Has the Don Jr. Bombshell Blown Up the Trump-Russia Case?

By On May 22, 2018

Has the Don Jr. Bombshell Blown Up the Trump-Russia Case?

Donald Trump

It seems like only yesterday that Keith Olberman was declaring, “We are at war with Russia,” and posing for pictures of himself wrapped in a U.S. flag like a flood victim in a Red Cross blanket. Yet it’s been going on a year and a half and, well, plus ça change. Last week, The New York Times ran nearly 4,000 words on the origins of the Russiagate investigation, and all but apologized for having run a semi-exculpatory headline in 2016 noting that “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” Over 60 paragraphs down, however, we could read that “no public evidence has surfaced connecting Mr. Trump’s advisers to the hacking or linking Mr. Trump himself to the Russian government’s disruptive e fforts.” Is it time for some theories of the case to change?

Suddenly, Russia seems to be yesterday’s news. Apparently, in August 2016, an emissary for two Gulf state princes, a social-media-manipulating Israeli, and former Blackwater chief Erik Prince met with Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower to offer help to the campaign. This is a sign, notes the Times, “that countries other than Russia may have offered assistance to the Trump campaign.” Where does this leave us on Russia? Jonathan Chait and others argue that the scandal just grows bigger. More is more. “The discovery of an additional crime obviously does not constitute proof that the original crime did not exist,” he writes in New York. “If the F.B.I. is investigating a suspect for racketeering, and it turns up evidence he engaged in loan-sharking as well, ‘he’s definitely innocent of racketeering’ is not the most likely explanation.” True enough. But since the interests of Russia and those of Israel and its Gulf state allies (recall that Russia and Saudi Arabia have traditionally been bitter foes) are often diametrically opposedâ€"on Syria, Iran, Yemen, oil, Afghanistan, and much elseâ€"the analogy is unconvincing. If the F.B.I. is investigating a suspect for rigging the 2013 World Series in favor of the Red Sox, and it turns up evidence he also rigged it for the Cardinals, “he’s probably guilty of rigging it for both” is not the most likely explanation, either.

Two years in, the flood of Russiagate (or is it now Israeli-Saudigate?) information seems no more navigable, but also no less frenzied. Last Wednesday, we could read thousands of pages about another Trump Tower meeting, this one in June 2016, between Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who everyone thought was going to offer dirt on Hillary Clinton’s dealings with Russia, but instead wanted to talk about repealing the 2012 Magnitsky Act. Then we learn that Veselnitskaya was also meeting with the Clinton-hired research firm Fusion GPS, with which she was likewise working on repealing the 2012 Magnitsky Act. Comparisons to the Coen brothers farce Burn After Reading start to look apt. It’s all almost too perfect that Trump’s people agreed to meet with an intelligence-linked Russian to get dirt on Clinton’s dealings with Russia, while Clinton’s team hired a guy to have meetings with intelligence-linked Russians to get dirt on Trump’s dealings with Russia.

To be sure, any Russia conspiracy is, technically, possible. Given the choice to tell the truth or lie, Donald Trump seems to reliably go for the latter, all things being equal. His business associates are even sleazier than Trump himself. No matter what, foreign threats to the stability of o ur political system should always be investigated. But the more some of us learn, the harder it gets to take each breathless headline seriously. Meanwhile, the damage done by the unceasing cycles of bombshell-to-nevermindâ€"the not-hacked-after-all electric grid in Vermont, the no-advance communication-after-all exchange between Wikileaks and Donald Trump Jr., the no-hacking-of-CNN-after all, the no-Russian-election-hacking-after-all in 21 states, and moreâ€"has been considerable. It has inflated the threat posed by Russia and pushed us toward physical conflict. It has caused us to focus too little on similar possible intrusions by numerous foreign rivals. And it has accelerated a trend toward treating every election victory by the opposite side as illegitimate.

