How might authors committed to “a uniquely personal poetics for public communication” assemble the most persuasive case against Donald Trump? How might a long-time public defender most compellingly catalog Trump’s obstructions of justice? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Seth Abramson. The present conversation focuses on Abramson’s book Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America. Abramson is a former criminal defense attorney and criminal investigator who now teaches digital journalism, legal advocacy, and cultural theory at the University of New Hampshire. A regular political and legal analyst on CNN and the BBC during the Trump presidency, Abramson is also the author of 11 books, and the editor of five anthologies. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the PhD program in English at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
ANDY FITCH: First, in terms of providing a catalyzing prompt for readers to initiate their own civic-minded projects, perhaps far outside the confines of where their professional life seems to have taken them — did you always know you had it in you to publish this particular book? Or what personal, disciplinary, commercial horizons and expectations did you have to push beyond along the way?
SETH ABRAMSON: I always knew I wanted to write books that synthesize the skill-sets, experiences, knowledge-bases, preoccupations, and hobbies I’ve developed throughout my life. And because of my interest in what literary theorists call “poetics,” I have long valued the idea of creating, inductively, a public writing practice. As writers age, they (like anyone) keep experiencing new things, so they can’t help but establish and constantly evolve an idiosyncratic relationship between themselves and their self-identity, their culture, the genres they write in, and their sense of language. So I always knew, for example, that even when I stopped practicing law, I would continue bringing my way of thinking like a lawyer (and all the professional experiences I had as a trial attorney) into my writing. Likewise, even once I no longer wrote as much poetry, I never had any doubt that I would bring into all my future writing the skill-sets I’d developed as a poet.
While I didn’t always imagine writing this specific book, I started writing about politics 15 years ago, when I ran a political news website. But then I took an extended detour into writing film reviews, book reviews, reviews of video games and television programs — all while still maintaining a strong interest in politics. Then I began reviewing and writing about books and politics for The Huffington Post, and from there transitioned to writing exclusively about politics during the Democratic primaries of 2016. But I did resist writing a full-length book on politics. Only in the summer of 2018 did I engage a project that I’d been trying to avoid for a very long time.
Do you want to outline what you’d been avoiding?
Sure. I was already devoting so much time to writing about politics on social media, and it had taken up so much of my energy, that I just didn’t feel I had anything left in the tank for a long-form project — though of course I already was producing a long-form work through my threads on Twitter. But increasingly, throughout 2017 and 2018, a lot of my Twitter feed’s readers were saying, “Look, people who don’t follow Twitter (who may not even go online at all) would really benefit by seeing all of this Trump-Russia information you’ve gathered, and a single, coherent, cohesive narrative would make it even easier for them to digest it all.” At a certain point, so many of these readers had suggested a book like Proof of Collusion that I began to think seriously about it, and ultimately I spoke to a literary agent who had gotten in touch with me much earlier about a different project. We started talking through what a book informed by my curatorial journalism on social media could look like. Of course the final project turned out very differently from how I’d first conceived it.
Yeah could you describe Proof of Collusion’s distinctive form, alongside this history of how you arrived there? How might, for example, documentary-poetics precedents, and other traditions of assemblage, shape the form of this evidentiary project? What other collage-based, scholarly, forensic, legal precedent-texts seem crucial here?
I’ve always been obsessed with information-processing techniques, in large part because I’ve always struggled with information processing myself — ever since I was a kid. I’d go to a sporting event, then come home and write down all the statistics I could find about the event, and even draw pictures of things I’d seen, because I needed to come up with a method (a praxis, not that I would have used that term at the time) to see and begin to understand the world. I think that led to me eventually becoming a poet.
For me, writing poetry meant developing my own idiosyncratic information-processing techniques, broadly contained within received poetic forms, but also with some of my own devising. The same instinct motivated me to go to law school. Law school rewires your brain, causing you to process information in very particular, sometimes generative (but of course also sometimes quite narrow) ways. But when I first spoke with a literary agent about turning my political research into a book, he suggested (as basically anybody in this position would) that I write a conventional contemporary nonfiction book — essentially a “nonfiction novel” about politics, in which you present real people as characters, and “recreate” their conversations, and develop a dramatic plot with the sort of episodic structure familiar to any reader of fiction. I had long felt hardened against that approach, even though many people I spoke to considered it almost impossible to publish a nonfiction book using a different form of information processing than the nonfiction novel offers.
Gradually, I made the case to some potential publishers that the Trump-Russia investigation is so complex, with so much of its high-quality major-media journalism basically getting lost to the archive, that if I tried to tell this Trump-Russia narrative as something like a novel, I’d only end up giving readers one-fiftieth of the relevant information. I’d have to devote so much time to scene-setting, and to reconstructing conversations, that all of it would feel a little bit false, like I was elevating style above substance. What I wanted, instead, was a densely packed presentation of facts assembled, frankly, in the same ways that (towards the end of my poetry-writing life) I’d started assembling information from the Internet, namely as a means of trying to make sense of and process dauntingly large tranches of information, and to do so in a human way. I was reconstructing chaotic information archives into their native metanarratives, with the hope of rediscovering in those throughlines some meaningful if sometimes contingent human truths.
