Jim Comey’s dramatic testimony last week significantly ratcheted up the intensity of the greasefire engulfing Donald J. Trump, whom it still pains me to describe as the President of the United States. Yesterday’s tap dance recital by Confederate General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, and the astonishing rumors that Trump is contemplating firing special counsel Robert Mueller have only added fuel to those noxious flames.
For those who dislike Trump but have been skeptical of any skullduggery with Russia, the shift to obstruction of justice as the likely grounds on which Trump will find the locks changed on the Lincoln Bedroom is very welcome. “The coverup is always worse than the crime” as the cliché goes, although in this case the potential crime—conspiring with a foreign power to throw a presidential election—is actually a fuckload worse than any coverup. (What they really mean is that the coverup is usually the thing that gets you caught.) Regardless, Trump is tailor-made to create more problems for himself with his predilection for Mob-like tactics to intimidate investigators and squash an honest inquiry. Even if there ultimately proves to be no there there on Russia (and that’s a big “if”), Trump is creating reasons to justify his removal with an almost kamikaze-like determination.
So for that very reason we have to ask: WHY IS HE DOING THAT? Why take such extreme measures to block an investigation at every turn—and at such risk to his presidency—if the allegations regarding Russia are false? It certainly does not convince anyone that he has nothing to hide, not even those predisposed to give him the benefit of the doubt (a group largely limited to Klan rallies and sexual predator chat rooms).
Some on the left—notably Glenn Greenwald—have scorned the progressive fixation on possible Trump collusion with Russia as wishful thinking, a left wing indulgence in tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory more characteristic of the right wing lunatic fringe, and a waste of valuable energy better spent fighting the loathsome Trump agenda. In its most critical version, Russiagate is a liberal analogue to birtherism, a handhold for an enraged opposition party desperate for a reason to declare a hated presidency illegitimate.
(The analogy is imperfect at best, of course. Birtherism was a racist fantasy without the slightest basis in reality. Russiagate is at least plausible—highly plausible, in fact—even if it is eventually disproven. We shall see. But the right’s unconvincing attempt to depict it as a “fairytale” smacks of a carefully coordinated media strategy, to include a directive to use that term, judging by the suspicious frequency with which it pops out of the mouths of Trump apologists.)
But I do understand the criticism. It’s almost too much to hope that this horrific administration did something so criminal, so self-destructive, so blatantly treasonous that it would bring about its own downfall. But the other equally believable way of looking it this phenomenon is that the two threads are inherently connected. OF COURSE an administration as venal, immoral, self-aggrandizing, and contemptible as Trump’s would be involved in such crimes. It would be more surprising if they were not. This is an administration (and a campaign before that) whose stock-in-trade is lies, greed, xenophobia, racism, divisiveness, and wanton corruption on a scale never before seen in presidential politics, which is saying something. Are we surprised that such people might make secret deals with our enemies to gain power in exchange for favors and fealty to be named later?
So in that sense Russiagate is not an aberration or the fulfillment of liberal magical thinking at all, but the logical conclusion of a leader and an administration this abominable. Admittedly, the scope and scale of the crimes of which Team Trump is accused are so outlandish that they would embarrass the worst airport spy novelist. But there you have it.
RUSSIAN ROULETTE WITH SIX CHAMBERS FILLED
So let’s stop for a moment to take a quick survey of what we know about Russiagate thus far. Obviously, our information is very very incomplete. I remain confident that the truth will come out as result of Bob Mueller’s inquiry—unless Trump fires him—along with the efforts of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and to a lesser extent its counterpart in the House (compromised by its chairman, the oleaginous Trump toady Devin Nunes), and we may yet see an independent commission as well. What Congress does about the conclusions those entities come to is another matter. But even the incomplete, raw facts we already know are rather damning when viewed by anyone with a shred of objectivity.
The Russians interfered with the 2016 presidential election with the express purpose of helping Donald Trump win. That is not in dispute by any serious observer. Trump himself actively encouraged Russia to hack into the computers of his Democratic rival, which it did. Unwittingly or not, Trump also personally helped spread disinformation—“fake news”—that had been generated by Russia to hurt Hillary Clinton. And both during the campaign and in the transition period, Trump associates had improper contacts with Russian officials, including intelligence officers. All seventeen US intelligence agencies concurred on the issue of Russian interference, which was corroborated by independent reporting by the most respected journalistic organizations in the country, as well as allied intelligence agencies who were the first to warn the US government of what was going on. Only Trump’s most fanatic followers believe otherwise, and of course Trump himself, who evidently is so insecure about the legitimacy of his presidency that he lives in dread fear of anything that suggests he did not win with a North Korean-like 100% of the vote.
None of that looks good for Trump. And that stuff doesn’t even rise to the level of active collusion, which would be an actual act of treason. So at a bare minimum one might be justifiably outraged at Trump’s relationship with Russia even without believing he or his people are outright traitors.
But do we think Trump and his people actually even further? Again, let’s look at the record. Cui bono, as they say. Who benefits?
