The New York Times dropped their four successive bombshells and things changed in Washington. The talk of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians wasn’t fake news. It wasn’t a hoax invented by the Democrats to shift the blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss away from her. All the investigations aren’t witch-hunts. No one’s hunting witches. Something quite real seems to be going on. Maybe there was no proof of anything. Donald Trump kept saying that that there was no real proof of anything – a sensible but narrow defense – but suddenly there was proof – on June 9, 2016, a Russian lawyer was sitting in an office on the twenty-fifth floor of Trump Tower, just one level below the office of the future president – talking to his son, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his campaign manager, Paul Manafort. They had been told, in a series of emails from a family friend in Russia, that the Russian government had amassed – or stolen – all kinds of dirt on Hillary Clinton. Did the Trump campaign want that? The emails said the Russian government really wanted Trump to win. It was good stuff. Meet with this Russian lawyer and you’ll see.
Donald Trump’s son replied that “he loved it” and forwarded the email chain to Kushner and Manafort. They must have loved it too. The three of them met with the Russian lawyer – but then it turned out she didn’t have the goods. Still, the mere fact that Trump’s son asked for information from a Russian national about Clinton, and heard her out as she attempted to describe it, might have constituted a federal crime. Kushner and Manafort might be equally guilty. That’s because it’s illegal to seek foreign help of any kind in a political campaign.
The rest is damage control. Trump’s son fessed up, but maintained he didn’t do anything wrong. He was just curious, and that Russian lawyer didn’t have the goods on Clinton anyway. The president lauded his son’s transparency. Paul Manafort admitted he had attended the meeting but said he hadn’t even bothered to read the email chain, so he couldn’t be guilty of anything. Jared Kushner said nothing – he always says nothing – but there’s speculation he leaked the email chain to the New York Times. That would put the heat on Trump’s son – not a member of the cabinet or anything, really – and no one would ask anything about Kushner’s part in this. And they all said no one told the president about the meeting – so the president was guilty of nothing. Greg Sargent says that isn’t so – but it’s complicated.
All of this is also new, as Josh Marshall explains:
Over the last seven or eight months we’ve been inundated with evidence of motive, opportunity, deception, lots of actions, meetings that are hard to make sense of absent some nefarious motive and plan. It is almost as though every link in the chain has been assembled except the clear and specific evidence of collusive behavior. Of course, that’s not some minor technicality. That’s the biggest deal in the world. At trial you’ve got to prove the case, not line everything up except the proof.
But beyond the proof, there’s something else that I think has shaped many people’s view of the story. For all the ‘him scratching their back while they’re scratching his’ and for all the common motive and demonstrable recklessness it’s just very hard to imagine that any significant player in the Trump campaign would literally or figuratively sit down with a representative of the Russian government and say, “We hate Hillary. You hate Hillary. We’re on the same team. Let’s work together and make this happen.”
Now that’s happened and everything looks different:
Now with every other piece of evidence that looks awfully damning and you say to yourself, “Okay, but would X really work with the Russian intelligence services to win the election for Trump?” Well, yes! Clearly they would. Whether or not that particular meeting panned out, Don Jr was eager to do it. He thought it was great. He even – though this is reading between the lines – did not find it surprising at all. It seemed natural to him, even expected. But again, could he really do it? Yes! We’ve seen the exchange in an email. He 100% would do it. He tried to do it.
Now, that’s only Don Jr, one of the President’s doofus sons. But Jared Kushner was on the email chain and at the meeting too. So was Paul Manafort. So you don’t simply have to extrapolate out from the damaged sample of Don Jr. You’re talking three, maybe the three players in the campaign. They do not seem to have thought anything was wrong. They didn’t send out an alert within the campaign. There’s no paper trail showing they brought in the campaign lawyers. They didn’t go to the FBI. Taken together, it’s just immensely damning.
That changes everything:
There was a massive benefit of the doubt which I think many, even among the direst critics of the President, have afforded Trump basically in spite of themselves. It was like a membrane affording the President and his cronies an immense protection. And this story just destroyed that. They won’t get it back.
That seems to be the general consensus. Sometimes just one thing happens and everything falls apart – but that’s never so. That one thing had to happen, and Marshall suggests why it did:
Kushner, Don Jr., et al. just don’t seem to grasp the magnitude of the trouble they’re in, or at least the magnitude of their legal exposure. I can’t point to any one piece of evidence. It’s more like every piece of evidence. The signs I’m going on are a mix of public evidence, things we see unfolding in the newspapers, and my own reporting. They just don’t act like people who get what they’re dealing with and are acting accordingly.
