It would take a colossal dash cam—rolling 24 hours a day, filming in Cinerama, capturing it all in surround sound—to retain all the Donald Trump and Russia news that sailed by this week. As Air Force One carried Trump to the Middle East and Europe in the first big trip of his presidency, the images broadcast back home made him look like the star of a musical comedy directed by Robert Altman. There was some goofy sword dancing in Saudi Arabia, gaffe-ing in Israel, where he said he hadn’t said “Israel” to the Russians, and some body-control issues in Brussels as he dispensed semi-secret handshakes, under-basket elbows and lectures to befuddled European leaders who shunned him.
This was the week that the seeds of scandal and ineptitude planted over the past six months finally sprouted their first shoots, wrapping green tendrils around the president’s ankles and around the throats of his aides, yanking them to earth. This was the week the idea that Trump could stall or outrun his tormentors was put to rest as two congressional committees, one special counsel, the FBI and the deep state pressed him from every angle. Trump is now caught in history’s grinder, and the sparks and noise emitted are lighting up the media universe.
By the time the president returns to Washington Sunday, he’ll need an action director to document the political intrigue that has morphed like a B-movie swamp monster since he left. How will Trump counter? With gentle weeding, political herbicide, a gas-fired weed-whacker, or napalm? The scandal that has no name is unspooling like a police procedural in congressional hearings and news stories in the Washington Post and New York Times. The Post landed the most damaging story at the beginning of the week. A blind sourced piece alleged that the president had asked both the director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, and the head of the NSA, Michael S. Rogers, to help him stall the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia connections. What appears to have prompted Trump’s request was then-FBI Director James B. Comey’s March 20 testimony before the House Intelligence Committee about his Trump-Russia investigations.
According to the press, President Trump attempted to set Jersey dividers between his campaign and the DNI, the head of the NSA, and the head of the FBI (as the Times reported last week). Add to this intrigue Sally Yates’ recent testimony before Congress in which the former acting Attorney General said she was fired after informing the White House that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn appeared to be mobbed up with the Russians. Meanwhile, investigative flypaper has trapped son-in-law Jared Kushner, who we learned sought to set up a secret backchannel with the Russians during the transition that would be run out of Russian embassy on Russian gear! No small wonder then, that anonymous sources have pronounced him a focus of the FBI’s Russia investigation. Not even John le Carré could pitch this cartwheeling plot to Hollywood.
The Post based its Monday DNI/NSA blockbuster on anonymous sources—but the sourcing wasn’t “trust us” vapor. The Post wrote that “two current and two former officials” had shared the stories, making the scoop a joint Trump and Obama administrations exercise in tattling. (Everybody needs to brush up on their “deep state” theorizing if they’re not already.) A contemporaneous memo of the Trump-Rogers conversation exists, the Post reported, similar to the ones Comey reportedly wrote after Trump shook him down repeatedly.
Outside Washington all the memo-writing must look like professional ass-covering. To Trump’s steadfast supporters, it must look like the first steps in a coup against their leader. Inside the swamp, officials have long generated exonerating paper trails just in case trouble rears. What’s the likelihood that a contemporaneous memo covering the Trump-Coats conversation exist? High, I’d say. What are the chances that these memos will be subpoenaed by independent counsel Robert Mueller if they exist? One hundred percent. Never underestimate the imitative power of the American public, which often looks to Washington for inspiration. Soon, perhaps, hotel clerks and Uber drivers will be writing their own contemporaneous memos and asking Washington which paper is best for archival preservation. The words must burn, but the paper should be acid-free.
By Tuesday, visible sources had robbed the media spotlight from blind ones as Coats issued a no comment at a Senate hearing when asked if the Post‘s reporting was right—had Trump urged him to shutter the FBI investigation? “It’s not appropriate for me to comment publicly on any of that,” Coats said, repeating himself when asked again if, hypothetically, a president were to make such a request.
At a separate congressional hearing held Tuesday, former director of the CIA John O. Brennan confessed that suspicions of Russian manipulation of Trump campaign associates had first been raised in the summer, and that he forwarded his worries to the FBI which started the Trump-Russia investigation in July. “The Russian intelligence threat is a serious one, and this is just one manifestation of the nature of that threat,” Brennan said. “It should be clear to everyone that Russia brazenly interfered in our 2016 presidential election process.”
Brennan served additional fresh meat to the committee. The Russians “try to suborn individuals and try to get individuals, including U.S. individuals, to act on their behalf, wittingly or unwittingly,” he said. Obviously alluding to Michael Flynn, he said, “Frequently, people who go along a treasonous path do not know they are on a treasonous path until it is too late.” Yet for all his scintillating testimony, Brennan didn’t advance the case for Trump-Russia collusion, as Bryon York commented in the Washington Examiner.
As cable’s talking heads reminded us again and again, the Trump-Russia investigation can no longer be considered just a collusion probe. Sensing legal turbulence ahead, Trump has hired an outside counsel, Marc E. Kasowitz, famous for representing the mogul in an unsuccessful libel suit against New York Times reporter Tim O’Brien—O’Brien wrote that Trump wasn’t a billionaire! Flynn has donned a 5th Amendment cloak to protect him from congressional subpoenas, a strategy that might not work when it comes to his business records. The FBI is expected to seek from Kushner detailed records of where he traveled, whom he visited, what the nature of his relationship with Flynn was, what sort of loans he applied for, and what kind deals he cut during the campaign and transition. Kushner is not a suspect, but the leak that labeled him a target means the feds are interested in his complete “patterns of activity,” enough to give anyone the willies.
The river that is the Trump-Russia story may connect to countless tributaries. Wall Street Journal explorers mapped one such stream this week, finding that hackers, presumably Russians, had leaked 2.5 gigabytes of Democratic voter-turnout analyses to Florida Republican consultant Aaron Nevins, who forwarded a summary of it to Trump intimate Roger Stone. How much does it bother Nevins that the leakers might be Russians?
“If your interests align,” Nevins said, “never shut any doors in politics.”
Each presidential administration ends up being viewed through a lens, rarely of its own choosing. The scandal that really needs a name (as long as it doesn’t end in “gate”) has now become the lens through which we now view Donald Trump. Each investigative lash struck by the press, every finding advanced by congressional committees and each probe by the federal sleuths will streak the Trump portrait in the unflattering colors of scandal. No matter what Trump says, no matter what he does, every news story will be framed inside the continuing investigation. Not yet convicted of anything, he’s already history’s prisoner.