The Russians took a victory lap inside the White House on Wednesday, perhaps finally proving that Donald Trump is no deft foreign agent, but has by virtue of his pride and impetuousness been made Russia’s fool.
It’s not enough that Trump and his team of amateurs led a Russian video crew, complete with all of their electronic equipment and God knows what else—listening and surveillance devices, maybe?—inside the Oval Office to photograph the president of the United States grinning alongside Sergey Kislyak, ambassador and known spy recruiter, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who literally laughed at American reporters on his way in the door with Putin pal and America’s constantly upstaged secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. They did so while barring their own country’s media. And so, the only photographs of that shameful klatch come from Russia’s official media arm, TASS.
To make matters worse, the Trump team now says it was duped—that they didn’t know the man traveling with Lavrov was a reporter and not just Lavrov’s personal photographer, or that the pictures would be released, which of course they were immediately. Whodathunkit! A foreign power and nearly century-long U.S. adversary that essentially made war on us by attacking our election wasn’t honest with the White House team? Someone get a historian on this immediately.
To add insult to injury, the meeting came the day after Trump shocked all of Washington and summoned the ghost of Richard Nixon by firing the man investigating his campaign for collusion with Russia in its attack on our election (recall that the first count of impeachment against Nixon was obstruction of justice) and on the same day he held a rather ironic meeting with Nixon’s foreign minister, longtime Putin pal and morally questionable figure Henry Kissinger.
It’s as if everyone but Trump is in on the joke: that he is being strung along by cannier men, a Bizarro Nixon without the intellect, whose greed and neediness and vaingloriousness have made our commander in chief a national security threat.
There have always been two versions of Russiagate: the spy thriller version and the Occam’s razor version, perhaps better dubbed The Tale of the Useful Idiot.
The spy-novel version posits that Trump—who’s flirted with Russia since it was the centerpiece of the crumbling Soviet Union in the 1980s and then as his crumbling real-estate empire needed new source of cash in the 1990s as American banks cut him off—is at base a traitor, who sold out his country for the usual reasons of money and power. That he and his henchmen—including Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, and Roger Stone—participated in or acquiesced to a plot to steal the 2016 election with the help of Russian government-backed hackers in a series of exploits potentially involving data or maybe even payoffs passed through Russia’s Alfabank through servers in Trump Tower. There were promises made: lifted sanctions and huge oil drilling contracts for companies like Tillerson’s Exxon, and maybe even a piece of the action for members of the Trump team from the sale of the Putin-seized oil company Rosneft.
File all that under “known unknowns,” which will be incredibly hard to prove even if some of it is true.
Our Tale of the Useful Idiot is more mundane, but no less scandalous. And this week’s sloppy and desperate firing of FBI Director Jim Comey, plus that humiliating Oval Office meeting, beg us to consider it.
This theory posits that Trump’s unlikely, insane game-show of a campaign became a moveable feast for a mixed bag of bad actors who spotted opportunity in his intense appeal to white voters backlashing after eight years of Obama. The Russians saw a chance to embed their operatives and dent Hillary Clinton, especially once their man Manafort replaced Trump’s thuggish Boardwalk Empire caricatures Corey Lewandowski, Chris Christie, and Rudy Giuliani as the campaign’s showrunner last spring. The Mercer clan and their techno-fascist friends Steve Bannon, Peter Thiel, and the dank meme collective saw a chance to grow the alt-right. Giuliani’s pals in the New York FBI along with throwbacks like David Bossie and congressional zealots like Jason Chaffetz saw a chance to finish off Hillary once and for all. Right wing, anti-non-white immigration crusaders like Jefferson Sessions, Chris Kobach, and Steve King saw a chance to strike a blow for white Christian demography. And men with more ego than dignity like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio latched on for the ride.
None of them could have guessed that the circus would roll all the way to the White House. Not even Trump or his unhappy wife, who thus far has refused to be ripped from her golden tower, Easter Egg rolls be damned. As former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper put it during this week’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, Russia has to be reeling over its sheer, dumb luck.
By the time it became clear that Trump would be the Republican nominee, Russia stood to gain the unthinkable: a sympathizer (or worse, a man they had thoroughly compromised) in the room when the intelligence briefings took place; another kompromat infectee, Carter Page, in a position to alter the Republican National Committee platform in Russia’s favor regarding Ukraine. And Manafort, a longtime friend to dirty regimes who’s always eager to make a well-laundered buck, running it all.
Even after Manafort was forced out, Russia was left with the ultimate bounty: Trump himself, a man so egotistical and emotionally fragile that to this day he will fight like hell to cover for the plot. Trump can never, ever admit how he got into the White House. Any mention of Russiagate sends him into a frenzy of tweeting and sputtering and firing. Comey publicly expressing his “mild nausea” at helping Trump get elected was what finally earned him the sack. Trump needs for everyone working for him to extol him and his “victory” daily, loudly, publicly.
And Trump has no compass when it comes to the very scandal likely to undo his presidency. Perhaps more than to his wives, he’s remained unflinchingly loyal to Flynn, even after supposedly firing him for lying to Vice President Pence about meeting with the very man, Kislyak, to whom Trump just granted a grand tour of the Oval.
Meanwhile, Trump’s emotional transparency on Twitter must be an unbelievable additional goldmine for Russia’s intelligence services, who don’t even need to infiltrate the White House to draw up a psychological profile of the American president, to figure out what he might do in response to provocation. Any bugs they planted under the Resolute Desk will just be gravy.
Despite decades of failure following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the calcification of their economy, the last 18 months have been very good to Mother Russia.
With a little push from their Mercer/Bannon friends at Cambridge Analytica and a bit of familiar white panic over immigrants, their point of view prevailed in Britain with Brexit. And then their longtime fan: a businessman with severe daddy issues who speaks in bizarre, fractured sentences, was beguiled by media attention and easily wooed by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, whose Potemkin real estate and casino empire Russian money helped rescue from bankruptcy in the 1990s and whose tacky condos Russian buyers propped up by buying in bulk using LLCs in the 2000s found himself riding the xenophobic wave plus American apathy and fondness for lowbrow entertainment to the Republican nomination for president in 2016.
Their plans, and minor investments in hacker gangs and fake news saturation campaigns succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Even having Flynn in place for 27 days was a coup. Sure, their wins have scared Europe straight, perhaps limiting further gains, but bringing the two great 20th century powers to the brink of global humiliation isn’t bad for an old KGB hand like Vlad.
As for the American public, including the obsequious Republicans who shamefully continue to cover for Trump (perhaps due to their own hacked “kompromat” or worse, out of sheer, patriotism-dampening partisanship) the one question that doesn’t need answering anymore is who presents the biggest danger to our democracy.
The clear answer, to anyone willing to pay attention and admit it, is Donald Trump, who doesn’t have to be a Russian agent to be dangerous. He just has to be himself.