I should emphasize that I’ve always wanted both my poetic and my legal communications to end at the human — and the humane. So I didn’t just want my book to “tell a story.” I considered the information I was working with desperately important for any citizen to know, which is a very different scenario than presenting a story in the shape of fiction that we can passively consume. Some people have written on the Trump-Russia scandal in this way, and that’s fine. But for me (and partly inspired by some of the other writing roles I’ve inhabited), I wanted to find a new format for disseminating information in an emergency. And that’s how I landed on curatorial journalism, or “metajournalism.”
I took hundreds of major-media investigative reports from all around the world, going back many years, and searched for ways in which these far-flung, wide-ranging pieces might in fact be talking to each other. I mean “talking to each other” in ways that hadn’t yet been clarified for the public through thinkpieces (which I sense have declined substantially in civic value over time), or even through basic journalistic summaries (which we don’t get nearly enough of during complex news events). Our media puts so much focus on the present and future that we get very little reporting synthesizing the seemingly far-flung events of the past — or even the very recent past.
I teach journalism at the University of New Hampshire, and I try to make sure from the very first day each semester that my students think of hard-news reportage as just one subgenre of journalism — even as our media culture often treats this one subgenre as synonymous with the word (and practice of) “journalism.” And then, over the ensuing weeks, and in our conversations as a class, I introduce students to dozens of additional subgenres of journalism, demonstrating that what brings together all these subgenres is an ethical code — a code that manifests somewhat differently in each subgenre, but that tends to coalesce around four basic principles: objectivity, accuracy, transparency, and honesty. Certain subgenres might prioritize one or two of these principles, but no subgenre abandons any of them.
In our class discussions, I try to get students to think through how certain existing (or emerging) journalistic subgenres could lead to new information-processing and dissemination techniques typically not conceived of or experienced as “journalism.” I consider curatorial journalism (or metajournalism) one of these. But I’ll also ask students much more broadly, for instance: “Why do we always have to report and discuss the news in prose? Why can’t we present it through poetry, or even silently (without words at all) through images in augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality, 360-degree video, or immersive theater?” I want to see journalism evolve to match its technological, cultural, and historical context in the same way that any healthy profession evolves. To do that, we sometimes have to experiment with new forms and paradigms, even as we hold fast to certain core principles.
So could you sketch a few additional innovative forms of journalistic inquiry that you still hope somebody tries in response to this mess of a presidential administration? Or what other present-tense political stories deserve the type of meticulous compilation / distillation you present in Proof of Collusion? Or to what extent might you see Proof of Collusion enacting Rahm Emanuel’s now notorious precept about never letting a crisis go to waste — here with political urgency and outrage allowing you to smuggle, for example, experimental compositional techniques into commercial publishing and mainstream news conversations?
The important thing to stress here is that we don’t lack high-quality information right now. We actually have too much high-quality information to fully understand or process it all. And we see that so clearly with the Trump-Russia investigation — but also, as you point out, with any number of highly complex, interdisciplinary news stories.
Climate change is a great example. Every day, major media publish urgent, admirably investigated and reported and analyzed stories all across the world on this subject, but those stories are seen (in their totality) by a vanishingly small group of people, and even then sometimes only considered for a few hours before being forgotten. In such cases we basically lose all that information, in some instances forever. We lose all the connections that new information could have helped us to make with subsequent (or even older) stories. We lose the potential, going forward, for an entire information matrix predicated on this highly particular but desperately ephemeral ecosystem of news stories.
So one goal of Proof of Collusion is to discuss a far-ranging, complex, nuanced political news story through the process of assemblage: a process that seeks to rescue from our impossibly large news archive as much reliable and high-quality information as possible, and then to matrix that information so that people can see connections that stretch across continents, decades, and countless media outlets — thereby giving audiences a truer and more mature picture of our present moment than they would get on a cable network from, say, five to six PM.
Sure and here, alongside your working conception of metajournalism, I actually think of Dick Higgins’s curation of something like a metapoetics, looking at all the different ways that various cultures have composed and designed poetic texts — independent of the codex-book form that became the norm for us by the mid-20th-century.
In gathering together these various news sources, I actually found myself responding to Ron Silliman’s idea of “The New Sentence,” that each sentence in a work of prose (though of course Silliman was working in prose poetry) can be presented to the average reader as its own distinct environment, its own information space — that it can and should receive semantic significance in its own right, even as its placement next to other discrete and seemingly independent information blocks necessarily provides a new (if variable) context.
