Kremlin Gremlins

Don’t Forget—Trump’s Biggest Problem Is Still Russia

His health care humiliation is to be savored. But remember that what we learned this week about Russiagate will have huge ramifications.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

The lies of Trumpworld are coming home to roost, and the walls are starting to close in.

The more new information surfaces, the more inescapable it seems that “associates” of Donald J. Trump, when he was a candidate for president, coordinated with Russian operatives or their cutouts to coordinate the release of information damaging to the Hillary Clinton campaign. That’s not just the Occam’s Razor explanation for the weird web of connections among Trump, his family, and people either connected to or from Russia. It’s the gist of the FBI investigation that has made the 45th president unique in American history; a bizarre combination of Dick Nixon and Alger Hiss.

FBI director James Comey confirmed the investigation in an open congressional hearing this week. He and the director of the NSA went on to confirm, and to reiterate multiple times to resistant Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee, that the purpose of the Russian intervention in our 2016 election was to help Donald Trump; not just for the kicks of posting fake news on Reddit, Facebook and 4Chan.

The FBI is also believed to be investigating at least four men associated with the Trump campaign: longtime Trump whisperer Roger Stone, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort (who is now under multiple investigations; including potential money laundering related to shady dealings in both Ukraine and Cyprus), and Trump national security advisers Michael Flynn and Carter Page.

These are either a series of incredible coincidences, or they’re evidence of a fairly large plot by a group of Americans to collude with a hostile foreign power to tip a U.S. election in their favor. It’s a modern-day Watergate break-in layered over with what historian Douglas Brinkley has called the “smell of treason.”

Donald Trump’s attempt to throw the media off this bombshell story by posting a tweetstorm of lies, alleging a fictional plot by former president Obama to wiretap Trump Tower, bore some fruit this week. Much of the media reliably ran down the rabbit hole of “did he or didn’t he” regarding Obama, and Trump’s minions in the House of Representatives, led by Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, led Republican committee members in a chorus of obfuscation, attempting to shift the focus of the hearing from potential collusion by Trump campaign officials with Russia to the evils of leaks. A rather intriguing exception was Miami Republican Ileana Ros Lehtinen. She’s a close ally of one John Ellis “Jeb” Bush, the former Florida governor and Trump opponent who is thought to have a connection to the person who paid for that infamous Christopher Steel dossier. Jeb’s father, in addition to being a former president of the United States, is also a former head of the CIA; just to add to the almost graphic novel-quality intrigue of Russiagate.)

Nunes compounded the “change the narrative” plot late this week by turning himself from the chief investigator of the White House into its errand boy, This week, he rushed out to cameras claiming to have seen evidence that Trump’s transition team (of which he was a member) was surveilled. Nunes fairly boasted that before his media avail, he’d invited himself to the White House to share that information with the president—in other words, with the potential target of an FBI investigation. But by dropping yet another grenade into the insane Russiagate narrative, Nunes blew up his committee’s credibility along with his own. Days later, he couldn’t even stand by his bombshell assertion that he now knew for sure that the Obama era intelligence community wiretapped Team Trump.

Despite Nunes’s pitiful subjugation of himself and his committee to the interests of an epically scandalized White House—the ruse has been a failure.

The White House’s desperate attempts to disown him notwithstanding, Manafort, who far from being a virtual stranger or mere Trump “volunteer,” is a guy with an apartment on the 43rd floor of Trump Tower and unique proximity, physical and historical, to Trump. Manafort—who according to Nunes has agreed to testify before the House Intelligence Committee, and apparently its Senate equivalent—is a sword over the White House, not a shield. If he faces the threat of jail time for any one of his dirty financial deeds, what would be his incentive to go down protecting Trump and his cronies? I’m no prosecutor, but if I was, Manafort would be the first guy I’d offer a deal to. After that, I’d move on to the other discarded Trump acolytes who might soon testify before congress: Carter Page and Nixon-era dirty trickster Roger Stone.

The White House has found its stooge in Nunes, a former back bencher with an inherited California farm who suddenly rose to become the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, despite having zero experience in anything to do with intelligence gathering, law enforcement or even the law. But Nunes, despite his best flacking, won’t be able to shield this administration forever. His “secret information” stunt this week may have set in motion the inexorable drive toward a select committee, or worse, a special prosecutor. And most of the people likely involved in the plot to pull a Watergate break-in on Hillary Clinton are not in the administration, and thus are out of the reach of executive privilege. Their one potential protector, Attorney General Jefferson Sessions, was forced to recuse himself from any investigation due to his own lies and Russia ties.

No matter how hard his team and his congressional flaks try to change the subject, Russiagate is the central narrative of the Trump administration. It defines Trump’s narrow election and is eating away at not just his legitimacy, but also his moral authority and his literal power to order Republican members of congress around, to threaten them if they don’t do his bidding, or to compel them to pass his agenda. (Case in point: the swift demise of his and Paul Ryan’s scheme to tear up Obamacare and replace it with tax cuts for the rich and insurance company giveaways.) Trump is quickly becoming a man without a constituency beyond the most stalwart of his voters who no matter what he says or does, refuse to see him for the charlatan he is.

At this point, Donald Trump ought to worry in multiple directions.

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If Manafort or one of his other abandoned cronies turns on Trump to save himself, and the drip-drip-drip of revelations about the plot to fix the election becomes a flood, Russiagate could swallow his presidency whole, and maybe even force the Party Men of the GOP to at least threaten impeachment.

If the Bannonites decide to make war on Paul Ryan over the healthcare fail and Republicans on Capitol Hill elect to cut bait and make a play for the stability and predictability of a President Pence, impeachment could become more than just a threat.

If Trump voters begin to bail in the wake of Trump’s siding with Ryan over them on trying to take away their healthcare, Republicans could pay a steep price in 2018 and maybe even lose their now total control of Congress.

Or in the most potentially humiliating scenario for Trump, if the Russians decide they were sold the political equivalent of a Trump University degree, and their puppet is no longer capable of delivering for Moscow, we may yet discover the meaning of “kompromat,” as the Russian machine that Put Trump in office through leaks turns those leaks on him.