Trump isn’t an idiot — the cover-up is likely covering up serious wrongdoing.
Paul Manafort left his job working as the Kremlin’s favorite expat political consultant in Ukraine in the spring of 2016 to run his old acquaintance Donald Trump’s long-shot presidential campaign on a volunteer basis.
Soon after, Moscow-backed hackers transmitted thousands of stolen Democratic Party emails to WikiLeaks, whose release was artfully timed to make trouble for Trump’s Democratic opponents. They became the basis of Trump campaign rhetoric in the months before Election Day.
Emerging conventional wisdom in Washington, however, remains that there’s little reason to believe that Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation will end up proving much of interest. Politico magazine editor-in-chief Blake Hounshell this weekend wrote one of the buzziest pieces advocating a skeptical approach to Mueller’s ongoing inquiry, titled “Confessions of a Russiagate Skeptic,” throwing cold water on the notion of high-level cooperation between Trumpworld and the Russians.
But to believe this, frankly, requires a much greater suspension of disbelief than to posit that the president colluded with Russia. You have to believe that after a decade of paying Manafort millions for his expertise to help pro-Russian candidates win elections in Ukraine, no one from Moscow thought to consult with him about how to help a pro-Russia candidate win an election in the United States.
And we have to believe that even though we know Trump’s son was both in touch with WikiLeaks and openly enthusiastic about the idea of collaborating with Russia on obtaining and disseminating anti-Hillary Clinton dirt, when he met with Russians on this very topic, they didn’t talk about it. And, of course, we have to believe that Trump’s specific — and quite public — call for Putin to hack more Clinton emails was completely random.
Trump–Russia skeptics, legion in the political press, brush all this aside in a gesture of faux sophistication, positing a bizarre series of coincidences complete with a massive cover-up all — for no particular reason.
To speak the obvious has become nearly forbidden. But here goes: Donald Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths over the course of his time in office to try to stymie or discredit rigorous investigation of the Russia matter. The most likely explanation for why he has done it is that he is guilty of serious Russia-related wrongdoing.
There are viable alternative hypotheses, like he's a huge moron or he’s guilty of some other serious wrongdoing that he fears an investigation will uncover. But the best bet is that things are exactly as they seem and he’s acting guilty because he is guilty.
Donald Trump is not stupid
One thing Trump’s supporters tend to get right is that the political media in the United States is generally far too willing to paint a portrait of Trump as some kind of dolt. But everything in Trump’s record suggests a cunning, ruthless, and, in many ways, insightful man — not some kind of Forrest Gump-like figure ambling through history.
A few examples:
- The means he used to get himself out of bankruptcy and make his big Atlantic City comeback were incredibly shady and dishonest but also genuinely clever.
- His reinvention of himself as an asset-light brand licensor was incredibly successful, as was his career as a television show host.
- He has, for years, used lawyer Michael Cohen and a relationship with a major tabloid conglomerate to keep affairs hushed up and manipulate the public’s image of him.
- Last but by no means least, he ambled into the 2016 GOP primary field with little fundraising, no political experience, and minimal organization and wiped the floor with everyone.
People who cover American politics for a living are accustomed to covering politicians who have at least a passing familiarity with the main issues in public policy, and Trump does not. He answers questions about national politics like he’s a real estate developer turned brand licensing magnate and reality television star, which he is.
I’m not here to tell you that Trump is an evil genius or a criminal mastermind. And he’s certainly more impulsive than your average politician or business leader. But he’s not an idiot. When he keeps on doing something, it’s probably for a reason.
The choking clouds of smoke
I hate the word “collusion.” It’s a technical, legal term derived from the unrelated world of antitrust law that’s masked the simplicity of what we’re talking about. It seems more likely than not that some Trumpworld personnel coordinated some elements of political strategy with the Russian pro-Trump information operation with the tacit or explicit approval of Trump himself, and that they signaled openness to Russia-friendly policy changes with Russia in exchange.
Here’s are the main elements of the case:
- Many of the Russian government’s political interventions abroad are clumsy and inept (see the anti-Macron stuff from the 2017 French presidential election and the bulk of the “troll farm” stuff). But the WikiLeaks email drops of 2016 were very well-executed and well-timed to step on two major stories: first the Democratic National Convention and later the Access Hollywood tape. Perhaps the Russians got lucky (twice) or they executed well because they were helped by an expert American political operative.
- As it happens, the expertise of Trump’s campaign chair, Paul Manafort, is in American and foreign electioneering. Manafort helped Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush win presidential elections before he moved into lobbying and took his political skills abroad. He spent a decade dispensing expert political advice (for a steep price) to a Russian proxy party in Ukraine. So it’s not like the Russians would have no idea whom to ask, or that nobody on the Trump team was comfortable, broadly speaking, with the idea of working with Moscow.