So in Proof of Collusion, I wanted every sentence to constitute its own investigative space, to offer up its own evidentiary piece amid this larger criminal investigation. Sometimes I can draw a very clear line for readers from one individual piece of information to another, but in many cases I can only deliver a brief sense of the larger matrix (usually through my arrangement and curation of the sentences, rather than by explicit synthesis or editorializing). I sometimes laugh when I see an Amazon review of the book that describes it as being invested in “theorizing.” That pretty much indicates a reviewer who is angry about what they presume is this book’s content, but who hasn’t actually read the book. There is no “theorizing” (and there are no elaborate hypotheticals) in Proof of Collusion, which provides a curated assemblage of facts, bookended by an introduction and conclusion that focus primarily on our nation’s foundational values.
Many people presume that a book called Proof of Collusion could only offer some sort of impassioned jeremiad or screed against Donald Trump. But then they see that it’s probably one of the most information-dense books they’ve ever read, one that defines the word “proof” (consistent with its technical meaning) as a piece of information that aids in supporting a particular premise. This book actually resembles a government report in that way, as a document in which each sentence gets attached to a piece of major-media investigative reporting, in which each sentence refers to a discrete and concrete body of evidence. That’s why I call this particular form of writing “metajournalism” — because its building blocks are themselves high-quality exemplars of journalistic writing and research.
As to your point about the codex-book form, I’ll say that I did face the basic question of how to translate social-media writing into long-form prose. I see so much valuable independent citizen-journalism on social media (alongside so much junk, admittedly) that again I wanted to translate all of the worthwhile material into something that people who dislike social media could access and consume. But what I actually discovered, early on in writing the book, was that a direct transfer of information from one medium to another wouldn’t work — at least not for me. And so the initial book proposal that I put forward, which unfortunately got reported online (as presumptive fact, before it was anything more than an ideation), doesn’t at all reflect the ultimate form this book takes. Even after signing my contract, I really had to reconceive my whole plan to translate from the Twitter thread to the paragraph as an operative unit of measure. Even when I’d finished writing the book, I told my friends, my family, and my agent, “There’s a real chance that this experiment works for me, but that most readers will consider it unreadable.”
So the overwhelmingly positive public response Proof of Collusion received really excited me, because I never took that for granted. And it suggests such a high level of public engagement on the question of Trump and his team’s ties to Russia — with so many Americans willing to read (and re-read) an experimental work of political nonfiction in order to get at necessary information in a new way, including information they can’t find when they go to their televisions or social-media feeds. That really inspires me.
And now to focus more on how this book does seem a logical offshoot of your ongoing professional work, I find particularly compelling Proof of Collusion’s reference to your own preceding experience as a public defender, trained to track down obscured or under-utilized exculpatory evidence — but just seeing no such evidence on Trump’s behalf, seeing no Trump surrogates even attempt to articulate a legal defense strategy that could survive judicial scrutiny (even after, I’d add, the submission of the Mueller report). So aside from simply being too impatient to wait for the Mueller report, why did it seem crucial to assemble this case precisely when you did? And how might Proof of Collusion’s preliminary investigations now help to guide our reception of this Mueller report and its aftermath?
First, I do think that anyone who receives formal legal training tends to place a premium on process. So while many reporters I’ve spoken to presume that I’ll have some very powerful emotional reaction to the Mueller report, I know my response will actually resemble that of most attorneys I encounter online and off: as long as Mueller’s investigative process was conducted in a just and fair and transparent and standardized way, then I believe that we should live with the results (which, in the case of obstruction, appears to be that Mueller’s evidence will be transferred to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration for possible impeachment proceedings). Having said that, the same principle would then apply to the 20 pending federal and state investigations involving Trump, his family, his aides, his allies and associates — cases that are essentially (in some instances literally) an outgrowth of the investigative work that Mueller and his team did.
From the very start of writing Proof of Collusion, I wanted to focus on process, not just as a mechanical issue, but a positive value and inherent good. And as you mentioned, different parts of my legal background came to the foreground in this project. But I was also aware that I had two different types of legal training: first, I received extensive training as a criminal investigator; second, I practiced as a public defender for many years. Those combined experiences encouraged me to bring to bear two critical processes in writing Proof of Collusion: the fact-finding processes endemic to criminal investigation, and the arrangement and presentation of facts that’s so important to being a defense attorney — or, for that matter, a poet.
In the fact-finding process, I found myself, as you said, always mindful of how a defense attorney reads a police report (and I’ve read thousands), inasmuch as one looks for both inculpatory and exculpatory evidence, with exculpatory evidence taking the form of pieces that just don’t seem to fit the received-wisdom narrative, that butt up against other pieces of evidence in problematic ways. Poets do something similar when editing what they’ve written — they suddenly see that the system of language they’ve set up isn’t yet functioning perfectly or speaking internally to and about itself in the most productive way, with certain elements needing additional attention, research, and clarification.