That’s the problem:
The abiding sense I get is not simply that they don’t know the magnitude of the legal threat but that they don’t understand the nature of the threat either. Again and again they seem to think the legal vulnerability can be trumped by good news cycles or getting the press to focus on some other individual. They don’t seem to get that a big, sprawling federal investigation like this, untethered from the political chain of command and led by one of the top law enforcement professionals of his generation, trundles onward with a perfect indifference to whether you win the morning or kill it in 10 or a 100 different news cycles. Those things just don’t matter. And yet my sense at least is that Jared Kushner thinks he is helping himself by knifing his brother-in-law – as though if Don Jr is at the center of a media firestorm for a few days, Mueller will just forget about him.
Marshall received this from Mike Allen about that – “The view in Kushner’s orbit is that the brutal new revelations are more PR problems than legal problems. And if he makes progress with his Middle East peace efforts, perceptions would be very different.”
Marshall finds that laughable:
Prosecutors really don’t care how well you’re doing on the policy front. But even if you grant the nonsensical premise – that grave legal problems can be managed with good PR or even substantive policy successes – this is an inane statement.
It amounts to “Sure, it looks bad. But if Jared negotiates a final settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it will all be fine.”
That’s nuts. A generation of very committed, focused and knowledgeable US policy hands has been trying to crack that nut with little or no success since the Oslo Accords almost 25 years ago and arguably for the better part of a century. The idea that an inexperienced and callow rube like Kushner, backed by a thoroughly distracted President, is going to get anywhere, is truly fantastical. And yet, that’s the plan for slipping the noose with his legal problems.
Something else is going on here:
At a basic level, I think the key players just aren’t that smart and have a lot of hubris. They’re like low level grifters or mob soldiers who are headstrong and stupid and get chewed up when the authorities come after them.
Marshall says that’s the world they know:
Back when Trump started becoming our big national story and especially when Kushner moved center stage, I started thinking more about the big New York real estate families. The very rich, of course, play by different rules everywhere. And perhaps big real estate families, participants in an inherently intergenerational business, are like this all over. But no American city is quite like New York, either in the scale of the city itself or the particular dynamics of the concentrated, finite space and which is tied to the durability of investment value. There’s one other dynamic at work. A lot of the big New York real estate families of today became that way because they held on to investments and stayed in the city in the dark days of the 1970s and early 1980s when it seemed like the city and even the concept of the big American city was falling apart. Whether that required much courage or prescience, staying in meant they reaped a windfall when the city started rebounding about a quarter century ago. It also spurred an ethos or pride in these families that they had the guts, prescience, loyalty or whatever else to stick with the city when others didn’t. It’s part of that culture.
That, then, can explain what’s going on:
They are reckless and filled with a sense of invulnerability. And why not? Trump has skidded on the edge of legality for decades. He at least worked with and took money from crooks and organized crime figures for decades. Other than having to settle a few lawsuits, he’s never paid any price.
But the weird thing is that these guys in many cases aren’t invulnerable. A lot of them have done time. At least two I can think of have gotten caught trying to hire hit men to kill business partners. Maybe others succeeded and we didn’t hear about those. But my sense is more that precisely because they were actually not mobsters they didn’t have killers on call and got busted in stings or being set up by informants. There’s Robert Durst, scion of a big New York real estate dynasty who seems to have killed numerous people. But he actually seems different to me inasmuch as I think he’s just a psychopath and serial killer who got away with it for a longtime because of his wealth.
Consider Kushner’s own father, Charles Kushner. Kushner was being investigated for campaign finance violations when he got mad at his sister and brother-in-law for cooperating in the investigation against him. So he hired a prostitute to seduce his brother-in-law and videotape one of their sexual encounters so Charles could give the tape to his sister as retaliation. The sex tape part of the story is relatively well known. But this was textbook obstruction. Set aside the intra-familial craziness of this, legally, it’s insane. Charles Kushner was sentenced to 18 to 24 months in federal prison.
