The problem with hindsight

The problem with hindsight
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Over the weekend,President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpNew EPA rule would expand Trump officials' powers to reject FOIA requests Democratic senator introduces bill to ban gun silencers Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question MORE’s long-simmering feud with Special Counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump Schiff says Intel panel will hold 'series' of hearings on Mueller report MORE's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election caught fire and this destructive blaze appears far from contained.  

Whether these flames die out or continue to consume Washington remains uncertain. And while much will depend on Mueller's progress and Trump's tolerance, for the foreseeable future, our politics will involve a fight over perception and plausible arguments.

Both skeptics and believers will assert their theories about Trump's relationship with Russia, hoping they can persuade public opinion in advance of the 2018 midterm elections. For partisans, majority control of the Congress and future governing authority are what's at stake in this battle for perception. And since the majority of the public believes Mueller will conduct a fair investigation (61 percent), Republicans will wage this fight going uphill.    


In addition to the partisan broadsides, another debate has ensued among journalists, scholars and lawyers about whether or not Trump and his campaign engaged in a conspiracy, or actively colluded with Russian operatives before or after the presidential election. The stakes here are more about "getting it right, first," so as to burnish one's reputation as a political analyst or insightful observer.   

But there's a glaring problem with most of what has been written and said, whether by partisans or pundits, and it is this: Trump wasn't supposed to win the presidency. In other words, nearly all of the analyses that have been articulated have been bedeviled by the assumption that Trump and his team believed that Trump would become the president.

We know this is not true. No one thought Trump would win — not even Trump.     

According to the book written by Corey LewandowskiCorey R. LewandowskiTime magazine: Trump threatened reporter with prison time Nadler apologized after repeatedly calling Hope Hicks 'Ms. Lewandowski' at hearing Michael Caputo eyes congressional bid MORE and David Bossie, on election night, Trump said: "Dave, can you believe this? We just started this to have some fun."  

Let me repeat, Trump said: "to have some fun." He did not say: "to win."

Trump likely also thought that running for president would be "fun" because a presidential campaign would provide him with the biggest platform he could imagine to enhance his celebrity and increase the value of his personal brand. And with these greatly improved assets, he would be able to make more money — after he lost. In essence, for Trump to maximize his future development opportunities and revive his business (and perhaps, even solve son-in-law Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump puts the cart before the horse in Palestine Negotiators face major obstacles to meeting July border deadline GOP launches 'WinRed' online fundraising site in response to Democrats' small-donor advantage MORE's serious debt problem on 666 Park Ave.), he needed to win the Republican nomination and lose the general election. Then, he'd own 2017.

The glitch in this plan was that Trump won.

That inconvenient and unintended outcome of his campaign appears to have transformed Trump's business development strategy (i.e., make foreign friends, build a hotel in Moscow, and cultivate investor relationships to repay debt in New York) into a possible illegal conspiracy with an unfriendly foreign power.

Considering this from another angle, had Trump lost the presidency, does one believe that either he or his campaign would be receiving such scrutiny? No.

But the answer is "no" not because partisans want to delegitimize his win (as he seems to believe) or because the "deep state" and "the elites" are repulsed by all he stands for (even if they are). The answer is "no" because if he had lost, he wouldn't have the enormous power of the presidency at his disposal. If he had lost, he would not be in a position to compromise the country's interests to a hostile foreign power.

If he had lost, he would have been merely a famous loser. In our upside down world, where social media friends and name identification are valued as real assets and connote one's net worth, famous losers can make far more money than discreet winners.

And while Trump’s team (namely, Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortREAD: Hannity, Manafort messages released by judge Manafort, Hannity talk Trump, Mueller in previously undisclosed messages FBI, warned early and often that Manafort file might be fake, used it anyway MORE and Rick Gates) may have found themselves in some legal trouble for campaign finance violations for receiving foreign donations, it is much more likely that had Trump lost, there would be a Justice Department investigation of President Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden to debate for first time as front-runner Top Trump ally says potential Amash presidential bid could be problematic in Michigan Chaotic Trump transition leaks: Debates must tackle how Democrats will govern differently MORE's role with the Clinton Foundation rather than one of Trump.

This doesn't have to do with which politician did the worse thing, it has to do with who now has the power to do harm to the United States of America. At the moment, that individual is Trump, and not Clinton. Had Trump lost, it would be different.   

The other problem is that cover-ups to put past behavior into a less embarrassing light tend to look like conspiracies in hindsight.  More often than not, the truth is simpler: people make bad decisions, and when they realize their bad decision will become public, they try to cover it up with new actions that will alter people’s perceptions. Typically, these cover-ups make things worse, not better, and people get caught — not necessarily for the bad decision or mistake they made, but for not admitting their error or wrongdoing, and trying to cover it up.

Viewed through this lens, when Trump’s activities and decisions during the campaign — from not investing any real money in his campaign infrastructure to hiring Manafort in March 2016 when it looked like he might lose the nomination to Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward Cruz Hickenlooper, Bennet bring deep ties to 2020 debate stage 2020 Democrat Bennet releases comprehensive government reform plan GOP frets about Trump's poll numbers MORE, to the several meetings his campaign advisors had with influential Russians — it seems clear that Trump was attempting to execute an ill-considered business development strategy, not trying to win the presidency. In short, he failed by winning.

Now, just because Trump likely was coordinating with Russia for business and not politics, doesn't mean that he should get away with unscrupulous behavior. At this point, Mueller seems highly likely to catch him and his staff for having engaged in a cover-up (e.g., obstruction of justice, perjury, destruction of evidence, etc.).

Still with respect to engaging in a treasonous conspiracy with Russia to subvert American democracy, it's probably best to remember what Eric TrumpEric Frederick TrumpDemocrats seek to ban federal spending at Trump businesses The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Trump jumps into 2020 race Trump Jr. rips Teen Vogue for sex work op-ed: 'Nothing is sacred to these sickos' MORE said about his father's nature: "My father sees only one color — green."

Lara M. Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.