As I read hundreds of articles from around the world about the Trump-Russia scandal, I just couldn’t find any exculpatory evidence indicating no nefarious conduct had occurred — that this series of events involving Donald Trump and Russian nationals simply featured the largest congregation of moonshot coincidences in political and legal history. That said, what the nefarious conduct was exactly (when and where it occurred, between whom, to further what long-term ambition, or for what short-term purpose) still required further fact-finding, with those answers being brought forward bit by bit over time. The difference is that, with most police reports, even with overwhelmingly inculpatory police reports, you still can find some thread to pull on, to say, “Well, maybe this case got overcharged. Maybe this important investigative lead didn’t get fully pursued. Maybe certain information got misinterpreted. Maybe there are innocent explanations here.” But I just couldn’t locate that exculpatory thread to pull on in the Trump-Russia case. And all I heard, even from Trump’s most articulate advocates, were voices calling the whole Mueller investigation a fraud or a “deep-state” conspiracy — basically sidestepping the issues central to the investigation by bringing in a whole new stock of evidence, characters, and narratives.
When it comes to arranging evidence, many laypeople consider lawyers either too terse or too verbose. You could describe my own writing style on Twitter that way. In terms of its verbosity, any one particular thread might run over a hundred tweets long. But the terse side definitely comes out too — with each step in the thread’s chain of logic or analysis or evidentiary presentation getting limited to just 280 characters. And I do consider lawyers to be relentless self-editors. Just like poets, you have to cut any extraneous, ultimately ungenerative lines of thought. So almost every time I write a tweet, for example, I first get to about 350 characters, and then I’ll need to eliminate 20 percent — and do that in 30 to 45 seconds, if I want to make the thread something people can follow in real time. In those 30 to 45 seconds, I need to see potential synonyms, scratch extraneous information, scratch extraneous diction (and much more). I don’t always succeed, but I’m trying to improve my skills as a curatorial journalist over time.
Well on that verbose / terse threshold, and as we pick up the more detailed legal case your book makes against Trump, his family, his team, we’ll need to sift through a wide variety of alleged criminal activities, including: electoral fraud, bribery, money laundering, witness tampering, making false statements, obstructions of justice. But could we first offer, as a foundational concept, your book’s working definition of “collusion”?
So “collusion” can operate both as a legal term and a lay term. For a very long time, for instance, Donald Trump and his allies used the “no collusion” rallying cry as a catch-all, basically suggesting, “Nothing untoward, legally or ethically, nothing untoward of any sort, happened here.” But simultaneously, Trump’s legal team would define “collusion” in incredibly blinkered ways, so that it only could mean an elaborately orchestrated criminal conspiracy involving explicit coordination between Trump and Russian military intelligence (the GRU) or Russia’s Internet Research Agency — with that coordination happening before the hacking and disinformation campaigns, respectively, run by those two organizations. I found it fascinating how this administration would simultaneously present “collusion” to America both in its broadest and most encompassing sense, and also in its most narrow, technical, and legalistic sense. That made me wonder whether a less confusing and maybe more honest approach to the term “collusion” existed.
So in Proof of Collusion, I acknowledge that “collusion,” used as a lay term, can just mean a clandestine, in some way illicit agreement between two parties — and that sometimes “illicit” may mean contrary to custom or ethics, rather than to law. But in the book I prioritized using “collusion” as a more pointed legal term, inasmuch as certain collusive acts (and not just “conspiracy”) can eventually give rise to the violation of a criminal statute.
Proof of Collusion makes the argument, for example, that we should consider obstructions of justice (such as attempting to hide the activities of the Russians, even after one knows the Russians did attack our 2016 presidential election) as collusive acts which also happen to be criminal. Whether or not an explicit agreement existed between the Russians and Trump himself, we can broadly call Trump’s public response to Russia’s election interventions collusive. We can also make a more specific charge of something like aiding and abetting — making promises to benefit Russia financially, at a time when Trump knew Russia was in the midst of committing crimes against America, with Trump thereby knowingly inducing further Russian crimes.
According to Attorney General Barr’s recent letter to Congress, Robert Mueller could not establish “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” (the standard for a criminal conviction — though not, I’d note, for indictment) of the narrow band of collusive acts that would be chargeable as a criminal “conspiracy.” But we don’t know how much proof Mueller did find of conspiracy — that is, how short of the incredibly stringent beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard the evidence fell. And we don’t know if Mueller discovered non-conspiracy collusive acts that rise to the level of criminality, and whether he then referred those acts to other federal prosecutors. But we have lots of evidence to suggest that he did just that.
We have, for example, the 20 pending federal and state investigations involving Trump and those in his circle, many of which were “farmed out” Mueller cases that use the evidence Mueller derived as a foundation. By farming out those cases, Mueller maintained his gravitas (no one can accuse him of too expansively interpreting his mandate from Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein), while also putting some of his investigation’s most important components outside the easy reach of the president or his hand-picked attorney general — because these components now reside, instead, in (to use four examples) the Central District of California, or the Eastern District of New York, or the Southern District of New York, or the Eastern District of Virginia.
