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STEINBERG: As Russia meddling plot thickens, focus on what’s important

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, departs Capitol Hill following a closed door meeting last year. | Associated Press

Now it gets complicated.

On Monday, special counsel Robert Mueller III named former Trump campaign director Paul Manafort and his associate, Rick Gates, in a 12-count indictment related to laundering Russian money. An hour later, George Papadopoulos’ guilty plea, for lying to the FBI about his relations with Russia, was unsealed.

Cue the timelines and relationship charts.

OPINION

Those of us old enough to remember Watergate — sigh, the scandal in the early 1970s that brought down the Nixon administration — recall just how labyrinthine this kind of thing can become, a sprawling opera buffa with an enormous supporting cast of bagmen, functionaries and tangential-yet-important lowlives.

Nixon — Richard Nixon, the president — was forced to resign as even his supporters began recognizing his guilt in 1974. I assume people of today know that, but then again, assuming Americans know stuff, whether history or science or current events, is not a winning strategy anymore. Assuming it ever was.

Knowing stuff is hard. Life is complicated, which is why people prefer to dream up conspiracy theories and simple pat explanations for complicated situations, or distract themselves from news they don’t like with shiny objects — “What about Hillary?” — little snow globes they can give a shake. Will any investigation, no matter what it finds, lure them out of their hall of mirrors?

That question will be answered down the road. Before we get lost in the minutia of the investigation, waiting for the tide of prosecution to start lapping at the steps of the White House, assuming it’s not there now, we should remember to look at the big picture, and always keep in mind the most important thing.

The most important thing is: Russia had an active, significant role in swinging the 2016 election to Donald Trump. That is a fact, though, as we see with climate change, facts can get ignored when they conflict with private interests, especially when that interest is a passionate desire not to acknowledge not only that you voted for a liar, bully and fraud in 2016, but also that he was in cahoots with the Russians. That’s a big pill to swallow and millions of Americans just won’t do it. Not now. Not ever.

They don’t want to look at this simple truth: Russia did not interfere in the American election because it felt Donald Trump would be the best person to lead the United States. Just the opposite. They did it because a) they knew Trump would be sympathetic to Russian interests, because he not only admires tyrants, but has direct financial interests in Russia and, b) because they knew what a disaster Trump would be as president, though I doubt anybody, certainly not his disappointed Republican enablers, could see just how feeble, divisive and destructive a leader he would be.

The good news is that this investigation is sure to distract Trump from the daily vandalism his administration is set on — scuttling health care, undermining Social Security, attacking the rights of immigrants and gays, gutting environmental regulations, undermining the press, boosting corporate interests, you know the drill. It’s too much to hope that Trump will actually be bounced from office, but I no longer agree with those who observe that Pence is worse. Yes, Pence is a religious zealot. But the risk of our nation becoming a Handmaiden’s Tale theocracy under Pence is less than the risk of our descending into Hunger Games corporate dystopia under Trump. Under Pence, the second-class citizenship of women is a fact. Under Trump. there are no facts.

Besides, the problem isn’t Trump. There are dozens of Trumps lining up to take his place. The problem is a deformation of our national spirit. Once the idea of Russia meddling in a presidential election would horrify Americans of any party. Now at least a third of the country just doesn’t care. Mueller can offer up a video of Trump selling our nation to Vladimir Putin and they’d still refuse to believe. The human mind can be ingenious when it comes to defending folly. Admitting it, however, is a much higher hurdle, and so many Americans just can’t do it.