Since everyone seems to have his or her own theory about Russiagate, perhaps it’s time for a review. One of the more thorough set of options came a year ago from the Lawfare blog, which presented an article by Jane Chong, Quinta Jurecic, and Benjamin Wittes laying out seven theories of what they called “L’Affaire Russe.” The theories are useful as a framework, and we’ll look at each, even if their very premises are often part of the problem. (For instance, it’s largely untrue that Trump’s campaign gutted the G.O.P.’s platform plank on Ukraine.) They accept uncritically the unclassified assessment from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence stating that Russia was behind the hacking of the D.N.C., and that Russia was solely responsible for alleged incursions into Trump’s campaign, when even intelligence professionals are careful to to distinguish between “high confidence” and certainty. That said, we should consider the theories Lawfare lays out, because they remain representative of the spectrum of Trump-Russia factions, encompassing both supporters and bitter foes of the White House. Most benign would be that e verything is coincidental and hyped; most sinister would be Trump is a Siberian candidate. Let’s quote each theory and consider it, working in reverse order:

“Theory of the Case #7: The President of the United States Is a Russian Agent”

The Lawfare authors dismiss this, but note that it “could account for the facts at hand,” many of which, again, are accusations more than facts. In any case, if Trump is a Russian agent, he is surely one of the most disappointing ones Moscow has ever managed to place. A proper Russian agent would give Vladimir Putin a free hand in Ukraine and any other country on Putin’s border. He would honor the nuclear deal with Iran and voice support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria. He would condemn Saudi intervention in Yemen. He would start to dissolve NATO rather than expand it.

Ironically, the Blackwater-Saudi-Israeli story over the weekend offers just as much explanatory power, or more, for Trump†™s behavior as anything to do with Moscow. Why did Trump, who once issued a taunt that “Dopey Prince @Alwaleed_Talal wants to control our U.S. politicians with daddy’s money,” become such a close buddy of Saudi Arabia after taking office? Why did he go from being a lone Republican skeptic of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel to being the first U.S. president to make it official? Why did he go from talking tough on China to interceding on behalf of one of its phone companies to help it get back into business? The list goes on.

If Trump was indeed recruited as an agent of Moscow, was it before he threw himself into the primaries? That’d be very farsighted of Moscow, considering that few thought his campaign would go anywhere, especially before he announced it. Or after? That’d be quite a change of plan for Trumpâ€"to decide to run for president for one reason, but then decide this Russian-agent gig was a better one.

“Theory of the Case #6: Kompromat”

Kompromat is a Russian portmanteau of “pee” and “tape.” Or perhaps the etymology is slightly different. In any case, the idea here is Trump has been a naughty boy who is vulnerable to blackmail for his naughty ways. Concerning this, the authors speculate that Trump might be doing Moscow’s bidding in order to guard against the dissemination of video recordings of himself with micturating prostitutes. If Trump is that foolish, however, why wouldn’t plenty of other intelligence agencies have the same sort of thing in their vaults? Let’s not pretend that the intelligence service of Israel or China or France or Japan or Iran or England or many other places is incompetent at seduction. Maybe every foreign capital has a pee tape in its vault, causing our president to veer one way and then another in response to their threats. It would at least explain why Trump changes his mind a lot.

“Theory of the Case #5: Russia n Intelligence Actively Penetrated the Trump Campaignâ€"And Trump Knew or Should Have Known”

The Lawfare authors here offer a more reasonable hypothesis, that the main problem was a “sustained failure to ask the sort of questions campaigns normally ask of people with known ties to adversary governments,” plus a “certain glee at defying norms.” Without question, anyone who engages the services of Paul Manafort, who is to sleaze as Edison was to electricity, has already experienced a “sustained failure” to ask some crucial questions. And, yes, keen-eyed watchers of Trump may detect some hints of enthusiasm for lapses in propriety. Furthermore, the pies that Manafort had a finger in are numerous, and the food lab will surely come back with some embarrassing analyses.

But that’s quite different from collusion. Also, getting a toehold in a presidential campaign is what spies doâ€"everywhere. Campaigns are not especially secretive or guardable , and they staff up fast with dozens and, then, in the end, thousands of people. Ironically, as it turns out, one country seems to have had an informant, or spy, embedded in the Trump campaign: the U.S.A. The New York Times explains, in a headline, that the “F.B.I. Used Informant to Investigate Russia Ties to Campaign, Not to Spy, as Trump Claims.” Right: an informant using a cover story to strike up a relationship with campaign operatives in an attempt to root out other spies is not spying. It’s just investigation. Got that?

