For the last 10 months, the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller has methodically threaded an alarming tapestry revealing the extent and impact of Russian meddling in the 2016 US election.
In a maelstrom of partisan criticism, Mueller has already delivered 19 indictments and five guilty pleas. Mueller’s February indictment, which included 13 Russians and three Kremlin-tied companies, laid out how comprehensive disinformation centers, dubbed “troll factories,” utilized social media and political advertisements to undermine Hillary Clinton and bolster the campaign of Donald Trump. Nicknamed “Project Lakhta,” the purpose was to sow discord among the American populace and “disrupt the culture of an entire country.”
The wide latitude afforded Mueller has allowed him to investigate violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by both conservative and liberal lobbying groups. Mueller’s team has ensnared former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. It has brought felony charges against prominent lobbyist and Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort.
Yet Mueller’s probe seems unable to shake free from the petty sectarianism and myopic schadenfreude that’s been swapped between squabbling red and blue news outlets and factions of the national populace. His investigation speaks not only to the legitimacy of the US elections, but to the health of the American democracy — making it precisely the reason why the investigation needs to continue until the end.
Robert Mueller was a man once widely lauded for his integrity, and deemed, with bipartisan support, “a superb choice to be Special Counsel.” But this changed as his probe has faced more partisan condemnation and subversive obstruction than any investigation in modern American history. His near-silence throughout this process has a left a void that’s been routinely filled with conspiratorial tweets from Donald Trump and denunciations from the president’s allies. The term “witch hunt” has been dusted off from the Nixon years to once again grace the American lexicon.
Opposition to the probe has taken many forms — nearly all on partisan grounds. The scope of the probe has been challenged. The efficiency and perceived need for the investigation continue to be questioned. Many Congressional conservatives who rallied behind the Benghazi investigation, which lasted 28 months at a cost of $7.8 million, now decry that the Mueller investigation, at less than a year old and a cost of under $3 million, has gone on too long and costs far too much.
As the Mueller probe moves forward, many oppositional forces assure the public that fellow Americans are tired of hearing about Russia. They assert, as Trump does, that the sole purpose of the probe is to alter the legitimacy of his presidential victory. Many Americans have grown to chalk up the prospect of election meddling as simply politics being a dirty game — an assertion echoed by Donald Trump Jr. in a July interview.
Much of the toxic rhetoric that publicly marked the 2016 election has bled into this critical moment in American history. Further, Trump has actively worked to delegitimize the probe, perhaps in anticipation of damning findings.
Let’s just reframe what lies at the heart of this investigation: discerning whether the American electoral process was influenced by outside saboteurs. Recent years have seen Russia, a nation weakened by international sanctions and a failing economy, exist more as a looming shadow of power than actual power incarnate. On the global stage, Russia has promoted strength through savvy political posturing and a well-oiled national propaganda machine.
Twitter claims that nearly 700,000 Americans interacted with Russian propaganda accounts in the lead-up to the 2016 election. A 2017 declassified report drafted by multiple intelligence agencies concluded that, at the behest of Vladimir Putin, Russia carried out a massive cyber-operation attempting to sabotage the 2016 election. Even more worrisome, the Department of Homeland Security concluded that state websites and voter registration systems were targeted in 21 states in 2016. Seven were breached. Russian operatives were to blame. The firm consensus of the American intelligence community is that these attacks will continue in 2018.
Trump balked at all these conclusions.
“The whole Russian thing,” Trump said at a press conference last year. “That’s a ruse.” Throughout his entire presidency, the Trump administration has not only ignored these warnings, but subverted attempts to address Russian interference in American democracy.
What are Americans supposed to make of the fact that the State Department spent $0 of the $120 million dollar budget it was assigned to combat future Russian meddling? Or the endless anecdotal evidence pointing to collusion: Roger Stone boasting about his “backdoor” communication channel with WikiLeaks, the falsehoods and half-dozen official revisions surrounding the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, or the secret high-level meetings between Michael Flynn and Kremlin officials?
In a very real sense, the Mueller investigation is combating the origins of the cynical and vicious tribalism that is currently flourishing in American society. It is a battle against the pervasive distrust Americans hold against, well, just about everything — their government, elected representatives, national institutions, news outlets.
According to the communications marketing firm Edelman, which publishes the annual Trust Barometer Global Report, within the last year, the United States suffered the steepest decline of trust among the general population ever measured.
“It is no exaggeration to state that the US has reached a point of crisis,” the report states. “Inertia is not an option, and neither is silence. The public’s confidence in the traditional structures of American leadership is now fully undermined and has been replaced with a strong sense of fear, uncertainty and disillusionment.”
Long gone is the heyday of healthy skepticism, varied opinions and productive discourse in America. This is an echo-chamber existence. Facts are malleable. News outlets cater to the cemented ideologies of target demographics. The political rhetoric of the nation’s elected leaders change with the waning moon. We exist in a hyper-accelerated news cycle with shrinking attention spans.
Less than a third of Americans trust their government. Only 42% trust the media. The clear delineations between fact, opinion and misinformation have been blurred to neurotic extremes.
While these issues predate the current administration, no human has served as a more powerful accelerant for national distrust than President Trump — a once near-laughable longshot and self-branded Washington outsider who ascended to the highest post in the land on the trademarked slogan “Fake News.”
Since then, he’s attempted to usher in a new intellectual and civic dark age — belittling his own intelligence community, slapping gag orders on science agencies, scrubbing government websites of peer-reviewed academic research, personally promoting conspiracies on his official Twitter account, openly attacking several heads of the FBI, surrounding himself with right-wing scions of the “alternative media ecosystem” like Steven Bannon, and attempting to discredit every unflattering news story and political opponent that doesn’t toe the proverbial line.
There is power to be found in chaos. President Trump understands this fact. Distrust and confusion suits his style of government; it also suits foreign saboteurs.
Kremlin-backed foreign agents capitalized on this Era of American Mistrust to pump disinformation into the national discourse. Even in a world of alternative facts, this is a cold and hard truth. Regardless of whether collusion existed, Trump never had to be the hand-picked Manchurian Candidate of Vladimir Putin. He simply needed to be himself — a charismatic showman willing to say, promote and promise anything to win.
Without hyperbole, the core of the Mueller investigation transcends the office of the president and strikes directly at the heart of the American Republic. It is about truth, accountability and the restoration of facts. It is an endeavor of integrity, determined to bolster the eroding foundations of the institutions serving as the pillars of American society.
There is no political win to be gained in this investigation. This probe isn’t about “protecting” or “taking down” a president on the opposing team. It’s about preserving democracy.
“It’s not about Republicans or Democrats,” former FBI Director James Comey said before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June. “They’re coming after America, which I hope we all love equally. They want to undermine our credibility in the face of the world. They think that this great experiment of ours is a threat to them. So they’re going to try to run it down and dirty it up as much as possible.”
America has too much to lose.