The discussion of the Russia file these days sounds like the review of a fast-food restaurant.
Echoing that infamous catchphrase of Wendy’s that became a political meme in the 1984 presidential elections – Where’s the Beef? – the charges of cooperation between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign have either been dismissed as a “nothingburger” or embraced as a “somethingburger” with all the fixings.
It’s an odd characterization. The beef is obviously right there on the bun.
Russia engaged in various efforts to influence or disrupt the 2016 presidential elections. Trump campaign staffers met with Russian officials and discussed the election. The president’s own son convened a meeting, attended by campaign manager Paul Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, with a Russian lawyer who promised compromising material on Hillary Clinton.
So, the only question is whether the burger is a run-of-the-mill cheeseburger or a XXXL Fatburger that gets caught in the throat of a president who sure loves him some fast food.
I lean toward the latter. But that’s going to require a closer look at the ingredients. Brace yourself: It’s never a pretty picture behind the scenes at a burger joint.
First: Read the fine print
The connections between Trump and Russia go well beyond anything that transfixed the nation in scandals of the past, including Watergate. They fall into three categories. There’s the election-related cooperation. There are the subsequent national-security breaches. Then there’s the cover-up.
But let’s start with the latest controversy: the Nunes memo.
This memo, released by the House Intelligence Committee, is only important because it signals the true end of bipartisanship in Congress. For decades, this committee and its counterpart in the Senate were largely above politics. Their deliberations often took place in secret, as befit the subject matter.
But committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA), in true Trumpian manner, has overturned the applecart. Against the advice of the FBI and some of his Republican colleagues – not to mention the Dems on the committee – Nunes pushed for the publication of a memo critical of the FBI and its ongoing investigations of Russiagate. In this way, Nunes released classified information with the obvious purpose of impeding the investigation.
Okay, I’m not a big fan of the FBI, or even necessarily of bipartisanship (like, for instance, when both parties backed the invasion of Iraq). But I am a fan of rule of law. And at a time when a president places himself above the law, I strongly support all institutions and processes that can cage the autocrat, and that includes the FBI and what remains of bipartisanship in Congress.
As for the particular claims of the memo, they don’t hold up to scrutiny.
Nunes claims, for instance, that the FBI pursued surveillance of a Trump campaign advisor, Carter Page, based on faulty, politicized intelligence. Nunes argues further that this intelligence – the dossier of opposition research collected by former British spook Christopher Steele – was compromised because of its connections to the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Finally, the whole enterprise was further tainted by the involvement of FBI agent Peter Strzok, who made no bones about his dislike of Trump in private texts to his secret lover.
Everything hangs on the role of the Steele dossier. The FBI contends that the dossier was not the most important reason it decided to put Page under surveillance.
After all, Page was under suspicion before Trump ever ran for president: In 2013, three Russian businessmen later charged with being spies tried to recruit Page.
Also, the dossier was initially commissioned by Republicans eager to counter Trump during the primaries and only later picked up by the Dems. The addition of Strzok, whose only offense that we know of was to express what half the country was thinking, was simply a hook to make the whole memo more newsworthy, particularly for Fox-like outlets.
So, on the fast-food burger spectrum, the Nunes memo isn’t even a sandwich. It amounts to a ketchup packet, or perhaps a used straw.
Next: The meat of the matter
Despite the obsessions of the Nunes memo, the FBI’s investigation into election tampering goes well beyond Carter Page and the Steele dossier. The source of the information that really prompted the FBI to open up an investigation in July 2016 came from an altogether different source.
It came from the Australians.
Back in May 2016, Australia’s top diplomat in the UK, former foreign minister Alexander Downer, had a late-night convo with a Trump campaign advisor about a cache of opposition research on Hillary Clinton. He relayed the info back to his colleagues, who then passed it on to the FBI.
The Trump advisor in question was “coffee boy” George Papadopoulos, actually a foreign policy advisor with enough influence to edit Trump’s first foreign policy speech in April 2016. Papadopoulos picked up the scent of the thousands of emails that apparently contained dirt on Hillary Clinton and that, thanks to some remarkably successful hacks, were in the possession of the Russian government.
