Volume II is the blockbuster, the one still getting all the attention, pertaining as it does to the question of potential illegal activity by a president. But let’s not forget the Volume I findings of the Mueller report: how agents of the Russian government allegedly tried to sabotage an American presidential election.
The Russians “used sophisticated cyber techniques to hack into computers and networks used by the Clinton campaign,” special counsel Robert Mueller, citing an indictment, reminded the country in brief remarks Wednesday. “They stole private information, and then released that information through fake online identities and through the organization WikiLeaks. The releases were designed and timed to interfere with our election and to damage a presidential candidate.”
Mueller, who hadn’t spoken publicly during the investigation, did so Wednesday because the special counsel’s office is closing down and he’s returning to private life — though he will remain a key figure in a national political drama. He made it clear he believes the report should speak for itself, meaning he doesn’t want to play color commentator to his own work in front of a microphone on Capitol Hill.
He reiterated that his investigation did not make a determination whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice because a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime. He also dropped a broad hint acknowledging the potential for House Democrats to pursue impeachment, noting “that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.” So have at it, Democrats, if you so choose, knowing that, as it stands, Senate Republicans won’t convict.
But Mueller did something else that was effective: He reminded the American public as the presidential campaign season heats up that the work of his investigation was prompted by concerns of Russian meddling. And while Mueller found no collusion with Russians by members of the Trump campaign, there were — according to indictments — “multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election,” he said.
At a different point in American political history, that determination might shake this country to its core: A foreign adversary uses computer hacks and bogus social media accounts to attack American democracy.
The logical follow-up: If the Russians employed this form of digital warfare, in what other ways is the United States election system vulnerable? Everyone understands the cyberthreats posed by Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and others, but the risks don’t get the scrutiny required because Trump’s over-the-top behavior dominates daily discourse.
If the presidential news flow ever slowed, if Trump were less reckless with his words, if he held back on the eye-poking he engages in on Twitter, if he hadn’t gotten himself into a potential legal jam by firing his FBI director, then the Russia investigation might have played out as a discrete event. But that’s not Trump. This president isn’t inclined to adopt a sober mien, of course, much to the delight of his supporters. So the Trump news cavalcade will march forward, leaving foggy memories of other issues, including Russian meddling, behind.
With a few choice words Wednesday, Mueller reminded Americans of the danger in being sucked too deeply into Trump’s reality TV show. Other important developments get missed. According to the indictments, the Russians really did try to tamper with an election.
And if Americans aren’t vigilant, the Russians (or someone else) will try again in 2020.