So for three collusive acts that do not fall under the conspiracy statute, but do violate other, equally serious federal criminal statutes, I would point toward aiding and abetting, money laundering, and bribery. At this point we don’t have any clear sense of whether Mueller focused on those three crimes as part of his Special Counsel’s Office investigation, but Barr’s summary of Mueller’s work suggests that he did not (which again means, based on what we already know about ongoing investigations elsewhere, that these topics were outsourced to other federal prosecutors with the same authority to indict that Mueller has). Not only would those three crimes constitute collusion, they would all constitute impeachable offenses. In fact, bribery is one of just two explicitly enumerated impeachable offenses in the US Constitution — alongside treason.
Still in terms of collusion with Russia, and as an attempt here to further parse Trump’s no-doubt dysfunctional politics, problematic public persona, personal sleaze, and compulsive lying from punishable criminal offense, could you further flesh out your basic case that Trump, in fall 2016, telling the public we didn’t know who was behind the DNC hacking (and specifically offering this assessment after he had received confidential US intelligence confidently declaring Russia the instigator of these cyber attacks), irrevocably changed Trump’s legal status — dispelling any defense Trump could offer of unknowingly or unwittingly abetting Russian election interference?
Proof of Collusion does not contemplate some explicit, before-the-fact conspiratorial agreement between Donald Trump and Russia’s IRA or GRU, even if that’s what Mueller’s narrowly drawn report was said by Barr to focus upon. Rather, Proof of Collusion foregrounds the fact that the Russians dangled investment opportunities and explicit business deals before Trump in order to shape his foreign policy toward Russia. It documents Trump’s self-awareness about receiving these opportunities specifically because of his budding political career and the possibility of him becoming president. And it establishes that Trump did in fact shape his foreign policy in ways that would please the parties he was negotiating with — and that he then lied to the American people about all of the foregoing every day of his presidential campaign.
For the August 17, 2016 classified security briefing on Russia’s election-infiltration campaign that Donald Trump received with Michael Flynn (namely the news that the Russians were committing cyber crimes against the United States, and were seeking to infiltrate, or perhaps already had infiltrated, his campaign), I note that, at that particular moment, by law (under the aiding and abetting statute), Mr. Trump faced the requirement to act in accordance with this notification. But did Trump tell his intelligence-community briefers, in August 2016, about all the ways he knew his campaign had already been solicited and infiltrated? Did Trump reveal that he had a self-described “Kremlin intermediary” (George Papadopoulos) on his national-security team? Did Trump reveal that his top national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, had met with the Russian ambassador (and even Putin himself) in December 2015? Did Trump reveal that Carter Page had met with a Kremlin official in Moscow? Did Trump reveal that his campaign manager Paul Manafort was negotiating the Republican platform with a Kremlin spy (Konstantin Kilimnik)? Did Trump reveal to his briefers that the Kremlin was trying to set up a secret summit with him? Did Trump reveal, in fact, even the smallest piece of the veritable mountain of information he had about Russia’s covert activities? Did Trump tell them about the deal he was secretly negotiating for a multibillion-dollar tower in Moscow? No, he didn’t. Trump said nothing at all. He helped Russia keep their activities a secret.
On August 17, 2016, Mr. Trump had sufficient information (the best information available in the world at that moment, in fact — because he had everything he himself had known, plus everything his briefers had just told him), and he needed to act on the basis of this information, and do nothing whatsoever to induce Russia to continue its crimes. Specifically, Mr. Trump needed, from that day forward, not to offer any unilateral financial benefit (such as sanctions relief worth trillions of dollars over the next decade) to the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin. So here, as you can see, aiding and abetting would constitute a collusive crime, inasmuch as it would constitute colluding in any sense of that word. And it would constitute, too, an impeachable offense.
We also have reason to wonder whether, over the years, Trump has used real-estate transactions to launder money (specifically Russian money) from overseas. My sequel to Proof of Collusion, Proof of Conspiracy, will provide a mountain of evidence of Donald Trump being bribed, of Trump aiding and abetting foreign nationals in committing crimes — many of them governmental leaders from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Egypt, and Bahrain. And all of this was happening during the same period when Trump and his aides and advisers were colluding with the Russians (in other words, pre-election, during the transition period, and even post-inauguration). For instance, we’ve learned that Trump’s people were passing proprietary polling information to Kremlin agents, and promises of a Trump summit, and private briefings on campaign strategy, and a new Republican platform more beneficial to the Kremlin, and much more.
Along such lines, when might Proof of Collusion make its most damning case against Trump by presenting him less as a calculating conspirator than as a naive, insecure, easily manipulated chump or psychological target?
When I worked as a federal criminal investigator in D.C., I was trained to recognize and matrix significant data-points, to develop a “theory of the case” — the aggregate metanarrative of what happened in a given situation (and why) that can encompass the largest number of data-points. Trump as “chump” offers one theory of the Trump-Russia case, as does Trump as “merely” willfully ignorant of the consequences of his actions. The problem is that either theory must ignore scores of data-points to remain in any sense coherent. For instance, every time Trump lies about his meetings, associations, deals, interests, values, or past experiences (and lies in a way that perfectly deflects dire allegations against him), it renders any theory of the case that frames Trump as either calculating or pathological far more likely, and any narrative that renders Trump simply a dupe far less likely.