Oh, perhaps you still believe the canard that it wasn’t the Russians who hacked the DNC and vacuumed up all those emails? Well, then you haven’t kept up with the news.
First of all, the Dutch intelligence service actually watched the hack happen and could pinpoint the very room in Moscow where Cozy Bear was operating. The Dutch spooks even hacked into the security camera in the corridor outside the room so that they could identify the people involved.
Don’t believe the Dutch? Okay, how about one of the Russian hackers themselves, testifying in, of all places, a Russian courtroom. Back in August, Konstantin Kozlovsky was on trial for stealing money from banks through a cyber scam. But he had more to say about some of his other activities. According to Fortune magazine:
Kozlovsky said he reported to Dmitry Dokuchayev, a major-general in the FSB, for various tasks since 2008. In 2016, Dokuchayev had instructed him to attack the DNC’s servers for the purpose of manipulating the U.S. electoral process, Kozlovsky testified.
Dokuchayev is himself now in prison on charges of treason, accused of passing similar information to U.S. intelligence agencies. In other words, Dokuchayev appears to be one of the main sources for the information on which joint U.S. agencies, in a report released by the director of national intelligence in January, argued that the Russian state had directed a campaign designed to polarize public opinion and broadly discredit the campaign of Hillary Clinton.
So, the Russians had the goods and the Trump team was interested in the goods — did they actually coordinate or conspire?
These are actionable offenses, at least under the Federal Election Campaign Act. Conspiracy is an agreement to commit an offense; coordination would be if the Trump campaign relied on Russian sources of campaign finance. The oft-used charge of “collusion” certainly sounds ominous, but it doesn’t have legal standing.
That’s the heart of the inquiry – or inquiries, since it’s really five separate investigations – that special counsel Robert Mueller is currently pursuing. It’s impossible to know exactly what evidence Mueller has. But Wired broke it down recently: 400,000 documents related to possible money-laundering, the extensive activities of the Russian trolls on social media, specific hacking operations (like Cozy Bear), meetings between Russians and members of Trump’s team, and the cover-up.
Mueller is playing a patient middle game. He has turned two key players: Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos. And he’s preparing to interview the big kahuna himself, Donald Trump.
According to Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, “We do know this: The Russians offered help, the campaign accepted help, the Russians gave help, and the president made full use of that help.”
If in fact the committee does know that the “campaign accepted help,” that’s proof of conspiracy as opposed to mere parallel play. If Mueller can prove that, it’s game over.
Russiagate goes way beyond Watergate, where the abuse of power seems almost parochial in retrospect. Whatever allegedly took place before the elections, Trump has only super-sized the problem as president. Although contacts with the Russians no longer fall in the category of election tampering, they are no less serious. In fact, in terms of overall national security, they are far graver.
The first post-election maneuver came before the Trump administration was even inaugurated. Future National Security Advisor Michael Flynn talked by phone with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about the sanctions the Obama administration had imposed on Russia because of its election interference.
It wasn’t just that Flynn promised to rip up the sanctions in order to avoid a resumption of a cold war between the two countries. Flynn was in a business partnership that was going to make him a lot of money from an upturn in U.S.-Russian relations. He later lied to the FBI about his conversations with Kislyak, which was the proximate reason for his departure from the administration after only three weeks. (Flynn also didn’t disclose his connections to the Turkish government, which also involved large sums of money and may even have extended to involvement in a plot to kidnap a Turkish dissident and send him back to Turkey).
But that was only the beginning. In May, at the White House, Trump himself met with Kislyak – and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – and proceeded to give them highly classified intelligence on an Israeli operation in Syria. The Israeli government was furious. And so was the U.S. intelligence community. Former director of national intelligence James Clapper, noting that Putin was a former KGB case officer, called the American president essentially an “asset” of the Russians. Trump followed up with various fawning meetings with Putin where he accepted at face value the Russian president’s denials of cyber attacks and election meddling.
