How the Obama White House engaged Ukraine to give Russia collusion narrative an early boost
The Steele-Mueller nightmare is over — and should be
"Our long national nightmare is over," as was said in 1974 - but this time it ends far closer to vindication than to resignation.
After an exhaustive investigation, special counsel Robert Mueller did not find that "the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election." No, the president of the United States was not a Russian agent. More than two years of speculative stories and lurid headlines turned out to have no factual basis, and there are no further indictments under seal or recommended.
If Mueller concluded that there was no evidence of collusion, it's time for all Americans to accept this conclusion and move on to the business of this country. If Democrats now ignore Mueller's most basic and clear finding, they risk serious electoral setbacks, and experienced political leaders know this.
When this started, I urged people to read the Steele dossier published by BuzzFeed. It was clearly preposterous, making easily disproved, wild and salacious accusations that had not been verified and would never be verified. It was a yarn fit for our times, spun by haters of a presidential candidate on a mission to prevent his election and to unseat him if he did get elected. It was then the Strzok/Page texts that caused me and many others to fundamentally question what was behind this investigation and whether it was based more on politics than facts. There turned out to be no underlying facts.
Partisanship should not extend to bending the truth. Whether you voted for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or another presidential candidate, you need to disentangle yourself from the endless false conspiracies that have infected the country, dominated our news and whipped up the public, dividing us all. There was never a secret computer server in Trump Tower serving as a link to Russia. Michael Cohen was not told by the president to lie to Congress, nor did he ever go to Prague. Nothing happened in a Moscow hotel room once stayed in by President Obama.
Yes, Donald Trump hired some tax evaders, liars and scoundrels. Some Russian-based operatives were out to divide our country and sought to confuse our voters. But those email-hacking operations were small potatoes compared to the massive, multibillion-dollar campaigns that filled the airwaves daily with their messages and the weeklong political conventions. We should stop further foreign attempts to toy with our elections, but they were not instigated nor coordinated by President Trump.
I did not think Mueller and his team of almost all Democrats would produce a report as favorable to the president as this one. Without a finding of collusion, they were left trying to find obstruction of justice in the president's public exercise of his powers and his caustic views on an investigation he considered groundless. The prosecutors threw Democrats a bone in leaving it to the attorney general and his deputy to apply basic legal analysis to determine if there were actions that rose to the level of obstruction. In fact, rather than Mueller being fired, he was allowed to conduct and complete one of the most thorough investigations in U.S. history, costing nearly $40 million. And while FBI Director James Comey was fired, that had no impact on ongoing investigations as Trump replaced him with an impartial professional. And, of course, there was nothing to obstruct.
It is now clear, I think, that the Fusion GPS effort with former British spy Christopher Steele was the real driver of this national obsession. They created a sophisticated echo chamber with journalists, politicians, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FBI to spread their "information" so that it seemed like Russia-collusion reports were coming in from everywhere. The Hillary Clinton campaign, stung by Russia-related Uranium One accusations in the book "Clinton Cash," successfully turned the tables on the Russia narrative; it concealed its funding of the Steele operation while proclaiming victimhood and blaming Russia for its electoral loss. It was nothing but a fantasy.
The FBI and the DOJ were fundamentally compromised from the start. They were fed information through backdoor channels like DOJ official Bruce Ohr's wife, who was on the Fusion GPS payroll, bypassing real intelligence operations. Comey clearly was out to entrap the president with the private one-on-one meeting he called to dangle the dossier, his taunting of the president by refusing to say publicly that Trump was not a target, and writing up memos of unknown veracity following meetings with the president. The after-party of Comey and other intelligence officials becoming anti-Trump talking heads on CNN and elsewhere unmasked any veneer of impartiality.
Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Gerald Nadler (D-N.Y.) are poised to ignore the report and to stir up years of new investigations. This kind of raw partisanship, after the largest criminal investigation of a campaign and an administration in history, has no place in our democracy. It's an abuse of power without precedent. The Mueller investigation systematically went after everyone named in the Steele dossier, using the toughest possible tactics. Rather than investigate the crime, they investigated the people, finding unrelated crimes to use as leverage to squeeze out any potential drops of evidence related to collusion. They got every email of the transition; they looked through every communication by everyone through every means, including tapping secret messaging apps.
Despite these tough, questionable tactics, they still came up empty on Russia collusion and in trying to implicate Donald Trump. Unlike with Watergate, Reps. Schiff and Nadler have no bipartisan mandate to continue these investigations past the end of the Mueller report.
It is now a time, not for renewed partisanship, but to begin some national healing. Those who wrongly and cavalierly accused a duly elected president of treason should acknowledge they were taken in by Steele and his dossier. The media that turned Russia collusion into a ratings bonanza should acknowledge they were wrong or face enormous lawsuits for reckless behavior.
It's time for true bipartisan investigation of how and why this was allowed to smear and destroy so many people when there was nothing there. Those who launched this disruption of the presidency on the basis of questionable evidence and procedures should be held accountable for their actions. Those who were investigated but not charged should have their legal fees reimbursed.
My experience in 1998, helping to defend President Clinton from impeachment, showed me the enormous national cost of these investigations, how they weigh personally on a president and can affect the decisions our leaders make. We need all our presidents, Democrat and Republican, being able to focus on the job without the constant pressure of investigations of themselves, their families and their administrations.
Yet, the ominous chatter of further investigations in New York smacks of trying to keep all this going. Personal payments for personal matters are not campaign contributions, and investigations of the inauguration are simply fishing expeditions. Let our presidents do their jobs.
It's time for our government to get back to being devoted to solving the problems of people - and to get out of the endless investigation business. The next election campaign has started and we should be getting ready for 2020, rather than contesting 2016. It's time to close the book on this.
Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm specializing in marketing services companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of "Microtrends Squared." He also is CEO of MDC Partners, an advertising and marketing firm. He served as pollster and adviser to President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton's impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.