Imagine you’re building a circumstantial case in court, promising the judge and jury all along the way that your final witness will pull it all together with direct evidence to eliminate any reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.
Your final witness takes his seat, clears his throat, and tells the court that he has thoroughly investigated the circumstantial evidence you’d presented, and found none of it sufficient to establish a criminal act. He goes on to say that his investigation found no additional evidence to support a criminal charge against the defendant.
What do you say in your final argument? “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we know we promised the final witness was key to the case. We know we told you he would present evidence in support of, and in addition to, the circumstantial evidence we submitted throughout the trial, and that his testimony would leave no doubt as to the guilt of the defendant.
“We’d now like you to disregard his testimony, ladies and gentlemen, despite our previous representation to this court that his testimony was necessary to prove our case. We’ve changed our minds. We’re now confident that the circumstantial evidence we presented was sufficient to establish enough suspicion to assume the defendant was guilty, and we’d like you to go with that.
“It really comes down to a matter of trust, ladies and gentlemen. You can either believe our expert witness—who, quite frankly, gave us a bit of a surprise—or you can believe us, take another look at that circumstantial evidence we presented, and find the defendant very close to guilty enough. We trust you’ll choose wisely.”
This seems to be the final argument of Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Gerald Nadler, and most of their friends and colleagues in the Democratic and media sphere: Forget what we’ve been promising you about Robert Mueller’s report; disregard his finding of no conspiracy or coordination; and take another look at the circumstantial elements of President Trump and his associates’ behavior we’ve been talking about for the last two years.
Never mind that all of these elements were thoroughly examined during the investigation and found to be either completely immaterial or insufficient to support a charge. Never mind that, when challenged on the materiality of any of these circumstantial allegations, we’ve consistently defaulted to the expectation that Mueller would prove us right in the end. Just forget all of that and trust us when we tell you that we never needed Mueller to establish collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
Schiff rehearsed this theme Thursday in his widely covered lecture to Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee in response to their joint letter calling for his resignation. Many in the media noted that Schiff was uncharacteristically emotional, his strident tone animating his recitation of a number of Trump-Russia interactions he believes to be sufficient evidence of collusion or, at the very least, “not okay.”
Schiff’s anger and self-righteousness was reviewed favorably by the media, with a number of commentators noting his “passion” and that he “pushed back” and wasn’t going to let the assault on his integrity by the Republicans go without a fight. Left unspoken was the irony of a favorable media representation of the universal instinct of one believed to be falsely or unfairly accused to fight back with passion and occasional anger. With other notable examples of such behavior close at hand, none was mentioned.
Also left unspoken was this: Schiff was looking directly at his Republican colleagues on the committee when he issued his “You might think it’s okay” rebuke of what he believed to be their dismissal of his list of collusive Trump-Russia interactions. While his anger and frustration seemed genuine, he chose the wrong target for his tirade.
Schiff should be directing his self-righteous ire at Mueller, the only person in the country who has officially declared each of the issues on Schiff’s collusion list as immaterial or inconsequential. While Mueller and Rep. Devin Nunes may well turn out to have written similar reports declaring no case for conspiracy or collusion, it is the Mueller report that marks the official dismissal of Schiff’s grievances.
Schiff argued, and will continue to argue, that he has always considered the Trump Tower meeting, the “Russia, if you’re listening…” speech, and the Manafort provision of polling data to a Russian business associate, et al., to meet his definition of collusion with Russia, even though they may not meet the evidentiary standards of criminal conspiracy. Prior to Attorney General William Barr’s release of his summary of the report last Saturday, Schiff would usually end that argument by expressing his confidence that Mueller would provide that answer.
Now that the answer is “No, they don’t meet the evidentiary standards of criminal conspiracy,” Schiff is angry at Republicans for discounting his contention that these actions meet his standard for collusion and should meet theirs as well.
The good news for Trump and the Republicans on the committee is that Schiff’s opinion has no bearing on the outcome of the Mueller investigation. If you believe that collusion and conspiracy are interchangeable conceptually, if not legally, then you’re satisfied that the absence of conspiracy should end all speculation about collusion. The bad news for Trump and Republicans is that Schiff is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and he’s dropped any pretense of accepting a Mueller decision on conspiracy as the final word on collusion.
Like the hypothetical lawyer giving the closing argument above, Schiff would like us to believe that the star witness he once told us would validate his circumstantial evidence is no longer essential to the proceedings. In fact, his testimony should be dismissed, and Schiff’s opinion should be substituted for the legal conclusions of the expert.
Given the lather he worked himself into at Thursday’s committee meeting, it’s a good bet that Schiff will continue his quixotic quest to pin something on the president, evidentiary standards be damned, until he settles on something that will meet his own standard of very close to guilty enough.
Jason Beale (a pseudonym) is a retired U.S. Army interrogator and strategic debriefer with 30 years experience in military and intelligence interrogation and human intelligence collection operations. He’s on Twitter @jabeale.