In his first two years in office, Trump told over 8,000 public lies, many of them clearly calculated (or instinctively positioned) to protect him from criminal liability. To an experienced investigator, that wouldn’t lend itself to a theory of the case that relieves Trump of the criminal intent federal prosecutors would need to show to make out an indictment against him.
And again, in terms of who knew what in fall 2016, how damning of a case against Trump and his associates do you think Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan saw, and refused (more actively perhaps on McConnell’s part, more passively on Ryan’s) to approve releasing publicly that October? And / or, for that same time span, how newly incredible did it keep seeming to you, while amassing this book’s case, that Hillary Clinton did, by contrast, face an FBI investigation largely open to the public during this crucial campaign stretch?
As to the second point, Jim Comey has unconvincingly argued that because Clinton’s case began in the public eye, to do anything but end it in the public eye would have been harmful rather than fair to Clinton. In fact, Comey easily could have indicated publicly Clinton would not be charged and left it at that, at least until receiving indication that new evidence, inculpatory evidence, had emerged. Instead, in summer 2016, in the middle of a presidential campaign, Comey gave a lengthy disquisition on Clinton’s actions, and then in October publicly commented on her case’s status in the face of new emails — emails which he didn’t yet have any reason to consider significant. Had Comey waited even 72 hours to issue a statement about the “new” Clinton emails that had surfaced on Anthony Weiner’s computer, Comey would have had enough information to say that a preliminary review of these materials indicated Clinton’s case would remain in “closed” status. Instead, Comey wreaked havoc on the election by commenting on a closed case in a way that suggested it had been reopened. By the time he had more information, the damage had been done.
As for President Obama’s efforts to let Americans know about the Russians’ election interference, that’s a different matter entirely. Publicly presenting this information would in no way have required an acknowledgment of pending counterintelligence investigations against certain individuals in Trump’s campaign. Nor would it have required discussing that Russian interference at this point clearly favored Trump. Such an announcement simply could have alerted Americans to the fact that Russian disinformation was spreading on social media and elsewhere, and that Americans should proceed with caution in consuming news from new or opaque news sources, especially when those stories involved either of the two presidential candidates, but were not being reported or confirmed by any long-established news outlet.
Mitch McConnell refusing to let that warning go public is one of the great acts of betrayal of America’s democracy in our nation’s history, and should never — ever — be forgiven. McConnell put party over country in fall 2016, and, as we all now know, that was not only part of a pattern of conduct for McConnell, but a carefully orchestrated strategy of which he’s proud. So McConnell deserves to be reviled for reasons having nothing to do with partisanship, but rather, quite simply, with patriotism as conventionally defined.
Here, perhaps still in those normative terms, could we also take one step back, and linger on certain obstruction-of-justice charges that seem close to insurmountable in Trump’s own case? For just a few most obvious instances, Proof of Collusion points out that your own court-appointed defendants no doubt would have faced witness-tampering and / or obstruction-of-justice charges for the types of ad hominem attack that Trump directed daily against his public prosecutors (not to mention Trump’s public speculations on future pardons, or Trump’s unsolicited public confession that he fired Comey in order to end this investigation). And with all of this occurring voluntarily, deliberately, brazenly out in the open, could you offer your case for why Mueller nonetheless opted against pursing obstruction-of-justice charges — again perhaps turning over potential charges either to Congress or to other ongoing federal investigations?
Sure. This returns us to questions of how one develops a uniquely personal poetics for public communication, and my legal training being part of my own evolution in that regard. As you mentioned, my experience working as a public defender in two states for seven years remains critical to my writing and my research — and not just in a process-oriented sense, but also with respect to my values. One value I’ve tried to bring to the table in analyzing the Trump-Russia case is always discussing this case in ways that prosecutors and investigators and defense attorneys would discuss such a case if the defendant were (instead of the president of the United States) your next-door neighbor. I don’t believe in the US having two systems of justice, or treating the rich, powerful, famous, and well-connected any differently from everyone else.
So on the obstruction issue, I could probably cite over 50 incidents in which this president has engaged in actions that could support a conviction for obstruction of justice — at least if you or me, or your next-door neighbor or my next-door neighbor, had engaged in those actions. And yet our public conversations about Mr. Trump’s obstructions of justice proceed so cautiously that even after we have seen him write a false statement for his son to deliver to the public, while pretending that his son had written this statement, and while knowing that criminal investigators would use the statement in an ongoing criminal investigation…just that one incident, in and of itself, could serve as the centerpiece for a criminal prosecution of the average citizen on obstruction charges. Similarly, some of the tweets that Mr. Trump sent out regarding Sally Yates or Jim Comey (or Michael Cohen, for that matter) clearly attempted to intimidate these individuals into testifying in ways more beneficial to Mr. Trump — or not testifying at all. Any of those tweets could be the centerpiece for a successful witness-tampering prosecution against the average citizen.
