What is the crime?
By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.
WSJ Dec. 1, 2017 6:36 p.m.
Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn on Friday pleaded guilty to lying about a non-crime. Even Adam Schiff, the House Democrat most determined to ride the Russia collusion story to bigger and better things, acknowledged that conferring with a representative of Russia about the incoming administration’s Russia policy is not illegal or improper.
These discussions concerned a United Nations Security Council vote on Israel (in effect the Trump team was asking Moscow for a favor on behalf of a U.S. ally, Israel). The discussions concerned Russia’s response to President Obama’s lame-duck sanctions for Russian meddling in the U.S. election.
Such talks, we learn from Robert Mueller’s investigation, were directed by a “very senior member” of the transition team. Why shouldn’t that be President-elect Donald Trump or somebody directly conversant with his views—a k a Jared Kushner ? Voters may remember Mr. Trump saying during the campaign that he wanted improved relations with Russia. He would be doing nothing illegal here.
Then why make Mr. Flynn plead guilty to a crime related to a non-crime, unless Bob Mueller thinks he’s enlisting Mr. Flynn’s cooperation in pursuit of real crimes? Well, Mr. Mueller’s job is to get to the bottom of the Russia question, and it doesn’t help to have people lying about even things that are non-crimes. What’s more, as Mr. Flynn would have known better than most, Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak was a prime target for U.S. surveillance. American voters will remember that Obama officials illegally leaked contents of some of these conversations to the press during the transition. Lying about these very same conversations to the FBI wouldn’t seem to have made much sense for Mr. Flynn. But if a key witness and former high-ranking official persists in a disproven and unnecessary lie, how do you not charge him?
Let’s recall a couple of things. For president, the American people elected a reality TV star and brand manager who came with a bundle of impulses but not deep knowledge of anything other than building large structures.
His plans/hopes with respect to Russia may have been unrealistic, but an incoming administration is elected to follow its own policies, not those of its predecessor. Second, unless he was completely unconversant with political reality, Mr. Trump understood by then that Democrats had settled on a story of Russia collusion to excuse Hillary Clinton’s loss and to discredit the incoming president.
Unfortunately, what we learned on Friday about all this was microscopic in relation to the magnitude of air time devoted to hyping events. The scandal has reached “inside the gates of the White House,” blared multiple news outlets. Uh-huh. Mr. Flynn worked there for 24 days, and none of this is evidence of any presumed conspiracy between the Kremlin and the campaign to put Mr. Trump in the White House. Wasn’t that the original question? The crime the media are trying to make out of these events is the crime of having diplomatic relations with Russia.
The talents that outfit somebody to be on TV are not necessarily talents that lend themselves to instantaneous dissection of breaking news. Inevitably, time is filled up with prejudices and tropes because, you know, time must be filled up.
This is sad but par for the course. Take James Comey, the retired FBI head. He could fill in a great deal of important information. He knows a lot about a lot of things that would be useful to hear, including about the Trump dossier and a Russian role in sparking his intervention in the Hillary Clinton email matter. Instead of shedding light, he drops Bible verses on Twitter. A man who knows so many vital truths and won’t tell them might do better to say nothing at all.
Anything is possible, including some conspiratorial quid pro quo between somebody in the Trump campaign and somebody representing Vladimir Putin. If Mr. Putin really wanted Mr. Trump’s election, then the two were certainly working toward compatible ends—at least to the extent that Mr. Trump, in some part of his brain, really did want to be president. When it comes to working toward compatible ends, though, this also appears to be true of Russian intelligence and the Clinton campaign and, quite possibly, Russian intelligence and the FBI in some instances.
At the same time, we would be stupid not to understand that other countries have a stake in the outcome of our elections and, by omission or commission, try to advance their interests. This is reality. After the Trump election, the direction of causation in the ensuing Russia scandal in my judgment seems fairly clear. The media and bureaucracy reject Mr. Trump not because they got wind of Russia. They were determined to reject Mr. Trump and Russia was handy.
Appeared in the December 2, 2017, print edition.