Last Updated Mar 19, 2018 1:20 PM EDT
On Sunday morning, President Trump wondered in a tweet, "Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans? Another Dem recently added...does anyone think this is fair? And yet, there is NO COLLUSION!"
What if Donald Trump is right? What if there really is no collusion?
In one sense, the question is irrelevant: Paul Manafort is facing serious money-laundering charges that could land him in jail for 305 years; Gen. Mike Flynn's been found out for his shady dealings with Russia and Turkey; and various other have pleaded guilty to actual—if relatively minor—crimes. So Robert Mueller could eventually issue stacks of indictments whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russia or not.
For more than a year now, Democrats in Congress like Adam Schiff and liberal media outlets have promised Americans proof that "Trump colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 election using hackers and propaganda," as one far-Left activist put it. Back in October, Ezra Klein at Vox.com said it's "almost impossible to believe that there wasn't collusion between Trump's operation and Russia."
Even now, two out of three Democrats still believe Russia actually tampered with the polls to steal the election from Hillary Clinton.
With Trump declared guilty by Democrats and all but convicted in the press, what happens if Mueller confirms the-- that there's plenty of Trump campaign incompetence, but no collusion?
For people who hate or love Trump, it won't matter. They've already made up their minds. But for the majority of casually-political Americans--who already think Washington politicians are worse than lawyers and used car salesmen when it comes to "very low" ethical standards--what will they conclude if they're told that the whole point of the investigation from the beginning was based on a baseless charge?
Many are likely to think that if there was no collusion, then the entire story really was the "witch hunt" President Trump keeps telling them it is. He will have turned out to be right, no matter how many other things he did wrong.
I believe this is the reason Trump stepped on his own good news regarding the McCabe firing. Why he didn't do what many (myself included) considered the smart move: Let McCabe's firing speak for itself. Why he sent out his first-ever tweet attacking special counsel Robert Mueller using the key word: "collusion:"
"The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime," he wrote Sunday. "It was based on fraudulent activities and a Fake Dossier paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC, and improperly used in FISA COURT for surveillance of my campaign. WITCH HUNT!"
Trump sent this out just as the Russia story hit a profound—and pro-Trump—moment. Andrew McCabe, whose wife really did get $675,000 in combined donations from a PAC controlled by Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe and from the Virginia Democratic Party, which is also associated with McAuliffe, probably should have recused himself from any Clinton-related investigations. But he was fired, not by Donald Trump, but at the recommendation of FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility. The head of that office is Candace Will, who was given the job in 2004 by then-FBI Director…Robert Mueller.
The OPR reported acted on allegations that McCabe "showed a lack of candor" (is there a nicer way to say "liar" than that?) uncovered by the Inspector General, Michael Horowitz. He was appointed by…Barack Obama.
For everyone other than fringe conspiracy theorists, the evidence of McCabe's bad behavior is indisputable. Even Rep. Schiff—the tip of the Democrats' partisan spear on Russia—conceded Sunday that McCabe's firing "may have been justified."
That should have been the headline. Instead, Trump tweeted and took it away. As national-security reporter Eli Lake put it at Bloomberg: "McCabe's Firing Wasn't Political. Until Trump Made It Political."
Once again, I tend to agree with Lake and others who think Trump's missing the mark by making the story anything other than "Democrat Inside FBI Fired For Fouling Up Trump-Related Investigation, Focus Now Turns To Other Partisan Actors In FBI." There is a direct line from McCabe to Peter Strzok and Lisa Page and Bruce Ohr—all of whom were anti-Trump partisans and engaged in behavior that raises legitimate questions about their trustworthiness. And that extends to the trustworthiness of the Obama FBI that sought a questionable warrant to spy on Trump based largely on information from Hillary Clinton's campaign.
Trump appears to be acting on assumption that collusion is his silver bullet. Keep everyone focused on that question, so that when the verdict comes back "innocent of collusion," Trump can declare himself "not guilty" of any other charge by default. After all, if the collusion allegation was bogus, isn't the entire investigation?
That's Trump's case, and it's likely to make sense to the vast majority of Americans who've been promised a collusion story Trump's enemies can't deliver.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this column misidentified Andrew McCabe as a Democrat. It is not known whether he is registered to a political party.