- We also know specifically, due to Donald Trump Jr.’s infamous “if it’s what you say I love it” email, that not only Manafort but also Trump’s son and his son-in-law were eager to collaborate with the Russian government on the 2016 election.
- Trump spent more than a year on the campaign trail consistently praising Vladimir Putin and defending him from critics, incurring political risks with no obvious upside for himself.
- During the transition, Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was very eager to conduct talks with Moscow about a warming of relations. Jared Kushner was trying to create some kind of secure backchannel line of communication to Moscow that would be impenetrable by American intelligence.
- Trump took the exceptionally risky move of firing FBI Director James Comey. After that backfired, he took repeated stabs at leaning on Attorney General Jeff Sessions and/or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to resign, which would give him more direct control over Mueller.
- Trump’s allies on the House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee have been trying to help him with various attacks on the FBI, the Justice Department, and the whole idea of an inquiry rather than by constructing some plausible alternative narrative that would explain all the weird shit referenced above.
That’s not an argument you’d present to secure a jury conviction, but it’s probable cause for a rigorous investigation. It all explains Mueller’s apparent strategy of bringing legal pressure to bear on as many Trumpworld figures as possible. It’s a sound strategy for generating the revelation of some dark secrets.
Trump is good at keeping secrets
The Trump era has led to a lot of amazing, compulsively readable journalism that undersells Trump’s ability to keep secrets.
Hounshell writes that “so much damaging information poured out of Trump Tower that it’s hard to believe a conspiracy to collude with Moscow to win the election never went public” and that “if there was such a conspiracy, it must have been a very closely guarded secret.”
But consider that despite Trumpworld’s reputation for leaking like a sieve, we’ve never found out what’s on Trump’s income tax returns or how the decision was made that whatever is on them is more damning than Trump’s shady behavior. We don’t know why Trump decided to fire Flynn (the stated reason that he “lied to Mike Pence” doesn’t pass the laugh test), whether he was told of the domestic abuse allegations against then-White House staff secretary Rob Porter, what’s on the Apprentice outtake footage that producer Mark Burnett is keeping locked up, why exactly Trump handed some choice Israeli intelligence to the Russian foreign minister, who financed the hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, or any of a dozen other major questions about Trump.
The reality is that Trump was the least transparent candidate of all time and is running one of the least transparent administrations on record. It’s a White House where even whether the president is golfing on any given weekend is the subject of dissembling and fabrication.
One result of unprecedented secrecy is an unprecedented volume of disclosures. But that doesn’t mean we actually have an unprecedented level of insight into what’s going on with Trump or his operation. Quite the opposite.
Especially given congressional Republicans’ total abdication of Congress’s normal oversight functions, Mueller’s inquiry is essentially our only lens into some very murky terrain. And the investigators themselves are keeping their cards close to the chest.
Mueller’s investigation is already bearing fruit
Perhaps this will prove wrong and ultimately the Mueller investigation will uncover nothing of note except crimes committed by Trump’s former national security adviser, his former campaign manager and deputy campaign manager, and a handful of lesser players while having also exposed both the president himself and essentially his entire senior staff as habitual liars on a manner of criminal and national security import.
If true, that would qualify as probably the biggest presidential scandal since Iran-Contra a generation ago. It’s also already had the ancillary benefit of inspiring lots of Washington shops to start actually complying with Foreign Agent Registration Act rules.
Last but by no means least, it seems clear that whether or not there was an explicit or tacit agreement on this point, Trump entered office intending to pivot American foreign policy in a more pro-Russian direction and installed Flynn as national security adviser and Rex Tillerson as secretary of state with a view toward implementing that agenda.
The investigation — dating back to before Comey’s firing and Mueller’s appointment — seems to have played a big role in scuttling this and pushing Trump to maintain broad continuity with prior American foreign policy.
The one place I do agree with Mueller skeptics is that liberals shouldn’t get their hopes up that the special counsel will “save” them or the country from Trump. Trump appeared on national television and explained to an NBC News audience that he improperly used his powers of office to remove the FBI director in an effort to shield his friends and associates from criminal scrutiny. The institutional Republican Party shrugged that off, and eventually, the public moved on.
My guess is that whatever revelations are forthcoming from Mueller will fit a similar pattern — most people already have a negative view of Trump, so it’s hard to move the needle too much more on public opinion, and the whole GOP has already wagered so heavily on the Trump experiment that they’re not going to pull the plug regardless of what happened.
But politics aside, the suspicion of illicit collaboration between the highest-ranking members of the Trump campaign and the Russian pro-Trump information operation is well-founded, and the ongoing criminal investigation into that possibility is steadily bearing fruit. There’s no earthly reason for journalists to adopt a stance of preemptively exonerating Trump when, so far, suspicion has been validated at nearly every turn.