The curious thing is that the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York at the time – the man who prosecuted the case and sent Jared’s father to jail – was Chris Christie. That may be why he was never offered a job in the Trump administration, in spite of his early and enthusiastic support of Donald Trump. Jared is not a forgiving sort. None of these people are:
You’d think this would have been a chastening experience for Charles’ son Jared – but apparently not. He was a driving force spurring his surrogate father, Donald Trump, to fire James Comey, which landed both of them in an investigation for obstruction of justice. He thought that was a good idea when in fact it was an insane idea. During James Comey’s high profile testimony after his dismissal, Sen John Cornyn of Texas pressed Comey on why he thought there was a political motive behind his firing since it was so obvious that firing Comey would inflame the Russia probe rather than make it go away. Cornyn has been one of President Trump’s most reliable and lickspittle defenders. But in this case he was right, at least in the narrow sense of the logic of his argument. But people don’t always act logically. Kushner and Trump are impulsive, aggressive and headstrong and think they’re invulnerable.
This is who they are, but Marshall says that’s now a problem for them:
New York’s business and media world is a cockpit of vipers. It’s hard to say anyone who comes out of that world is green or wet behind the ears. But Washington DC, and especially big federal criminal investigations, is different. It does not prepare you for that. If you look at Trump’s own career, there’s a persistent pattern. Get into a jam and you call in the lawyers, make threats, and threaten lawsuits. If someone gets in your way you bleed them for years in court. If things go bad, you settle and move on. There are also the tabloids. They look vicious. But they can also be deeply pliant for the rich. Landing a blow by planting a nasty story in the Post is a persistent theme of Trump’s racket for decades. Being a longtime informant for the FBI solves other problems. Having a problem with a disloyal? Fire them and threaten retribution. There’s probably a Non-Disclosure Agreement already in place. They can be dealt with.
Kushner, notoriously, bought The New York Observer as one of his first gambits after taking over the family business when his dad headed to the big house. But he reportedly used the paper as a tool to attack business enemies. Kushner’s interest in the Observer has always struck me as of a piece with Trump’s modus operandi with the New York tabloids.
Donald Trump is also no different, and he’s also at a disadvantage now:
Every reverse is because he’s being treated unfairly or let down by Reince Priebus or Steve Bannon or now his loyalist lawyer Marc Kasowitz. The problems won’t go away because his staff can’t stop the leaks. In a situation like this there aren’t a lot of people you can effectively buy or destroy. This is a legal world that Trump has very little experience with.
A big federal investigation like this is like a broad lava flow. It moves slowly but it is unstoppable. It burns and crushes things in its wake. And things too big or unburnable it just covers over. The little antics and PR gambits mainly do not matter. Key players in this mix don’t seem to appreciate that.
Matthew Yglesias notes there’s something else to consider here:
The Trump team’s habit of lying in public about its contacts with various official and unofficial emissaries of the Russian government is problematic on its own terms, but especially troubling because it raises the possibility that American foreign policy could be influenced by the fear of blackmail…
The theory here is simple. If you lie to the public about meetings with the Russian government, the Russian government will know that you lied and could threaten to release embarrassing and personally damaging information unless you take positions they like.
This isn’t the world of New York real estate:
Unlike the public, the media, the Congress, the FBI, or the special counsel’s office, Russian intelligence services know exactly what went down between their government and the Trump campaign. Their knowledge of the facts, paired with Trumpworld’s relentless dishonesty and the high consequences of seeing that dishonesty revealed, means a potentially large swath of Trump’s inner circle has been (and may still be) exposed to blackmail.
And that, in turn, makes it hard for the country – and our allies – to trust that American policy toward Russia is being made in service of American interests rather than in service of keeping Trump’s team out of legal and political trouble.
This might be easy to ignore if Trump’s attitude and policies toward Russia were typical for an American politician. But from his contempt for NATO to his unwillingness to punish Moscow for election meddling, they’re not.
Yglesias says that could explain what’s going on:
It’s at least possible that the whole reason these emails are coming to light now is that the Russians wanted them out.
Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, after all, just had a somewhat unorthodox summit meeting that was held to a very small group of people – so small as to exclude National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and other conventional members of the American national security establishment. We don’t really know what went down at that meeting, or what inspired Trump’s tweets about a joint US-Russian cybersecurity task force, or what spurred Trump to counter-tweet shortly thereafter disavowing the idea…
Maybe Putin didn’t hear what he wanted to hear.
And maybe in consequence he took out a hit on Trump’s son, just as back in February 2014 he leaked intercepted audio of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland talking to US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt and saying derisively “fuck the EU.”
That might be so:
The Russians know who they met with, who they called, and when. Information is power. And because the Russians have a lot of information about Trump/Russia contacts, and because Trumpworld keeps lying about Trump/Russia contacts, the Russians have a lot of power.
