If one of Donald Trump’s oafish sons outed a covert intelligence agent tomorrow — in an angry tweet disclosing their party registration or in a clumsy boast to an Instagram thirst-trap — it would prompt a newscycle of clucking from former national security officials and their conventionally liberal interrogators. A spook would call it “treason,” a cable-news Democrat would say it’s “treasonous,” and the alleged traitor himself would either apologize, half heartedly, or double down in appearance on Fox & Friends. Life, for better or worse, would go on. Nothing matters.
In terms of ultimate consequences, this would not be altogether different than what happened under the presidency of George W. Bush. Back then, the ghoulish vice president’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, got caught leaking the name of clandestine CIA agent Valerie Plame, an act of retaliation spurred by Plame’s ex-diplomat husband, Joseph Wilson, and his undermining the White House’s claims about Iraq with more accurate testimony of his own — the “Deep State” conspiracy of the mid-2000s. There was a special counsel and an indictment, albeit not for the underlying crime but for lying to investigators, and while everyone pretty much knew something like this wouldn’t have happened without at least a wink from up top, no one above Libby ever faced a trial.
It was a disappointment for progressives, some of whom had turned prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald into a pin-up, but few outside the right considered it an exoneration. “Legal or not, the Plame leak was wrong,” wrote David Corn, then-Washington editor of The Nation. “One doesn’t need indictments — or convictions — to see this case as a clear representation of the way Bush and his crew do business.” The involvement of higher ups like Karl Rove was not in question (the senior Bush operative had been caught misleading investigators), and most suspected Dick Cheney’s chief of staff wouldn’t out a spook without at least a nod from his boss, but neither was charged with a crime.
Fitzgerald may have determined he lacked a powerful enough case, but then weaker cases are prosecuted everyday; one should always be mindful that those with the most power never face the same justice as those with the least (Libby had his sentence commuted by Bush before receiving a full, message-sending pardon from Trump). All on the left who cared about this affair, and were concerned that the world’s most powerful reactionaries were getting away with it, had no illusions about Valerie Plame’s employer and what it did: a lot of evil. Sympathy was tactical; when conservatives attacked the agency and its employees for being pinkos undermining a militarist, there was an understanding that they were doing so for bad reasons; no one cheered this as justice for Salvador Allende.
Could the left maturely address such a matter today, or would the siren’s call of aloof vulgarity prove too strong? To ask is to already know the answer — there is hardly a need for a thought experiment here. We already have this Russia stuff: the emails hacked by the government of Russia, laundered to WikiLeaks and openly welcomed by the Trump campaign, a fact — that this was happening, and that it mattered — mocked by the most avowedly cynical pundits among us even as these same people breathlessly reported on emailed banalities fed to them by the intelligence operation in question. The report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, or the Trump administration’s brief summary of it, has been welcomed with an unsettling glee by those who have long denied what it only confirmed: that the DNC break-in was carried out by the Russian government to help elect the current president.
Forget Valerie Plame: If Watergate were to happen now, righteous commentators would be defending their stories on what G. Gordon Liddy found in the DNC’s office, while at the same dismissing its relevance to an election that saw the Democratic nominee lose 49 states.
It is certainly a disappointment that we live in a world where a former FBI director did not, per the Attorney General’s summary, build a legally viable case for the unprecedented removal of a U.S. president from office. An excitable few may have expected that, but I suspect most of them are made of straw. Even so, it is of note that this is still no official exoneration, either: William Barr’s stated reason for not pursuing televised-and-tweeted obstruction of justice — the sort of thing that can prevent a prosecutor from obtaining the clear evidence needed to successfully prosecute a criminal conspiracy at the highest level — is that the underlying crime was not proven. The logic is more coherent than we’re used to from figures in the Trump administration, but it is nonetheless circular.
It is likewise strange for the successful prosecution of a sitting president, or an official accusation of treason against them, to be a progressive standard for assessing whether a crime was committed. By June 2016 it was known beyond all but a Kremlin apologist’s doubt that Russian military intelligence had hacked the Democrats and created a persona, Guccifer 2.0, to disseminate what they stole. The Trump campaign knew this even earlier thanks to its own contacts with Russian intelligence cutouts. Still, the future president’s son, Donald Jr., nonetheless accepted a meeting that month with a Russian lawyer based on the belief that he was about to receive “high level and sensitive information” on Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
“I love it,” the son responded, a couple days before the DNC announced it had been hacked. Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer at the time, told Congress he believes the future president was aware of the meeting — and that, “yes,” he’d totally do collusion, if he could. Both exchanges read like liberal fanfiction, and would be dismissed as such in most other universes.
But we live in this one, and it is crucial that the left live there too, where an outcome one may not otherwise care about, has real implications for how power, always learning, behaves in the future. It is not a good thing when the most powerful man in the world can openly obstruct justice. Aside from the issue of collusion — so narrowly defined by Trump’s Attorney General as to exclude anything but an explicit agreement between the campaign and an actual government official, on the specific issue of hacking the DNC — Trump openly sought to prevent others from settling the questions around Russian anti-democratic actions in the 2016 election. This, like the commander in chief’s open fondness for authoritarianism at home and abroad, is another unfortunate lesson for those who will follow him, here and elsewhere.
Charles R. Davis is a writer in Los Angeles whose work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets such as Columbia Journalism Review, The Daily Beast, The Guardian and The New Republic.