But when cable-news pundits get hold of this information, and then find themselves on camera, mindful of the fact that they have a professional career they want to protect in the law and / or in media, and that they’re talking about the most powerful man in the United States and possibly the world, they say something like, “Maybe if we take these 50 incidents, and put them all together, that might possibly support a prosecution for obstruction or witness tampering.” And when I hear that, the public defender in me gets angry. I’ll admit it. I get angry. Because I have seen hundreds of people, mostly men, many of them non-white men, all of them (given their reliance on a public defender) relatively economically disadvantaged, often with responsibilities and with families who love them, go to jail, or even to prison, for conduct that adds up to just the slightest fraction of what we’ve seen this rich white billionaire get away with doing.
As a public defender, and as a lawyer, that outcome offends my core values. But I also don’t know how any citizen can watch on TV as this person no better than the rest of us somehow gets treated so differently by our legal system. That should offend the sense of justice and fair play (and again patriotism), and the belief in our democracy and rule of law, for every American citizen, no matter what party they belong to. But for now it doesn’t. That mystifies me every day.
Well I did find quite moving Proof of Collusion’s concluding account of many Trump supporters as drawn to this populist nationalist not because they’ve given up on American ideals and aspirations, but because they love those ideals and aspirations (and because they considered, perhaps mistakenly, these ideals best embodied by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign). I appreciate your book’s suggestion that such Americans, like so many of us, will rally to defend American institutions when they see those institutions threatened. So could you make that case here, and could you offer some perspective on why you (a poetically inclined political semi-outsider) might end up the one making it — rather than more mainstream political leaders and reporters? But then also, could you address the apparent counter-argument or question you’ve just offered now, along the lines of: if Americans don’t yet see a dangerous corrosion of our rule of law taking place, will they ever?
First I do think that, in the same way that an apple pie tastes like America to many people, Donald Trump’s current presence in our media and political landscape feels like America to a lot of people. It doesn’t to me, but it does to many others. Though of course one problem with saying that an apple pie tastes like America, or that Donald Trump “feels” like America to some, is that this is a very result-oriented analysis rather than a process-oriented analysis — a very deductive analysis rather than an inductive analysis. An inductive analysis might cause us to ask: “Well, what’s in this apple pie? And is it good for me?” It might cause us to ask: “What’s in this stump speech or rally rant by the president, regardless of how it makes me feel? How could its content end up harming our rule of law, our democracy, or the safety and security of the nation or my family?” And here again, operating simultaneously as an attorney and a curatorial journalist has led me to a much more inductive or process-oriented approach.
Also, as you mentioned, finding myself outside the superstructures both of law (which I no longer practice, though I remain an attorney in good standing with my state and federal bars) and of journalism (because I’m not a full-time journalist, though I’ve been a freelance and sometimes affiliated journalist on and off for a quarter century) allows me not just to pursue a process-oriented argument, but to stress my profound disregard for any result-oriented angle. I don’t have to care how my writing about Donald Trump makes me or anybody else feel. I simply have to attend, to the best of my ability, to these methods of investigation and these thought processes that I’ve been trained in. I don’t aspire to some mythical, long-running career in media. I don’t want to go back to practicing law full-time. I simply want, for the rest of my life, to engage in an inductive public writing practice arising not just from my training and experience and knowledge-bases and skill-sets and hobbies and interests and temperament and personality — but also from my values. Everything I’ve written about this president comes out of a lifetime’s pursuit of my own ideals.
I do think it’s possible to engage process- and values-oriented analyses at the same time. Too often people see those two frameworks in opposition. People assume that either I can inquire about the mechanics of Trump’s rise in American politics, or I can assert (in a deductive way) that Trump speaks or does not speak to my values. But I consider that a false choice. And I think many Trump voters have made that false choice. Of course you can and often should support a candidate who shares your values, who makes you feel proud to be an American. But ideally, you should arrive at that candidate through an inductive, rigorous, and even highly technical analysis of why a candidate makes you feel this way, rather than just having some outsized personality, seemingly formed out of whole cloth, foisted upon you — or worse, as in Trump’s case, with many of his supporters knowing he’s a fundamentally amoral or immoral man, and fundamentally apolitical at that, and therefore not particularly invested in any coherent ethos or political discourse. Frankly, Trump has made it pretty clear over the past two years that his biggest concerns remain his own business investments rather than the national security of the United States or the well-being of its citizens.
So do you see some contemporary voters who did approach Trump from this more deductive basis now recognizing the need for a more process-oriented analysis, a more inductive approach to thinking through their own politics?
No, I don’t see any evidence of that.
So did I misrepresent your book suggesting you retain this faith that such a possibility can and eventually will play out among American voters?
