We begin the week with an issue that has dogged our country for four years.
Two weeks ago, a bipartisan report of over a thousand pages from the Republican–led (I’ll repeat that: Republican-led) Senate Intelligence Committee offered the most thorough account yet of the extent to which the Trump campaign coordinated with a hostile foreign government to help put Trump in office in 2016.
That coordination is not in doubt. We know that nearly everything Trump says is the polar opposite of the truth, so when he bleats “No collusion!” you can bet there is collusion aplenty. Evidence of it is mountainous, having been thoroughly documented in the open source media by dogged investigative reporters, by the US Intelligence Community, and by the special counsel Robert Mueller. Anyone who cares to take an objective look at the facts cannot plausibly come away arguing to the contrary. (Lots of folks continue to do so implausibly, however.)
The Senate Intelligence Committee just added to that mountain in a profound way.
The report contained explosive information about the actions of Roger Stone and Wikileaks and the Trump campaign’s connections to both, Trump’s own vulnerability to blackmail, and Russian intelligence’s’ salivation at the prospects for exploiting the inexperience and hubris of the Trump team. Its most startling revelation, however, was to confirm what heretofore has only been speculation: that Paul Manafort’s close associate Konstantin Kilimnik was an active Russian intelligence agent.
Manafort, no naïf, surely knew this, or at the very least had to presume it was a strong possibility, having worked since 2004 for Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who often functioned as a proxy for Putin and his intel services, helping install pro-Kremlin governments around the world.
Kilimnik was Manafort’s conduit to Deripaska. As such, the Senate report concluded that “Mr. Manafort created ‘a grave counterintelligence threat’ by sharing inside information about the presidential race with Mr. Kilimnik and the Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs whom he served.”
The report portrayed Mr. Manafort as deeply compromised by years of business dealings with those oligarchs. Collectively, they had paid him tens of millions of dollars, lent him millions more and may also have owed him millions. These complex financial entanglements apparently figured in Mr. Manafort’s decision to give Mr. Kilimnik inside campaign information, including confidential polling data and details of Mr. Trump’s campaign strategy….
“What did the Russians do with all this information, how did they use it, did they use it?” Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the committee’s top Democrat, asked in an interview on Tuesday. “Those are serious counterintelligence questions we may never get the full answer on.”
Mr. Manafort recognized the Kremlin’s interests, the report said. “This model can greatly benefit the Putin government if employed at the correct levels with the appropriate commitments to success,” he wrote in a memo to Mr. Deripaska.
The report called Mr. Manafort’s efforts for the oligarch “in effect, influence work for the Russian government and its interests.”
Ask yourself what the GOP, Sean Hannity, and the rest of Fox Nation would say if Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager had been regularly passing information to Russian intelligence and coordinating with it to help get her elected.
I’ll save you the trouble: She would have been burned at the stake before the metaphorical ink was dry on the story.
A PHANTOM INVESTIGATION
Yesterday yet another incredibly damning piece of this story broke, as Michael Schmidt of the New York Times reported this:
The Justice Department secretly took steps in 2017 to narrow the investigation into Russian election interference and any links to the Trump campaign, according to former law enforcement officials, keeping investigators from completing an examination of President Trump’s decades-long personal and business ties to Russia.
The special counsel who finished the investigation, Robert S. Mueller III, secured three dozen indictments and convictions of some top Trump advisers, and he produced a report that outlined Russia’s wide-ranging operations to help get Mr. Trump elected and the president’s efforts to impede the inquiry.
But law enforcement officials never fully investigated Mr. Trump’s own relationship with Russia, even though some career FBI counterintelligence investigators thought his ties posed such a national security threat that they took the extraordinary step of opening an inquiry into them. Within days, the former deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein curtailed the investigation without telling the bureau, all but ensuring it would go nowhere.
(Schmidt’s article is excerpted from his book Donald Trump v. The United States: Inside the Struggle to Stop a President, which will be published tomorrow, September 1. See also Jeffrey Toobin’s new book, True Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Investigation of Donald Trump.)
Rosenstein, you’ll recall, is the guy who wrote the letter justifying the May 2017 firing of Jim Comey in the first place, on the laughable grounds that he had allegedly been unfair to Hillary Clinton in his investigation of her. Rod is now emerging as an even more villainous figure than we first thought.
At the time Rosenstein was painted as a tortured soul, an “institutionialist,” we were told, who was tricked into drafting that letter. He must have been an “institutionalist” under the same definition that Bill Barr is one.
In this telling, Rosenstein—a lifelong Republican, let’s remember—was subsequently so horrified at how the White House misused his letter that he quickly appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to carry on the Russia investigation that the FBI had begun. That narrative itself was always suspect, as Rosenstein clearly understood that Trump was directing him to create a pretext for firing Comey. (And I’ll remind you that, as Deputy Attorney General, it fell to Rosenstein to do so because his boss, AG Jeff Sessions, had rightly been forced to recuse himself due to his own implication in the Trump campaign and the Russia affair.)
Mueller’s appointment was framed as Rosenstein’s pushback to Trump, when really it was a desperate attempt at spin and damage control after the public outcry over the hamhanded dismissal of the FBI director proved far greater than the administration had anticipated.
Now we learn that the truth was even worse: that it was all misdirection, as Rosenstein restricted Mueller from doing a full investigation from the very start.
As the Times reports:
Many Democrats embraced the appointment as a sign that law enforcement would complete a full accounting of Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia.