“Theory of the Case #4: Russian Intelligence Actively Penetrated the Trump Campaignâ€"But Trump Didn’t Know”

This is basically the above scenario. Russian intelligence almost certainly sought to place some agents inside Trump’s campaign and every other campaign. This isn’t unusual. Our intelligence services have listened in on Angela Merkel’s phone calls. It’s a world of spies†"sorry, I mean investigatorsâ€"out there.

“Theory of the Case #3: The Russian Operation Wasn’t Really About Trump at All”

One common line of argument, a perfectly possible one, is that Russia hacked into D.N.C. e-mails and released them simply in order to weaken and embarrass Clinton, who was expected to win the election. If Moscow indeed played such a role, which seems very possible (and it would indeed be an outrage), then a personal grudge toward Clinton is the likeliest explanation. But let’s remember that “if.” The greater the sense of outrage, the greater the rush to judgment.

“Theory of the Case #2: Trump Attracted Russophiles”

Now we’re getting to something hard to dispute. As the Lawfare team sums up this theory: “There was a Russian hacking operation, and there was a largely unconnected incentive for people with untoward Russian business connections to attach themselves to Trump.” Forg et the untoward business connections. Among disaffected cultural conservatives these days, the view of Putin as a flawed, but also admirable defender of family, faith, and nation isn’t uncommon. Even among non-conservatives, a fair number of Americans view Russian interests as compatible with those of the United States, and would prefer to explore possible re-alignments in the region. In 2016, Trump was the only candidate suggesting such things; hence, the attraction. This has nothing in common with treason, however, and the spectacle of many hawks condemning friendliness toward Putin, but condoning friendliness toward Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, could be called Washington at its most Washingtonian.

“Theory of the Case #1: It’s All a Giant Set of Coincidences and Disconnected Events”

This is a bit of a straw man. For everything in an investigation to be coincidental or disconnected would be weird. But what’s being c onnected to what, and is it related to Russian collusion? Suddenly we’re talking about Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, and immersed in the grubbiness of porn shoots and New York City influence peddling and taxicab-medallion brokerage. These are some seriously moved goalposts.

Seeing where this ends is impossible. Trump, no slave to propriety, seems perfectly willing to strong-arm the Department of Justice. Meanwhile, the D.O.J. seems to have been leaking quite a bit of information in order to advance its own narrative of how the Russia investigation got started in 2016. (Only this could have allowed The New York Times to break the news about an informant.) This could get far worse. But Russian infiltration starts to look almost like an afterthought.

Maybe all of the investigations lead to something big, and maybe not, but the frenzy helps no one. This author has speculated that Trump might well turn into our worst president (I dearly hope not , but the signs are bad), but the solution surely doesn’t lie in abandoning skepticism or realism. Many Trump haters seem to think that pay dirt is just one more shovel scoop away or that the accumulating pile of dirt is its own evidence. They might consider this: Bill Clinton haters felt the same way in the 1990s. All across the right, stable people went crazy, and promising young minds spent their best years probing through the back corners of figures with names like Jim Guy Tucker and Webster Lee Hubbell. One could go mad trying to prove that Donald Trump Jr. tried to collude with the Russians or the Saudis or the Emiratis, as opposed to being a dunce who, as a “source close to Don Jr.” says, simply trusts people too much and doesn’t know how to say “no” to meetings.

The Mueller investigation will probably dig up more financial improprieties than Kenneth Starr’s investigation ever didâ€"this i s Donald Trump, after allâ€"but the opportunities for partisan derangement are the same. This is a country that’s given to hysteria, and with our culture war escalating into calls for outright partitions of the United States, the problem seems to be intensifying. In 2016, the trouble was over an outbreak of evil clowns, and reports of sightings and unrest came in from over 40 states. At least back then, however, news outlets tried to tamp down the myths. But that’s easier when you don’t have any dog in the fight. Today, disinterested parties seem impossible to find. The fights go on. You could even say that the clown menace was real and it continues. This time, however, it takes the form of our president, his most fanatical supporters, and his most fanatical enemies.

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