That may be why strange things have happened:
How did Jared Kushner forget to list that foreign contact on his security clearance form?
Beyond the meetings themselves, we later learned that the subject of one of these Kushner meetings was an effort to set up a secure back-channel for Trump to communicate with the Kremlin using Russian equipment and facilities.
The Russians would, of course, have known about this effort the whole time. And they could have released that information – either directly or disguised through intermediaries – at any time.
And Kushner himself – an assistant to the president and senior adviser in the White House possessing top-level security clearance and a wife whose counsel is so trusted that she sits in for the president at summit meetings – would have known this whole time that the Russians knew. Is that why he was an unexpected and influential voice pushing his father-in-law to fire FBI Director James Comey? Congressional Democrats are pushing for Kushner to lose his security clearance on these grounds, while Republicans are dismissing it out of hand as mere partisanship.
There are the other guys too:
Another dangling thread concerns Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and a major financial supporter of Trump’s presidential campaign. He made some kind of effort to set up back-channel communications to Russia via a meeting in the Seychelles, but it’s not currently clear what came of that. But the Russians know exactly what happened. And Prince – who’s close to Steve Bannon and whose sister [Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos] is in the Cabinet – knows that the Russians know.
Even though Manafort was fired months before the election because of the cloud of potential dirty Russian money hanging over his head, he continued to advise the Trump campaign, including on the post-election Russia investigation. But while the FBI is merely investigating the sources of Manafort’s income (and potential laundering thereof), the Russians are in a position to know exactly what kind of compensation he got from a Russian front party in Ukraine. And he knows that they know.
And there’s this:
The “Steele dossier” was made famous for its wilder allegations, including the notion that Trump is being blackmailed by secret Russian kompromat pertaining to some unorthodox sexual behaviors.
It also contains the much more boring allegation that Trump paid bribes in St. Petersburg “very discreetly and only through affiliated companies” while exploring doing some business deals there. Nobody who has ever spent time in Russia would find the idea that a person paid some bribes while dealing with Russian officials to be particularly shocking. And, of course, dealing with government officials is par for the course when it comes to real estate.
The problem is that paying bribes in pursuit of a business deal is, technically, illegal under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Trump’s been annoyed by the FCPA in the past, calling it a “horrible law” in a 2012 interview that “this country is absolutely crazy” to have on the books because it puts American businesses at a “huge disadvantage.”
But part of Trump’s philosophy of business has long been a willingness to plow ahead in legal gray areas. Adam Davidson’s reporting on the Trump Tower in Baku, Azerbaijan, suggests that he dispensed with normal FCPA compliance procedures and basically got away with it. He may well have done the same in St. Petersburg. After all, Trump’s new chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Jay Clayton, is a longtime FCPA critic. And Trump pretty clearly believes on the merits that American businesses should be allowed to bribe foreign officials.
But while American authorities have little incentive to heavily scrutinize Trump’s FCPA compliance in the former Soviet Union, the Russians are well-positioned to know a great deal about this. They’re also in a good position to know if the surge in purchases of Trump condo properties through anonymous shell companies involves any of their citizens.
No good can come of this:
Beyond the implications for Trump personally, his administration, or the 2018 midterms, this is an uncomfortable situation for America’s allies and a downright catastrophic one for American foreign policy. Part of what makes it so disastrous is that nobody really has any idea about the extent of the exposure and what kind of pro-Putin policies Trump might pursue in the future.
Worst of all, the Republican majorities that control Congress seem to have decided that they would just as soon not know, treating the Trump-Russia story as essentially an endless series of annoying White House gaffes rather than the potentially crippling security vulnerability it is.
Other than that, things are just fine.
No, they’re not. There’s objective evidence, from our entire intelligence community, that the Russian government waged an extensive and systematic information war to ruin Hillary Clinton’s chances and get Donald Trump elected. There’s now documentary evidence that the Trump campaign, at least on one occasion, was exploring how to work with them in that information war – and more evidence will no doubt follow. It’s also clear that this New York real estate crowd has no idea of the deep legal trouble they’re now in – they just don’t get it – they can’t get it. It’s also clear that most of them can be easily blackmailed by the Russians at any time, and will be blackmailed, if they haven’t been blackmailed already.
Sometimes just one thing happens and everything falls apart – but that’s never so. It’s never one thing. Here, it’s everything.