By now, any sentient being who is capable of rational thought about the U.S. president (a category that admittedly excludes his more fervent fans) must grasp the likelihood that there was a quid pro quo between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin: Russian President Vladimir Putin would help Donald Trump win the U.S. presidential election, and in return Trump would lift sanctions on Russia.
The fact that Trump hasn’t made good on his end of the presumed bargain shouldn’t be any surprise: A long line of business partners and wives have discovered how worthless his commitments are. In fairness, however, Trump’s failure to follow through in this instance wasn’t necessarily because he didn’t want to; it was because the Russian meddling became public and therefore made it politically impossible for Trump to help out his Russian pal even if he had been inclined do so.
Trump’s failure to deliver doesn’t change the probability that this corrupt bargain existed. No other hypothesis can account for the copious links that have emerged between the Trump campaign and the Russians. As CNN notes, “At least 12 Trump associates had contacts with Russians during the campaign or transition. There were at least 19 face-to-face interactions with Russians or Kremlin-linked figures. There were at least 51 communications — meetings, phone calls, email exchanges and more.”
If the Trumpites and the Putinites weren’t communicating about how to subvert Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign, what were they talking about? Their favorite brands of vodka? And if there was an innocent explanation for all of these contacts, why is it that everyone in the Trump campaign, from the president on down, has lied and lied and lied about them? Those are the damning questions that no Trump defender can answer.
Trump personally has issued at least nine blanket denials of any connections to Russia (Trump in February: “I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge no person that I deal with does.”) even as evidence of those connections has accumulated like debt on Trump casino projects. His associates including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Vice President Mike Pence, crown prince Jared Kushner, and first son Donald Trump Jr. have been equally vociferous — and duplicitous — in their denials.
Two Trumpites — former foreign-policy advisor George Papadopoulos and former national security advisor Michael Flynn — have now pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about their Russia ties. After Flynn entered his guilty plea last week, Trump tweeted: “It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!” So if there was nothing to hide, why did Flynn commit a felony? Is he a compulsive liar who can’t stop himself from dissembling even when it would be more advantageous to tell the truth?
The Occam’s razor explanation for why Flynn lied is that the truth was so terrible that it was worth risking jail time to conceal it. It seems improbable that he was lying merely to hide a violation of the Logan Act, although it is undeniable that the Trump campaign did violate this statute, which prohibits unauthorized persons from negotiating with foreign governments “in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States.”
Flynn was clearly engaged in negotiations with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak while Barack Obama was still president. He was urging Russia to stop the passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution censuring Israel and, more significantly, not to retaliate for the sanctions that Obama imposed to punish Russia for its interference in the U.S. presidential campaign to benefit Trump. But no one has ever been convicted of a violation of the Logan Act, and Flynn would have to be extraordinarily dense to lie to the FBI to avoid a Logan Act offense. The more likely explanation is that Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak were part of a pattern of covert negotiations between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Now there’s an offense that would be worth hiding from the FBI.
The question is no longer whether there was collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. Clearly there was. That became undeniable this year when we learned that Don Jr.’s reaction to an overture from a Kremlin emissary offering dirt on Clinton was “I love it.” Further evidence has since emerged that both Don Jr. and the head of the campaign’s data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, communicated secretly with WikiLeaks, the conduit for emails stolen by Putin’s intelligence services. Trump, for his part, practically advertised the collusion during the campaign by repeatedly praising Putin and defending him from charges of hacking into Democrats’ accounts even while publicly asking him to release Clinton’s emails.
The question is whether Trump’s collusion was limited to the public realm or was there a secret dimension to it? Was he aware of, and did he approve, the Kremlin contacts pursued by his underlings? In other words: What did the president know, and when did he know it?
There is circumstantial evidence that Trump was well aware of what his aides were up to. Flynn was no lone operator: Kushner, identified in the plea document as a “very senior member of the Presidential Transition Team,” was directing his outreach. Also closely involved was Flynn’s deputy, K.T. McFarland, while she was with Trump himself at Mar-a-Lago. And as soon as Putin accepted Flynn’s entreaty not to retaliate for Obama’s sanctions, Trump took to Twitter to praise Putin’s “very smart” move. It beggars belief that Trump was unaware of the Flynn-Kislyak contacts while they were occurring in December 2016 — just as it beggars belief that he was unaware of the meeting that his entire campaign high command had in June 2016 with Kremlin emissary Natalia Veselnitskaya.
The issue is what special counsel Robert Mueller will be able to prove. Given that Flynn is now a cooperating witness, who must have given up a lot of valuable information to get such a lenient plea deal, the special counsel is most likely assembling a strong case. Like any other prosecutor unraveling a complex criminal conspiracy, he is working his way up the food chain — and with the former national security advisor in his grasp, there aren’t many targets left who are more senior. You’re talking Pence, Sessions, Trump Jr., Kushner — and of course Trump himself.
It’s possible, even probable, that, unlike Flynn, the other officials won’t flip because they will be confident that Trump will pardon them. That’s especially likely in the case of Trump’s son and son-in-law. But this would be a corrupt use of the pardon power that could itself be an article of impeachment against the president — and likely will be if the Democrats win the House next year.
Already the evidence of Trump’s obstruction of justice — the same offense that brought down Richard Nixon — is compelling, which is why a White House lawyer is advancing the novel argument that the president can’t be guilty of obstruction. The president has publicly admitted that he fired FBI Director James Comey because of “this Russia thing.” Following the Flynn plea deal, Trump tweeted: “I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI.” If Trump knew at the time that Flynn had lied to the FBI, that strengthens the case that he was obstructing justice when he asked Comey to pledge his personal loyalty and to give Flynn a break (“I hope you can let this go”).
Once White House aides figured out that Trump’s tweet had increased his legal jeopardy, they trotted out one of the president’s lawyers, John Dowd, to take the fall for the offending comment. Even if Dowd put the incriminating words in his client’s mouth, this might well be a Freudian slip that reveals the truth that the White House is so anxious to conceal. The same might be said about a recently reported email that McFarland sent on Dec. 29, 2016: “If there is a tit-for-tat escalation Trump will have difficulty improving relations with Russia, which has just thrown U.S.A. election to him,” she wrote. This may or may not have been an admission of guilt on her part (the context is ambiguous) — but it was at least an admission that this was how his election looked and for good reason. That impression has only grown stronger in the past year.
A recent Washington Post article on the Mueller team ended with a revealing vignette: “People familiar with the Mueller team said they convey a sense of calm that is unsettling. ‘These guys are confident, impressive, pretty friendly — joking a little, even,’ one lawyer said. When prosecutors strike that kind of tone, he said, defense lawyers tend to think: ‘Uh oh, my guy is in a heap of trouble.’” Contrast the special counsel’s calmness with the flop-sweat evident on Trump’s Twitter account: He is desperately trying to distract attention from his own worsening legal situation by impugning “Crooked Hillary” and even the FBI. Naturally, he shows no awareness of how unseemly it is to trash a defeated political opponent or the very law enforcement officers he is sworn to lead.
The contrast is telling, and, for Trump’s dwindling band of defenders, it should be deeply discomfiting: the confident prosecutors, building their case piece by piece against the panicked president lashing out at all directions because he is terrified that he will be found guilty of colluding with a hostile foreign power to undermine American democracy.