, as president, he acted criminally by attempting to obstruct justice by interfering in the Russia investigation. Specifically, Trump is alleged to have pressured James Comey, the then FBI director, to drop inquiries into Flynn and when Comey refused, to have fired him in a clumsy cover-up bid. Trump denies the allegation.

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Trump will have the chance to repeat his denials when, as anticipated, Mueller interviews him under oath. This interview, if it happens, could be Trump’s High Noon. There is a slight air of Gary Cooper about the tall, spare figure of Robert Mueller and an air of sleazy desperation about Trump. It is noticeable that when confronted in person, rather than hiding behind Twitter and press secretaries, Trump tends to bob and weave and change his story. Maybe this time he will even tell the truth.

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The latest indictments do not explicitly say the Russian government directed the election conspiracy, but there is plenty of reason to believe it did and that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, was personally involved. Given the way Putin runs his country with an iron hand, it is risible to suggest such an audacious and risky operation was mounted without his knowledge. Putin is already deeply implicated in numerous other “hybrid conflict”, cyber warfare and disinformation campaigns against European democracies, including Britain.

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Under his leadership, Russia is actively working to undermine western democracy. It has made a mockery of international law in Ukraine. It is daily involved in the callous slaughter of Syrian civilians. And next month, Putin will effectively steal his own presidential election. It is possible that Mueller, like High Noon’s Marshal Will Kane, will blow Trump away. But how do we confront the Putin menace?

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