Americans need a new word — perhaps the Germans have one? — for news that is both shocking and somehow also not shocking at all. That's the best way to deal with the daily churn of horrors emanating from the Trump White House. Wednesday evening's installment came in the form of an admission from President Trump that he would — hypothetically speaking, you know? — accept damaging information on a political opponent from a foreign government, one like, say, Norway.
This admission came after ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Trump whether he'd he would entertain receiving such dirt in such circumstances. Stephanopoulos was explicitly asking about Russia, not Norway, but because he failed to note that the Russian efforts to influence the 2016 campaign involved criminal hacking, Trump was able to spin it as if he and George were just having a friendly chat about "oppo research," as opposed to criminal conspiracy.
Trump's admission is being treated as a Very Big Deal, since it's a move away from the "no collusion" talking point towards the "collusion isn't wrong" argument that Trump's team has flirted with in the past. But, for that tiny minority of people who actually bothered to read special prosecutor Robert Mueller's report on the Russian campaign interference, it's incredibly frustrating to see this issue discussed as a hypothetical. The report makes clear not just that Trump accepted such information, but that he and his campaign eagerly sought it out.
In the report that so few people, even journalists, have bothered to read, Mueller explicitly writes that "the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts."
Mueller also details a number of instances when the Trump campaign took concrete steps to engage in what they knew was a criminal conspiracy to steal documents from Democratic officials and from Hillary Clinton herself.
In July 2016, Trump explicitly asked on camera for Russia to "find the 30,000 emails" of Clinton's that right-wing conspiracy theorists had obsessed over. Shortly after that, as Mueller painstakingly details, "Trump asked individuals affiliated with his Campaign to find the deleted Clinton emails" and "made this request repeatedly." The campaign then drafted a plan to reach out to people who "have access through liaison work with various foreign services" — Russia being the main target — but Mueller couldn't find evidence that they were successful.
And of course there's the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016, which was arranged after a group of Russians with connections to President Vladimir Putin reached out to Donald Trump Jr. on with promises of "information that would incriminate Hillary Clinton." A few hours later, Trump himself publicly declared that he would soon be revealing Clinton's "corrupt dealings" with Russia. That supposed reveal never came. In what we're told is a remarkable coincidence, it turns out the Russians were probably lying about having such information.
The recitation of these well-worn details is clearly necessary to remind Americans that Trump's willingness to engage in a criminal conspiracy involving foreign governments is not a hypothetical scenario for 2020, but a known and demonstrable truth gleaned from publicly established facts. Mueller wasn't able to prove that there was any consummation of the conspiracy between Trump and the Russian government. The known and visible efforts to make a criminal deal with the Russians fell flat and, more than likely, the extensive obstruction of justice after the fact obscured more information about the conspiratorial campaign.
Trump's efforts to bamboozle the public about this are working far better than they should. This is evident even in the interview with Stephanopoulos, during which Trump frames the issue of foreign help as "oppo research" instead of what actually happened, which was criminal theft of private information.
To be fair, Stephanopoulos came pretty close to reminding Trump — and ABC's viewers — of that fact. Stephanopoulos asked Trump whether he would go to the FBI if a foreign government reached out with information. The president tried to play that off, as if it were a a ridiculous thing to ask anyone to do. Stephanopoulos then reminded Trump that when Al Gore's 2000 campaign was given information stolen from the George W. Bush campaign, Gore's staff did, in fact, call the FBI.
"Well, that's different, a stolen briefing book," Trump replies. "This isn't a — this is somebody that said we have information on your opponent."
Except that the "oppo research" in question was, in fact, stolen. As the Mueller report makes quite clear, the Trump campaign knew that it was stolen and, both before the cameras and behind the scenes, urged the Russian government to do more stealing on their behalf. The Mueller report also makes clear that the campaign was in communication with WikiLeaks on the regular, coordinating strategy around leaking and publishing the documents.
Which is no doubt why Trump cut himself off right before telling a giant, honking lie about how this case has nothing to do with stolen information.
There is no need for hypotheticals here. Unfortunately, by framing it that way, Stephanopoulos made it easier for Trump and his propaganda forces at Fox News to spin this entire situation as if Trump were being targeted for behaving the same way everyone else in politics does.
Sean Hannity, for instance, tried to compare Trump's campaign behavior to the Hillary Clinton campaign purchasing opposition research from a British investigator Christopher Steele. But Steele wasn't working for a foreign government and, more critically, he did not obtain the information illegally.
"Fox & Friends" dug into the idea that this is all a question of "hypothetically" entertaining "oppo research floating around Washington, D.C.," echoing Trump's notion that the hypothetical country in this hypothetical scenario is Norway.
It cannot be stated strongly or (apparently) repetitiously enough that there is nothing hypothetical about this. Robert Mueller reports in considerable detail that Trump not only "would" accept stolen information provided by a foreign government, but that Trump and his campaign repeatedly tried to make that happen.
Obviously, the reason that Trump's statement is big news is because it's a major detour from his repeated insistence that there was "no collusion" line. But Trump's constantly shifting lies are less important than the actual facts. Those are that Donald Trump repeatedly and shamelessly tried to get the Russian government to break the law on his behalf. The Russians repeatedly did that. And the president has just admitted he'd be perfectly content to see them do it again.