In a heavily cited column this week, the New York Times‘ David Brooks yawned that despite the endless sleuthing by the press and investigators to unearth evidence that Trump presidential campaign colluded with the Russians to monkeywrench the November election, there just isn’t very much there. Detecting “little evidence there is that any underlying crime occurred,” Brooks compared the collusion story to the overblown Whitewater scandal, which he covered as a Wall Street Journal op-ed editor. Headlining his piece “Let’s Not Get Carried Away,” Brooks joined an entrenched rump consensus of Russia-collusion doubters, which include Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone), Glenn Greenwald (the Intercept), former acting CIA Director Michael Morell, Harvard law professor emeritus Alan M. Dershowitz, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), Joshua Holland (The Nation), and of course, President Donald Trump.
The rumpers got an indirect boost at week’s end from an 8,700-word tick-tock in the Washington Post, “Obama’s Secret Struggle to Punish Russia for Putin’s Election Assault,” which mentions collusion only in passing. It makes the more solid case—doubted not even by the collusion doubters—of how the Russians applied torque to the November election. Laying the election perfidy directly at the feet of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the story unfolds like a horror movie, as the Obama administration discovered the Russian efforts and began to take defensive and offensive measures.
The Post piece could shift the political debate from its current Trump-Russia emphasis to a Putin-Russia one, and reframe the scandal. Perhaps Trump’s involvement was of the unwitting kind, where he didn’t collude as much as let the waters of the scandal help wash him to victory in a passive manner. This doesn’t mean no collusion took place, or that those probes should cease. After all, numerous Trump associates got cozy with Russians: There’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, with his banqueting with Putin and unreported phone calls with the Russian ambassador about lifting sanctions. There’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his unreported meetings with the ambassador. Son-in-law to Trump and top aide Jared Kushner also had undisclosed contacts with the ambassador as well as a Russian banker. And former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort has enjoyed multiple and interlocking business connections with fishy Russians, as has Trump.
The debate’s reframing won’t necessarily be good news for Trump. Read in its entirety, the Post piece throws a darker shroud over the Trump presidency as it shows how the Russians mounted an electronic invasion of our political process to help Trump, cripple Hillary Clinton, and otherwise undermine public faith in the electoral process. The FBI suspects that Russians tried to penetrate election systems in 21 states, the Post reports. The invasion panicked the senior levels of the Obama administration privy to the intelligence behind the attack: Deep sourcing into the Russian government by U.S. intelligence captured direct monkeywrenching instructions from Putin, the Post reports, and moved President Barack Obama to authorize the deployment of “implants” in Russian networks.
Presumably, everything stated by the Post has been presented in a more vivid classified package to President Trump. The Russian were coming, the Russians were coming, then they came and poured a big mess of disorder into the election. So knowing what he must know, why is he joshing with Russian diplomats in the White House and defaming former FBI director James Comey as a “nut job” to them? The republic is in peril, and instead of confronting the Russians, Trump is busying himself by driving his golf cart onto a green?
What did Trump know about Russian interference and when did he know it could become the investigation’s new battle cry. The question seems inescapable, no matter what kind of horse halters Sarah Huckabee Sanders straps to the White House press corps to nullify their inquiries. The Republican leadership has questions to answer, too. According to the Post, Republicans resisted Obama administration efforts during the campaign to phrase a bipartisan warning about the Russian raid: When a convoy containing the heads of the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, as well as the president’s homeland security adviser voyaged to Capitol Hill to brief leadership, the “meeting devolved into a partisan squabble,” with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) rejecting the findings. Somewhere, Putin had to be chortling over the discord he had injected in Washington.
The collusion story is far from dead, thanks to the hot gases emanating from Michael Flynn’s broiling case. Prosecutors appear to have a solid case against him for lying to federal investigators about his Russian trips, filing misleading and incomplete reports about his business dealings and accepting foreign payments. Has he rolled and started to cooperate with the FBI? That’s what Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a former U.S. attorney, surmised on July 19 during a CNN chat with the excitable Wolf Blitzer.
“If you draw conclusions as a prosecutor about what we can see from the Flynn investigation, all the signals are suggesting that he’s already cooperating with the FBI and may have been for some time,” the senator said. “He’s like the hole in a donut of subpoenas.” Whitehouse finds Flynn’s silence as a further signal that he’s singing. “That’s what prosecutors strongly encourage cooperating witnesses to do,” he said.
As Max Boot put it in Foreign Policy, special counsel Robert Mueller has been “assembling a hunter-killer team of crack investigators and lawyers.” He has recruited attorneys Andrew Weissmann, an expert in flipping witnesses, and Elizabeth Prelogar, who is fluent in Russian. The team appears to be rooting around for evidence of financial crimes, according to earlier reporting by the Post, specifically money laundering by Trump associates.
As our current scandal without a name matures—remember, we’re only six months or so into this one—it is beginning to resemble previous political scandals like Watergate, the Bert Lance affair, BCCI, Iran-Contra, Whitewater and the Clinton sex affair. As investigators peel back the turf looking for criminal evidence, they invariably find an unexpected ecology of voles and moles, white grubs and chinch bugs, sod webworms and mole crickets, spittlebugs and armyworms. The variety causes the investigation to expand from the lawn to the field, from the field to the forest and oceans, from the forest and oceans to the city, and in this case, perhaps, all the way to the man in the Trump Tower. Collusion might not have taken place, but as long as the special prosecutor is on the case, time is not on the president’s side.
Help name the scandal. Send your suggestions to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. This week’s suggested names: “Trumpocchio” (Thomas Schwartz), “A Nesting Doll Rot” (Franklin Liu), “Trumpstruktsion” (Lee Hwang), “TrumpleThinSkin” (Steve Wilson), “Orangewater” (Josh Rumbut, Doug Darrow), “Alt-indict” (Josh Rumbut), “Bull-shitvic Solution” (Chris Titus), “Comey Island” (Dan Gealt), “Cohny Island” (Dan Gealt), “TrumptyDumpty’s Fall” (Tom David), “Humpty Trumpty” (Ross Asselstine), “Trumpsterfire” (Robert Fisher),“DeepVote” (Gil Glover), “Tower of Babble” (Ross Asselstine), “The Rusky Ring” (Josh Rumbut), “Russia-colluza” (Louis Soloff), “ScamAlot” (Richismo), “Tiffany’s Revenge” (John Earnhardt), “The Gulag Archip-A-Lago” (Paul Spinks), and “Orange is the New Red” (Gary Soucie). My email alerts mowed the lawn last night, my Twitter feed fertilized, and my RSS feed conspired with the spider mites.