The Trump administration’s eagerness to do favors for Russia while getting nothing in return (that we know of) is eyebrow-raising to say the least. Among the gifts: lifting sanctions imposed by the Obama administration, prevailing on the GOP to change its platform on Ukraine and Crimea, and returning to the Kremlin a pair of mansions in Long Island—openly known to be spy facilities—that Obama took away in retaliation for Russian misbehavior. The capper—thus far—has been Trump’s jawdropping decision to hand over to Moscow top secret compartmentalized information passed to the US by Israel, without Tel Aviv’s consent or foreknowledge, not to mention that of anyone in the US intelligence community. That unfathomable action may well have been a function of Trump’s well-known eagerness to brag and impress, rather than of any duties as a Russian stooge. But it speaks to his level of comfort with the Kremlin and his ignorance both of diplomacy and the basics of handling classified material, to say nothing of general idiocy and unfitness for office.
Trump’s behavior during the recent NATO summit, in which he excoriated our oldest and staunchest allies while refusing to reaffirm Article 5 mandating collective defense was a wet dream for Putin. As many noted, Trump may or may not be a Russian asset, but in Brussels he behaved exactly as the Kremlin would have wanted a Russian asset to behave. In shaking confidence in a mutual defense pact that has kept Europe secure for more than seventy years, Trump’s performance could not have better served Russian interests if the Kremlin itself had scripted it. Hmmmm.
Of course, an affinity for Russia is pervasive in Trumpworld. Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort was a paid flack for Russian political interests, which was why he was forced to resign. Steve Bannon and the so-called “alt-right” (let’s just call them what they are: neo-Nazi white supremacists) are deeply enamored of Russia for their own twisted quasi-eugenic reasons. And Trump himself famously has never had a bad word to say about Vladimir Putin: this from a man who has picked fights with the Pope, a Gold Star familiy, beauty queens, Meryl Streep, the cast of Hamilton, and the prime minister of Australia, just to name a few. Yes, it could be that Trump merely admires a preening bully like Putin, which would be of a piece with Trump’s own self-image and man-crushes on various other so-called strongmen, from Duterte to Kim Jong-un to the Saudi royal family. But the weirdness, consistency, and intensity of his Russophilia is highly suspect. It’s hard to believe that there aren’t more concrete motives in play.
WHAT’S MY MOTIVATION?
So what can we conclude from all this? Again, lawyers, investigators, and Congressmen will deliver the evidence, but as private citizens we are within our rights to speculate.
The most extreme and baroque scenario, of course, is that Trump is being blackmailed by the Kremlin and as a result is their clandestine agent. (Not very clandestine, actually, but that’s the idea.) The possibility that the Kremlin has compromising salacious information on Trump as alleged in the Steele Dossier (one of my favorite Ludlum novels) seems farfetched, although Trump’s adolescent fixation on his sexual escapades does not help his argument. Apparently in his many meetings and conversations with Comey, Trump was far more agitated about the alleged “golden shower” tape than anything else.
What is not farfetched at all is the possibility that Trump’s business interests are heavily entangled with the octopus of Russian organized crime, government, and security services (which for all practical purposes are merely separate tentacles of the same rapacious beast), incentivizing him to act favorably toward Moscow without being an actual controlled “asset” in the strict sense of the word. Of course, since Trump won’t release his taxes—and the Republican Party and rank-and-file are acting like that’s acceptable—we don’t know. Perhaps the emoluments suit recently filed by the Attorneys General of Maryland and the District of Columbia will force his taxes to light.
Trump has claimed he has no business ties to Russia, which we know to be patently false. His own sons have bragged about all the money the Trump family businesses get from Russia. Again, tax returns would be helpful in sorting out truth from Pinocchio-isms, which is precisely why Trump won’t release them.
Rachel Maddow has extensively documented Trump’s involvement in real estate sales tied to his massive debt to Deutsche Bank, which extends to laundering illicit Russian money through a sketchy Cypriot bank run by associates of Putin (which is to say, by Putin). One of the chief officers of that bank—and this is almost beyond belief—is the man who is now the United States Secretary of Treasury under Trump, Wilbur Ross. In normal times that would be a front page international scandal, but in the current climate it’s just Tuesday.
So short of water sports with Russian hookers and/or a Manchurian candidate brainwashing, the most plausible scenario seems to be that Trump simply does not want to piss off people who have great financial leverage over him, or through whom he makes a lot of money , or both. Not very titillating, but very very believable. And that is the most charitable interpretation that the facts allow. For Trump, it only gets worse from there.
WHAT ARE THEY TRYING TO HIDE?
Perhaps the most damning and suspicious point of all is this simple question: If all of the Trump team’s contacts with the Russians were innocent, why do the White House and members of Trump’s inner circle keep lying about those contacts? That dog quite plainly does not hunt. Which brings us back to the original question. Why so desperately try to dodge and undermine the Russiagate investigation unless there is something incriminating to hide?
