It’s Mueller, Not Trump, Who Is Draining the Swamp

Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is also telling a story about Washington corruption.

Following the investigation of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is an enduring lesson in humility, and not merely because no one — not the president, not legal analysts or anyone else — has been able to predict what his office will do next. Mr. Mueller is much more than a prosecutor. To many, he has become Mr. Trump’s opposite: an avatar of justice and probity.

As special counsel, he’s also a storyteller, unwinding the tale of what happened during the 2016 election, while revealing only glimpses of the overall narrative. It’s not clear whether he’ll ever make public the whole of what he knows, or whether the regulations governing his appointment even allow him to do so.

The country is living through an astonishing story without a full sense of what that story is. But as the public waits to discover what the Trump team knew and when they knew it, Mr. Mueller has been telling another story, about “draining the swamp.” And how that story plays out stands to have a major effect on how our politics moves forward after the investigation is complete.

The themes of corruption and white-collar malfeasance link the cases of those caught up in the special counsel’s inquiry. Their indictments shed light on the culture of influence peddling and less-than-savory financial transactions that Mr. Trump promised to root out if elected president. (He has done the opposite.)

The special counsel’s indictments of Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and Alex van der Zwaan outline a system of international graft. Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates are charged with laundering millions of dollars gained from their work for unscrupulous oligarchs. Mr. van der Zwaan entered the picture when Mr. Manafort commissioned his law firm to help clean up the image of the corrupt Ukrainian government — an effort in which numerous well-connected Washington lobbyists were involved, though none disclosed their work publicly.

Mr. Mueller is also investigating the money that came in to Mr. Trump’s business and campaign from Russia and Eastern Europe, in some cases examining whether wealthy Russians provided campaign donations improperly. On Monday, The Times reported that Mr. Mueller is looking into contributions made to the Trump Foundation by the Ukrainian steel magnate Victor Pinchuk in exchange for a video campaign speech by Mr. Trump at a conference in Kiev, raising questions over whether Mr. Trump allowed the line to be blurred between charitable donations and political influence.

Mr. Mueller hasn’t hinted at any conclusions, but it is clear that the Russian trolls indicted in February were able to run political advertisements on Facebook in part because of lax and under-enforced regulations that failed to constrain foreign spending in American elections. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, has argued that it will be difficult to restrict such spending in the future, even on grounds of national security, because stricter campaign finance legislation runs counter to the interests of donors on whom lawmakers rely for funds.

Then, of course, there’s Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels. On Monday, F.B.I. agents raided the home, office and hotel room of Mr. Trump’s longtime attorney, Michael Cohen, who is reportedly being investigated for bank fraud, wire fraud and violations of campaign finance law. Among the materials reportedly seized by the F.B.I. were documents relating to Ms. Daniels, to whom Mr. Cohen made a $130,000 payment under the terms of a nondisclosure agreement to prevent her from speaking out about her sexual encounter with Mr. Trump. As legal analysts have written, whoever was behind the payment to Ms. Daniels — Mr. Cohen claims that his client, then running for president, had no knowledge of the agreement — it’s likely that it ran afoul of disclosure requirements for campaign contributions.

Though Ms. Daniels has disclaimed any connection to the #MeToo movement, Mr. Trump’s efforts to keep her quiet are strikingly similar to what has been uncovered about the legal mechanics used to silence victims of Harvey Weinstein’s abuse. Her experience is an illustration of how powerful men use money and connections to shield themselves from consequences, perhaps straying over the line of what the law allows. Part of Ms. Daniels’s appeal is her willingness to explain how these things work, recalling Mr. Trump’s own insistence that he could “drain the swamp” precisely because he knew how it was filled.

Keep in mind that Watergate, too, was a story about anonymous flows of money to political campaigns. Two chronicles of Richard Nixon’s downfall stand out as particularly insightful right now: Elizabeth Drew’s “Washington Journal,” a diary of the author’s life while covering the scandal, and Leon Neyfakh’s “Slow Burn,” a podcast on Watergate ephemera. These works don’t tell the story of Watergate straight through but, instead, describe the experience of blundering through the scandal in a state of perpetual confusion, not knowing which parts of the story were important or what the overall story was.

The United States is in a similar place today. In the midst of the chaos, seeing the Mueller investigation as an uncovering of corruption can elucidate one thread of the current story, even as the special counsel continues his bigger-picture study of obstruction and election interference away from the public eye.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of viewing Mr. Mueller as a savior, an omniscient narrator who will soon reveal all. While there’s no way of knowing how important this narrative of corruption will be to the investigation as a whole, it does make plain that many of the problems he has unearthed are beyond his power as a prosecutor to resolve.

Instead, addressing them will require political will. The prosecution of Mr. Manafort may bring some justice, for example, but the loopholes that made possible the graft he is accused still exist for others to potentially exploit. In the absence of stricter, better-enforced regulations, foreign money will continue to be able to flow into United States elections.

These are issues to which Mr. Mueller cannot provide a solution, however long the public waits. Mr. Mueller is both a prosecutor and a storyteller. But the response to the story he tells is up to the country to determine through politics.

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