PARIS -- It's hard to blame Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller for veering off the beaten path in his mandate to investigate the possibility of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. When the only Russians you've been able to implicate are 13 internet trolls in St. Petersburg who will never be extradited to stand trial, you have to follow the leads wherever they take you. At least until someone shuts down the whole adventure by taking away the blank checks.
Of course, that's unlikely to happen because no one wants to be accused of colluding with the Russians or obstructing justice. Mueller seems to have carte blanche to go on a wild goose chase around the world under the pretext of a Russian hunt. Buckle up, America: It's shaping up to be an interesting ride through the dark and mysterious side of global politics.
Underneath all the drum-banging about Russia, the facts emerging from the Mueller investigation are mostly highlighting the impact of shadowy middlemen and their lobbying activities.
Former Trump campaign adviser Paul Manafort has been accused of paying European officials to lobby on behalf of Ukraine, albeit for years before joining the Trump campaign team. The investigation has also unearthed an alleged attempt by Israel to get members of the Trump transition team (Gen. Michael Flynn and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner) to influence Russia's U.N. Security Council vote on a settlement matter important to Israel.
Was it President-elect Trump's decision at the time to lobby Russia on behalf of Israel? That's for Mueller to ascertain. Can we rely on him to do that?
Are these the kind of foreign interests that the American people voted Trump into office to prioritize and defend? If, as an American voter, your answer is "no," then you understand why backroom deals struck by unelected officials (possibly made behind the president's back) are problematic and anti-democratic.
The New York Times reports that Mueller's investigation is now focusing on a Lebanese-American businessman, George Nader, who reportedly served as an adviser to United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in much the same way that Manafort is said to have served former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The Times describes Nader as a "back-channel negotiator with Syria during the Clinton administration."
See why this is a problem? Why do Americans need a State Department if they can just rely on mysterious individuals who have gotten friendly with world leaders to negotiate delicate matters related to war and peace? If you need these types of people to do your bidding outside a supposed system of accountability and checks and balances, then the system is totally broken and needs fixing.
The world of international affairs is rife with these kinds of characters. They play a role in sensitive negotiations on everything from war to major industrial deals worth billions of dollars. Sometimes they work within a think tank alongside other middlemen -- lest anyone think that the mission of a think tank is strictly limited to thinking.
In at least three recent cases here in France, such middlemen were caught up in scandals after their activities ended up in the spotlight. Such scandals often lead to the implication of politicians involved in shady dealings.
Speaking of third-party influence, is Trump going out of his way to distance himself from Israel and the UAE in light of the recent collusion accusations? Well, he just had a White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference. Would Trump meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of an "American Russian Public Affairs Committee" conference?
Rank-and-file CIA case officers who have spent their careers working in operations will tell you that they consider all Middle Eastern countries -- every single one of them -- to be counterintelligence foes of America, despite also being political allies in some cases.
So which is it, Washington (and Mueller)? Is all foreign collusion bad? Or just the kind of foreign collusion that hasn't already been fully integrated into the landscape of American politics to the point of being "too big to fail"?