In the movies and on TV, politics is not just venal and corrupt, it's an arena where sinister conspiracies bloom, and behind the scenes there's always a cynical and brilliant manipulator moving people around like pieces on a chessboard. Complicated plans are hatched and implemented, with multiple moving parts working together in perfect synchrony until the nefarious deeds are done.
In real life, that's not how things usually work. Plotters and planners find themselves thwarted, not only by the extraordinary complexity of politics and the difficulty of forcing people to do things they don't want to, but above all by the stupidity of would-be conspirators.
Which is why it can be a little hard to accept that the 2016 campaign of Donald Trump managed to engage in a conspiracy with the Russian government to swing the election. Has there ever been a presidential candidate or a president who gathered around him a more incompetent, ill-informed, and generally idiotic group of people than Trump? To paraphrase something he once said, when they staffed up his effort to win the White House, they weren't sending their best.
And that, I must warn you, could be the ultimate outcome of the investigations into the Russia scandal. If you're hoping that Special Counsel Robert Mueller or the congressional investigators examining this matter will lay bare a far-reaching conspiracy that undermined the foundations of our very democracy, and that it will be so appalling to any American of any party that Trump will be driven from office, you may wind up disappointed.
I could be wrong, of course — we have so much still to learn. It's entirely possible that we'll find a smoking gun (or an armory of them) that proves there was a concerted effort on the part of the Trump campaign and maybe even Trump himself to cooperate with the Kremlin to destroy Hillary Clinton and put Trump in the Oval Office. But it's starting to look like this collection of buffoons couldn't successfully conspire to make it through the drive-through at Burger King.
But that doesn't mean they didn't try. Each new revelation about Russia seems to fill out a picture of foolish people acting foolishly, and in the process incriminating themselves and others. Take, for instance, campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, who was dumb enough to think it was a good idea to testify before Congress without a lawyer present. In that testimony he revealed that he informed others in the campaign of a trip he had taken to Russia, further undermining repeated denials from people like Jeff Sessions that anyone from the campaign had contacts with Russians — though Page was forced to admit that much of the "incredible insights and outreach" he told campaign officials about in an email came from watching Russian TV.
Then there's George Papadopoulos, the resume-padding "foreign policy expert" who was has apparently been turned by Robert Mueller's team, further implicating others in the Trump campaign. He already made a casualty of Sam Clovis, who was slated to become the chief scientist at the Department of Agriculture despite the fact that he is not a scientist and has zero experience in agriculture. After it was revealed that he was aware of Papadopoulos' efforts to broker a relationship between the campaign and the Russians, Clovis withdrew his nomination.
And of course we have Donald Trump Jr., who reacted to an email explicitly offering Russian government help for the Trump campaign by saying "I love it," and Jared Kushner (another kid who, in Ann Richards' immortal words, was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple), who joined Jr. and Paul Manafort in that ill-fated meeting. And Manafort himself, who was apparently breaking too many laws to count, yet somehow thought that he could take on an incredibly high-profile position running Trump's campaign and no one would start asking questions about his colorful financial life. And Michael Flynn, who lasted all of a few weeks as national security adviser and may be spending a substantially longer time behind bars.
And then, of course, you have the person at the top of this pyramid of pinheads, who's such a genius he demanded the FBI director's personal loyalty, fired him when he didn't get it, and then went on national TV and announced that he fired the director because he wanted to shut down the Russia investigation.
Based on just Mueller's first public moves, there seems little doubt that there were crimes committed around and about all these goings-on. But it's less House of Cards and more Veep — a bunch of people who were inexperienced, not particularly bright, and intoxicated with the idea of power, stumbling over each other and themselves as they tried to engineer something they had no understanding of.
All that doesn't mean that there was no collusion. There may well have been, in ways that would violate the law. It may even reach the president himself, which is what differentiates the truly great scandals (Watergate, Iran-Contra, Lewinsky) from the rest. But it's also possible that while Russia undertook a systematic and organized effort to help Trump get elected (which at this point seems beyond doubt), the Trump campaign's attempts to help them amounted to something less than a conspiracy. It could have been merely a series of foolish and aborted efforts to get Russian assistance, which in the hands of a group of people with any brains might have actually added up to something.
In fact, that could be a creative defense some of the people around Trump could offer to a jury: I would have committed crimes, but I'm far too much of an imbecile to have managed it. You never know — it just might work.