Jeff Sessions lied under oath, claiming he had never had any contacts with the Russians as a Trump surrogate, then was exposed as having had at least two clandestine meetings with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak, the Kremlin’s top spy in the US. Mike Flynn and Jared Kushner similarly failed to disclose such contacts with Russian officials. Flynn also failed to mention that he was a paid agent of a foreign power—Turkey—and had even intervened on Ankara’s behalf to halt long-planned US military operations against ISIS that the Turks opposed. (This from a retired three-star general and career intelligence officer who during the campaign self-righteously railed over Hillary Clinton’s possible carelessness with classified material, memorably leading bloodthirsty chants of “Lock her up.”) Kushner floated a proposal to the Russians so startling that even they were caught off guard: that the Trump team use Russia’s own secure secret communications network for a backchannel to the Kremlin to prevent US intelligence from listening in. Kislyak, Lavrov, & Co. didn’t realize that they would soon be getting top secret compartmentalized information handed to them on a silver platter from the President himself during a face to face meeting in the Oval Office.
It is hard to believe that Sessions, Flynn, and especially a callow neophyte like Kushner undertook those actions on their own initiative and without Trump’s knowledge. It’s far more likely that they did so at his direction. Obviously, that is an explosive conclusion and one that Mueller and the other prosecutors will have to prove, if they can. But purely as a matter of common sense, it is difficult to believe that Trump was not involved. Why has Trump been so desperate to stop the investigation into Michael Flynn’s actions, to the point of sacking the director of the FBI over it? Is it just because he is so loyal to Flynn, a man he also summarily fired? Uh, maybe. But far more likely is the simplest and most obvious explanation of all: Because he ordered Flynn to take those actions.
“I’M AS SORRY AS YOU ARE, DMITRI”
Needless to say, there is some irony in Americans expressing shock and outrage at Russian meddling in our election, given the long history of American meddling in foreign elections (and by “meddling” I’m including covert CIA attempts to overthrow foreign governments by force). Governments try to influence foreign elections all the time, sometimes in benign ways and sometimes more maliciously. We don’t have to like it or tolerate it, but it’s naïve to be shocked by it.
What is genuinely outrageous, however, is the idea that American citizens would collaborate with such efforts, or condone others doing so, which is what the overwhelming majority of Republicans are brazenly doing. Polls show that tribalism in America is so extreme at the moment—at least on the right—that few Republican voters say they would be bothered even if hard evidence emerged that Trump did in fact conspire with the Kremlin.
Let’s stop and take that in a moment. Wow.
The reasons given are usually on the order of “Ah, all politicians do that sort of thing,” or “Hillary’s done/would do worse,” or “Whatever it took to keep Hillary out of office, I’m fine with it.” Such thinking does not deserve to be dignified with a response, but you can imagine for yourself what those same voters would likely have said if the roles were reversed and Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton were suspected of conspiring with Vladimir Putin to throw the election. Hell, the Tea Party wanted to lynch Barack just for putting his feet up on his desk. (OK, to be fair, they wanted to lynch him because he’s black. But they got pretty upset about the desk thing.)
In his testimony, Jim Comey made plain that Russia executed a shocking, extensive, and well-planned act of war against the United States and other Western democracies and will continue to do so. To much less public fanfare, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently testified that the possibility of Trump/Russia collusion dwarfs Watergate, making it arguably the worst scandal in American history. The Russian effort represents a far more serious threat to American sovereignty and democracy than ISIS. But we have been conditioned to freak out over “terrorism,” especially when carried out by brown people of a different religion, to the point where it even beats out decades of ingrained Russophobia. (A Russophobia that, historically, was led by the Republican Party.)
Trump himself has shown zero interest in investigating Russian interference in the election—not even lip service. On the contrary, in fact: Trump bragged of shutting down the investigation, both to NBC’s Lester Holt on national television, and more shockingly, to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister face to face in the Oval Office. (Come on, guy, at least try to act innocent.) After Comey’s testimony, MSNBC anchor and former Bush White House communications chief Nicole Wallace sagely pointed out that Donald Trump spoke with Jim Comey in person or by phone NINE times in the four months. Obama spoke with Comey only twice in three YEARS. Not ONCE in any of those nine conversations did the President of the United States Donald Trump appear concerned about such Russian action, or even inquire about the progress of the investigation into it. Does that sound like the behavior of a man who really wants to get to the bottom of any such interference….or for that matter, the behavior of a man who is supposed to be in charge of the security and defense of the United States of America?
So yes, the perfect, almost mathematical symmetry of Russiagate is almost too good to be true. But it only makes sense. Of course Trump would do such a shocking thing, and of course he would then try to squash the inquiry into it, and of course the venal and loathsome beast that is the modern Republican Party would stand by him and pretend it’s all OK. But the comeuppance that appears to be on the way (I’m not holding my breath) is, in the end, a matter of karma, if one believes in that sort of thing. Trump is a despicable, poisonous cretin with a long history of immoral, illegal, and unconscionable behavior in both his personal and professional lives. He is jawdroppingly unqualified for the presidency and should never have come within a mile of winning the Oval Office if there was anything resembling justice in this world. But he did. And as the cosmic scales now give signs of righting themselves, he may well get frogmarched out of that office in chains because of that very sort of behavior.
Nixon/Trump mashup illustration; artist unknown