While America and the world wait for the Mueller report, it is clear that Russia has launched an attack on the West. It’s time that allies start treating it that way.
America is currently in the dark about the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. But the one conclusion that is known and not in doubt is that Russia conducted a massive interference campaign in the 2016 US election in order to help elect Donald Trump. This finding should give both sides of the Atlantic pause.
Last week, William Barr, Donald Trump’s handpicked Attorney General, informed the United States Congress that Mueller has completed his investigation. Barr also provided the American legislators with what he described as Mueller’s “principal conclusions”.
There were three conclusions discussed in the letter and one considerable omission. First, and most overlooked, is that Russia did indeed interfere in the 2016 election on Donald Trump’s behalf. Second, Mueller did not judge the Trump campaign to have entered into a criminal conspiracy with Russia during the election. Third, the Attorney General determined that the president did not commit obstruction of justice, seemingly dismissing the intentions of the Special Counsel to let Congress make that determination. One key aspect of the investigation that was conspicuously absent from the letter, however, was any mention of the findings from the counterintelligence part of the Mueller investigation. Concerns that Donald Trump and his associates have been compromised by Russia has always been central to the allegations against him, which is why the FBI opened an official counterintelligence investigation into the President in May 2017.
So, what do these conclusions mean?
Unfortunately, Barr’s letter looked more like a public relations stunt, designed to ‘put lipstick on a pig’, rather than provide clarity. It would almost be better to simply have ignored Barr’s letter First, Mueller’s report is supposedly almost 400 pages long and the result of 22 months of investigation. Barr’s four page summary while claiming to represent the “principal conclusions” has now been challenged by members of Mueller’s team who have told the press that the actual report is far more damaging for the president than Barr’s letter suggests.
As a result, Barr’s credibility has wilted faster than a Washington cherry blossom.
As a result, Barr’s credibility has wilted faster than a Washington cherry blossom. He came into this job with a cloud hanging over him. His predecessor, Jeff Sessions, was fired from the position for not protecting his boss from the Russia probe. Trump made clear that he wanted an Attorney General willing to do his bidding. Trump then nominated William Barr, who in June of 2018 wrote a 19-page memo criticising the Special Counsel’s investigation. It appeared as if Barr was being brought in the job to shield his boss.
Barr could easily have cleared the air by agreeing to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, a very reasonable step given the memo that he wrote. He could still clear the air simply by agreeing to release the original unredacted Mueller report and the underlying documents to Congress. Yet he has refused to do so. Simply put, trust is earned, and Bill Barr hasn’t earned any.
It now seems clear that there will be a long drag-out fight with the new Democratic congress over the release of the full report. Legal and historical precedent is on Democrats side but a fight in the courts can be glacial.
In the meantime, Barr’s letter seemed to unify Republicans behind the President. They can now take comfort that Trump won’t be charged by Mueller giving them an out in any impeachment fight, making it extremely likely he will be the Republican nominee in 2020.
With Trump likely to be on the ballot in 2020, the US can expect Russia to repeat its interference campaign. There is little reason for Russia not to. Trump has provided a strong return on Putin’s investment and it would make sense for him to re-up in 2020. Plus, by refusing to respond to Russia’s interference, the Trump administration has demonstrated to Russia – and every other country – that there is no cost to interfering in an American election. In fact, it has actually gone in the other direction, gutting key offices for election security and foreign interference. Now with Trump in charge of the US government during a presidential election the red carpet is being rolled out for future Russian interference.
For Europe, this could mean even bolder Russian interference in European elections. Thus far France, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Italy, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Spain, the Netherlands, and Montenegro all have been targets of malign Russian interference one way or another. The European Parliamentary elections in May 2019 could be an inviting target.
It is past time Europeans grappled with the gravity of foreign interference in democratic elections. Some say that the US has overreacted to Russian interference. But through the Mueller investigation the American public has learned about a shockingly developed and sophisticated Russian campaign to impact American politics. European countries, meanwhile, have largely had their fingers in their ears, and have drastically under-reacted. They need to step up to the challenge. There have been no equivalents to the Mueller investigation in Europe. The UK, for instance, cannot even say whether Russia interfered in Brexit, because the UK government has been derelict in conducting an investigation. While many in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet space have been warning about Russian interference for years, there has been little effort, especially in Western Europe to do anything about it.
This is a shared threat that the United States and Europe – as well as other allies not in NATO – face together. Unfortunately, political interference has largely been treated as an issue for each individual country to deal with. This is not an American problem, or a British challenge, or an Italian concern. Instead, this is something that the transatlantic alliance needs to address together. NATO and the EU should start thinking about this for what it is: a Russian attack against the West. That’s about the only point that is clear from the Mueller investigation.