But privately, Mr. Rosenstein instructed Mr. Mueller to conduct only a criminal investigation into whether anyone broke the law in connection with Russia’s 2016 election interference, former law enforcement officials said.
But that ain’t all. With Mueller effectively circumscribed, Rosenstein also made sure the FBI could not fully investigate the matter either:
Mr. Rosenstein concluded the FBI lacked sufficient reason to conduct an investigation into the president’s links to a foreign adversary. Mr. Rosenstein determined that the investigators were acting too hastily in response to the firing days earlier of James B. Comey as FBI director, and he suspected that the acting bureau director who approved the opening of the inquiry, Andrew G. McCabe, had conflicts of interest. Mr. Rosenstein never told Mr. McCabe about his decision, leaving the FBI with the impression that the special counsel would take on the investigation into the president as part of his broader duties. Mr. McCabe said in an interview that had he known Mr. Mueller would not continue the inquiry, he would have had the FBI perform it.
In other words, Trump’s DOJ kneecapped the Russia probe from the get-go, in ways we are only now beginning to fully understand.
The handcuffing of Mueller was bad enough. (Ask yourself why Rosenstein and the DOJ never made that public.) But the neutering of the FBI was especially crucial, as it sidelined the nation’s lead counterintelligence agency in the biggest counterintelligence case in American history, one that went to the very heart of US national security:
“It was first and foremost a counterintelligence case,” Mr. McCabe said. “Could the president actually be the point of coordination between the campaign and the Russian government? Could the president actually be maintaining some sort of inappropriate relationship with our most significant adversary in the world?”
For the next ten months, Andrew McCabe remained in charge of the FBI, the whole time believing that Robert Mueller was investigating Mr. Trump’s personal and financial ties to Russia and that his agency did not have to.
But Rod Rosenstein had unilaterally decided the FBI should not investigate Trump’s connections to Moscow, and ordered it not to do so, giving the director the FBI the impression that the special counsel was on that. Meanwhile, he had told the special counsel not to investigate it either.
This is flat-out sabotage of the rightful prosecution of justice that the Office of the Attorney General is charged with overseeing. It is shameful beyond belief.
It’s also important to remember that, before Rosenstein curtailed it, the FBI was conducting two separate investigations, even though they are usually conflated in the public mind: a broader inquiry (codenamed Crossfire Hurricane) into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and its efforts at electoral interference, opened in the summer of 2016 before Trump was even elected, and one launched in 2017 to determine if Trump was actively compromised by the Kremlin.
Seems like something the American people would want to know, no? So what reason would the Trump administration have for suppressing and undermining it?
I can’t possibly imagine.
SPARE THE ROD
It ought to go without saying that this is an atomic bomb of a story, in many ways far worse than the revelations about Kilimink or anything else in the Senate report, damning and informative as that was. Paul Manafort is a sleazy dirty trickster going back to the Reagan era; Rod Rosenstein was Deputy Attorney General of the United Sates.
In light of this revelation, Trump’s entire hysterical, two-year long smear campaign against the Mueller probe looks like mere kabuki. He knew from the start he was going to skate.
But there is another interpretation, of course:
That Trump truly was terrified, even with the strict limits which he privately knew had been imposed on Mueller and the FBI, because he knew that he and his team likely did commit literal crimes for which he could be prosecuted, in addition to impeachable acts that might justify his removal from office even if he could not be proven to have violated any laws.
But by obstructing the investigation in the egregious manner that he did, Trump was able to hide evidence of that, and has kept if from the light of day even now.
To that end, as bad as the Senate Intel Committee report was, it could have and should have been even worse, had they not been denied access to Trump’s tax returns and other financial records. Schmidt again:
Senators depicted extensive ties between Trump associates and Russia, identified a close associate of a former Trump campaign chairman as a Russian intelligence officer and outlined how allegations about Mr. Trump’s encounters with women during trips to Moscow could be used to compromise him. But the senators acknowledged they lacked access to the full picture, particularly any insight into Mr. Trump’s finances.
Yet slowly but surely, bit by bit, the evidence is seeping out.
In the midst of the pandemic, a historic economic collapse, a painful reckoning with the legacy of slavery playing out in the streets, and the unprecedented threat of neo-fascist authoritarianism at the highest levels all roiling these United States, Russiagate feels like ancient history, a canceled show that few wish to watch again. But it is part and parcel of the malevolent incompetence—and incompetent malevolence—of the regime that gave us those four horsemen (particularly the last).
Trump partisans to this day cling to the rock-ribbed belief that the entire Russia thing was a hoax, and that they and the president were proved right. (See also Barr’s openly deceitful handling of the SCO report, beginning with his dishonest and outrageously misleading four-page public summary of it in March 2019.)
They have to hew to that belief, as any honest accounting of the facts leaves their hero exposed as the epic traitor that he is. (Please don’t email me about the dictionary definition of treason. File that along with the argument that we weren’t really at war in Vietnam because it was never formally declared.) They will surely be unmoved by these latest revelations, and their impact on the election will be slight at best, or even nil. That willful denial, however, does not make this information any less explosive or damning.
Over the past four years of this national nightmare, I have often said—by way of consoling myself—that history will have the final say, as it always does, and that its judgment on this man, this administration, its supporters, and the America that allowed all this to unfold will be harsh. That refrain has grown tedious….but that doesn’t make it any less true.
We are already beginning to see history’s verdict revealing itself.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images