These have been a choice few days for aficionados of scandal. Washington hasn’t seen their like since the heyday of Whitewater, Iran-contra, and Watergate — in other words for nearly two decades. And in many ways “Kremlin-gate,” the burgeoning scandal over Team Trump’s connections to Russia, is in a class by itself.
When, in the past, has an FBI director ever announced that his agents were investigating allegations that the president and his closest associates — including his senior advisor-cum-son-in-law — were guilty of collusion with a hostile foreign power? Never. Yet that’s just what James Comey did on March 20 when he told the House Intelligence Committee that the G-men were looking into “the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
To make the event even more surreal, Comey and his fellow witness, Adm. Michael Rogers of the National Security Agency, all but called their boss, the commander in chief, a liar by publicly dismissing his allegations that former President Barack Obama had wiretapped him. “I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” Comey said. As for Donald Trump’s desperate claim that Obama had asked Britain’s GCHQ spy agency to wiretap him, Rogers said, “I’ve seen nothing on the NSA side that we engaged in any such activity nor that anyone ever asked us to engage in such activity.”
It is impossible to conceive of J. Edgar Hoover publicly calling out any of the presidents that he served in such a fashion — and yet Comey had good cause to do so, because Trump has shown that he is prepared to smear the reputation of the intelligence community in order to save his own. And while Hoover was always paranoid about “subversives” worming their way into the government, not even he went so far as to hint at a possible conspiracy between the American president and the ruler in Moscow.
Yet the jaw-dropping revelations were just beginning. Two days after the House hearing, on March 22, The Associated Press revealed that in 2005, Paul Manafort, Trump’s erstwhile campaign manager, had signed a $10 million-a-year contract with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska to “influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and former Soviet republics to benefit President Vladimir Putin’s government.” This comes on top of Manafort’s already disclosed work on behalf of Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed Ukrainian leader who is a close Kremlin ally. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s clumsy attempts to distance the president from Manafort — he claimed that Trump’s former campaign manager played only a “very limited role for a very limited amount of time” — simply served to signal how serious this revelation actually is.
And, of course, Manafort is hardly the only current or former Trump associate with suspiciously close ties to Moscow. We have only recently learned that Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor, made $68,000 while serving as a consultant to Russian firms in 2015. Campaign foreign-policy advisor Carter Page maintained close ties with the Kremlin and its state-owned oil companies. Longtime Trump advisor Roger Stone has admitted to communicating with “Guccifer 2.0,” the moniker used by Russian intelligence to leak damaging information about Hillary Clinton, and with Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks, another Russian front organization. “Trust me, it will soon [be] the Podesta’s time in the barrel,” Stone tweeted on Aug. 21, 2016, weeks before WikiLeaks began leaking emails stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
Even Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, it now emerges, met before the inauguration not just with Russia’s ambassador to Washington but also with Sergey Gorkov, who is close to Putin, was trained by Russian intelligence, and runs a state-owned bank that has been placed on a U.S. sanctions list. No one knows what they discussed, but it’s possible that Kushner, whose family real estate firm is desperate for foreign financing, was hoping to get an investment from this Russian bank to supplement the hundreds of millions of dollars it has sought from Chinese companies closely connected to the leadership in Beijing. (One wonders how Kushner has time to not only deal with Russia policy — but also to broker peace in the Middle East; advise on relations with China, Mexico, and Canada; and reorganize the whole U.S. government. Clearly Ivanka Trump married a man of prodigious and hitherto unsuspected talents.)
Perhaps there is an innocent explanation for all of these contacts between Trumpites and Putinites. Perhaps. But the sheer scale of the communication, and the efforts to conceal it, suggests the possibility of a nefarious connection that extends well beyond Trump’s well-known admiration for Putin. If CNN’s anonymous sources are to be believed, “The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”
There is, to be sure, no proof that has yet been made public of such serious charges. They may well be false. But by now we do know enough to call for an energetic and impartial investigation — and it’s doubtful that one will ever emerge from the House and Senate intelligence committees. Rep. Devin Nunes, the California Republican who chairs the House panel, has been particularly compromised not just by his service on Trump’s transition team but also by his unbecoming eagerness to act as Trump’s defender in this whole sordid business.
On March 22, Nunes went so far as to reveal classified information suggesting that either Trump himself or his aides might have been caught as “incidental” subjects of legally obtained surveillance. Having apparently acquired this information the previous day from an intelligence official in the White House, Nunes did not bother to notify his fellow committee members. Instead, he rushed out to try to buttress Trump’s indefensible allegations of wrongdoing against former President Obama.
Trump predictably claimed vindication, but in fact Nunes’s information was hardly exculpatory. In the first place, even Nunes did not allege that Obama did anything wrong or that Trump himself was the target of a wiretap. At most, Trump or his associates were caught chatting with someone else who was a target of lawful surveillance. This is a long, long way removed from “Nixon/Watergate” territory as Trump has tweeted, even if the intelligence community did not do a good enough job of completely “masking” the identity of the Trump officials. In any case, it is hardly reassuring to know that Trump or his aides were in regular contact with individuals whose communications were targeted as part of a criminal or counterintelligence investigation. Nunes’s revelation raises far more questions than it answers: Just which unsavory characters were Trump and/or his aides talking to, and why? What were the motives of the intelligence official who was said to have leaked this information? And why are Nunes and Trump so selective in their outrage about leaking, only objecting when the resulting information hurts the president?
The only way we will begin to unravel this mystery is with the appointment of a special counsel to lead the Justice Department prosecution and of a bipartisan committee — either a House-Senate select committee or an outside panel like the one that investigated 9/11 — to lead the public inquiry. Such an investigation will either clear Trump’s name — or not. Either way, it will provide some relief from the nonstop drip of revelations.
As New York Times columnist Charles Blow reminds us, on Nov. 3 the Trump campaign released a television claiming: “Hillary cannot lead a nation while crippled by a criminal investigation.” The same is true of Trump: He cannot lead the nation while crippled by Kremlin-gate. It is thus in his own interest to facilitate a credible inquiry that will get to the bottom of this mess as soon as possible. Unless, of course, he has something to hide. In which case, his present conduct, designed to obfuscate and cover up, makes perfect sense.