The cooperation has extended to other foreign policy realms. Although the Trump administration’s more hostile approaches to Iran and North Korea have diverged from the Kremlin’s preferences, Washington has largely given Russia a free hand in Syria. That’s preferable to a direct clash of interests, but it has also allowed Russia to prop up a murderous regime and continue its own share of relentless air strikes.
Of course, U.S.-Russian relations have not been exactly rosy of late. Congress has pursued additional sanctions against the Kremlin. The administration’s aggressive push on energy exports sharpens competition with Russia, whose economy depends on its oil and gas production. Trump, like its predecessors, continues to oppose the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany.
Partly this failure to reset relations has been a function of push back from Congress, partly fallout from the Mueller investigations. But as with the Flynn imbroglio, the issue is not really about national security. Trump is primarily interested in money, and that may be the issue that ultimately brings him down.
Finally: The special sauce
Trump famously refused to release his tax returns. There might be any number of reasons why a billionaire who likes to cut corners would want to conceal his personal financial dealings from the public.
But it’s also possible that he wanted to conceal evidence of money laundering. A number of intriguing clues have appeared recently that, added together, look rather damning. Last March, Reuters broke the story of Russian investors sinking nearly $100 million into Trump properties, despite the president’s insistence that he had no deals with Russia. Given the difficulty of tracing ownership for some properties, Russian investments in Trump projects are likely much greater.
Russian investors aren’t just looking to diversify their holdings. They want to launder money obtained illegally. Consider the case of Prevezon. It’s a Russian holding company that has laundered huge amounts of money through properties in New York City. It’s also part of the tax fraud case that accountant Sergei Magnitsky discovered that got him thrown into a Russian jail, where he died under mysterious circumstances. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York was preparing to throw the book at Prevezon.
Then, a couple months after the Trump administration took office, the case magically disappeared. The Trump administration dismissed the U.S. attorney who was pursuing the case, and the Sessions Justice Department rushed to settle the case for an absurdly low $6 million penalty (the Attorney’s Office was seeking $230 million) and without any admission of wrongdoing. The Russian lawyer representing Prevezon was delighted, calling the Justice Department decision “an apology from the government.”
And the name of the Russian lawyer? Natalia Veselnitskaya. Sound familiar? She’s the one who promised Donald Trump Jr. some dirt on Clinton and participated in the infamous meeting at Trump tower in June 2016.
Evidence of a quid pro quo would be extraordinarily damaging for the Trump administration. Does Mueller already have the smoking gun, and he’s only waiting to catch Trump himself in a lie regarding money laundering? Intriguingly, some financial connections between Prevezon and Trump circles – through a real-estate deal brokered by Jared Kushner – have already surfaced.
Trump “has no strong ideological commitments,” Russia expert Seva Gunitsky explains. “We’ve seen that painfully over and over during the last few months. But if his financial interests are tied up with Russian oligarchs, who in turn are tied up with the Kremlin and thus have parallel interests, then Trump’s ‘consistency’ becomes much more explainable. And if we emphasize this financial angle a bit more, it also makes a lot of sense that he would not want to release his tax returns. Because that would expose just how deeply embedded he is with Russian money.”
The criminal charges associated with money laundering are more serious than any penalties connected with cooperating with a foreign power to undermine an election. That would explain not only Trump’s consistently friendly policy toward Putin and his refusal to release his tax returns.
It would also explain the extra efforts Trump and his colleagues have made to cover up whatever they’ve done. The president fired FBI Director James Comey and threatened to fire Sessions as well as Mueller. By authorizing the release of the Nunes memo, he seems to be building a case to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Also as part of the cover-up, a number of Trump officials have “misremembered” their contacts with the Russians.
Of course, much of what the Trump administration does on any given day can be attributable to sheer incompetence. This isn’t reassuring, but it isn’t necessarily illegal.
But greed is the through line in the Russia story, the plot that holds everything together – the special sauce that gives the burger its zing.
If Mueller can identify exactly how Trump and his cronies broke the law to swell their bank accounts – never mind the tainted elections or the compromised national security – then the president will be hoist by his own pecuniary petard.