No, you got that right. I did want to encapsulate in this book’s conclusion my faith in Americans in the long run. But that’s the key here: the long run, as opposed to the short- or medium-term. As a lawyer, as a journalist, as an author, I tend to think of the long run in expansive terms — here meaning the next hundred years. For now, I do see the very real possibility that America will continue to drift (or even to speed) towards prolonged paralysis inside a permanent-seeming bleakness, and to remain caught in that harrowing state for years to come. I find it really ominous that Trump can make such a large (or at least, large enough) percentage of this country feel so committed to him, with no recourse to thinking through the long-term implications of this commitment — so that they would sacrifice both their and the nation’s values to support a man who we would never want our loved ones to emulate. But still, in the long run, I think a greater portion of the country will recognize that there is nothing quintessentially American about Trump. This might not happen until Trump leaves office, and perhaps with he or his progeny or simply the know-nothingism of “Trumpism” remaining a significant influence on our politics. But I do believe some percentage of what was once the Republican Party (which has since transformed, without any real fight, into the MAGA Party) will begin to question whether they’ve gone too far down a dark and darkening road since they first pulled the lever for Trump in 2016.
To close then, and since you’ve already pointed to your follow-up Proof of Conspiracy project: when Proof of Collusion’s concluding catalog of Trump’s offenses includes tax evasion, I definitely think of historical scenarios (with Al Capone, for instance) of unglamorous legal takedowns sometimes proving most effective. And here, pivoting to our ongoing ignorance of many of Trump’s financial dealings, I should note that Proof of Collusion made me much more aware of how successful Trump’s outrageous refusal to release his tax returns actually has been — at least in terms of steering the media feeds I typically see onto other topics. So again, amid Trump’s problematic entanglements with governmental and financial players across the world, what strongest (perhaps not politically spectacular so much as undeniably solid) case can you make that Trump (perhaps less conspiratorial and more crassly corrupt) has personally, conspicuously, unlawfully benefited since 2010 by presenting himself as an American leader open for hire?
When you consider the course of recent American foreign policy with respect to Russia, and with respect to the Middle East, you can’t help noticing that Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner have turned both of those policy profiles (which had formed two of the mostly bipartisan pillars of America’s national-security stance writ large) completely on their head. They have done so publicly, with virtually no recriminations — at least not from most Republicans, who seem enamored of Trump and his inner circle simply because he seems to know (on the admittedly scant evidence of his one popular-vote-losing effort so far) how to win an election.
But Americans should not overlook the fact that turning our policies toward Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (to offer just a few examples) on their head has only made Americans less safe. In the Middle East, our new, melodramatically hostile policy towards Iran substantially increases the odds of a war between a nuclearized Iran and a nuclearized Saudi Arabia and UAE — especially now that the Trump administration has, as we just learned, begun the process of sending nuclear technology to the Middle East, including to countries from which we previously had withheld that technology for very good national-security reasons. And even more strikingly, in the case of Russia, turning our foreign policy completely on its head has endangered the stability of NATO. It has endangered the European Union, and therefore the shared financial fabric of our allies in Europe.
In both the Middle East and Russia, we can trace this dramatically reversed foreign policy back to business investments and payments made by the Russians, the Saudis, and the Emiratis directly to Donald Trump and Jared Kushner. We know what the payments are. We know who made them. We know when they were made. We can trace how US foreign policy changed with these payments. And we know that’s called bribery, again one of our Constitution’s two enumerated impeachable offenses.
So while I’ve been mocked by some for saying that the Mueller investigation will not end in the way that investigations typically end, but will instead transform, we have in the past few weeks heard news that four federal jurisdictions have picked up investigative threads that Mueller not only initiated, but built into a robust condition from within the Special Counsel’s Office. This substantial reservoir of information his team created was then passed on to these other offices. We also know that just one of those jurisdictions, the Southern District of New York, already has 12 separate investigations that have emerged from Mueller’s evidence.
Beyond that, we have investigations by the New York attorney general, the D.C. attorney general, the New Jersey attorney general, the Maryland attorney general, the Central District of California, the possibility of ongoing counterintelligence investigations by both the FBI and the CIA, Congressional investigations by the House Ways and Means Committee, the House Oversight Committee, the House Judiciary Committee, the House Financial Services Committee, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. And yet, with more than 20 ongoing federal and state investigations, many of which have received their information from Mueller’s investigation (information, for instance, related to potential collusion with Russia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Israel, and Bahrain), the mainstream press has so far kept its focus solely on the Special Counsel’s investigation and its more narrow conception of collusion (in the form of a pre-election conspiracy between Trump and the Russian government). And we’ve narrowed down the whole discussion in this way because we’ve had nothing else to go on (until the Mueller report was released on April 18), and all because Attorney General Barr wrote this strange letter unnecessarily inserting himself into the process, a process he actually had nothing to do with: Congress’s determination as to whether the evidence Mueller compiled on obstruction rises to the level of an impeachable offense. So we may have reached what feels like a milestone in the Trump-Russia investigation, or what we might call a multifaceted, far-ranging “Trump collusion investigation,” but I actually consider the Mueller report simply a point of transformation and expansion — not of termination.