Everything, as they say, is now perfectly clear. Except what still isn’t clear at all.
If you, like many millions of Americans, are praying that the Donald Trump presidency crashes and burns, the clearest path not involving a Caine Mutiny moment in which he gets frog-walked from the Oval Office in a straightjacket as he clutches his smartphone and madly tweets is to follow the scent of the smoking guns in the Russia scandal. There are several even as Bellicose Mister Nationalism bobs and weaves to try to distract you (“It’s a witch hunt!” “Obama tapped my phone!”) as the truth nips ever more ferociously at the heels of his America-Betraying Self.
That scent eventually should but not necessarily will lead to the point where, absent Trump becoming totally unglued, there will be no alternative but to impeach him or, least likely of all, he does the first honorable thing in his life by resigning and relieves us of our collective misery.
For Trump to be kaput and understand how we might get there, it is necessary to do some Russia Scandal Math that seems to be arithmetically simple on its face — One and Two equals Three — but is dauntingly complex.
Let’s give it a go:
ONE . . .
What was once conjecture is now established fact beyond a shadow of a doubt: The Russian government engaged in an elaborate effort to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election that involved cyberhacking, disinformation and fake news.
The extent to which that effort did influence the election probably is unknowable, but I do believe Vladimir Putin and his cronies were surprised at the outcome.
. . . AND TWO . . .
What was once conjecture also is now established fact beyond a shadow of a doubt: Upwards of 10 people — Trump campaign aides, a family member and important public officials — met repeatedly with Russians who may have been involved in the effort to influence the outcome of the election.
The meetings most relevant to the scandal took place between last June and November 8 when the Russian effort to influence the election was at its peak and Trump was quite publicly encouraging the hacking.
. . . EQUAL THREE
If it can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that as a consequence of numbers One and Two, surrogates of Trump were not just aware of but aided and abetted the Russians in their effort to influence the outcome of the election, we’re almost there.
To get the rest of the way, it has to be proven that Trump knew and approved of — if did not actually actively participate in — the intrigues between his campaign and the Russians.
By way of review, we have One and Two locked up tight, while Three is near yet seems so far.
How far depends on a couple, three things: The outcomes of the several behind-the-scenes investigations into the scandal by intelligence agencies, what congressional committees end up doing, if anything, and what is turned up by the bloodhounds at The Washington Post and The New York Times, among other media outlets with spines. We’re talking documents, emails, wiretap transcripts and other forms of contemporaneous records, not merely the recollections of anonymous sources.
Disinterested observers note that it would have been shortsighted for the Trump campaign to not engage Russians during or since the election.
True enough, but why was it so secretive about those meetings? The Trump team made a big deal about meeting with several ambassadors at Trump Tower during the transition, eagerly providing photo ops and sometime holding press conferences when the ambassadors were from China, Japan, Canada and South Korea, among other countries, but a meeting with Russian Ambassador Serge Kislyak was kept secret. And why did Trump change the Republican platform at its national convention to make it substantially more pro-Russian?
Of those 10 Trump surrogates who met with Russians, the two most significant were Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions, Trump’s national security adviser and attorney general, respectively, and both lied about their contacts with Kislyak, a man widely believed to be a spy in sheep’s clothing. Compounding the mess Sessions has made, his own department agreed with the CIA and NSA in early January that Russia did interfere in the election.
Neither Flynn nor Sessions should have had to lie if there was nothing to hide. But big scandals require blanket concealment. Flynn and Sessions may know that what lurks a the center of the Russia scandal requires such concealment that Flynn lost his job and Sessions having to recuse himself from investigating the scandal — and may yet be forced out if the bombshells keep exploding — was a price that had to be paid in the service of keeping big secrets.
Trump, of course, is the least believable player in this drama having squandered in a mere 44 days the moral authority that comes with the office with a series of Twitter rampages.
He tried to shift attention from his Poor Innocent Me defense, which hadn’t been working, to portraying himself in a storm of semi-literate weekend tweets as being a victim of Obama treachery, which also won’t work. The wiretap claim is preposterous on its face and invites further scrutiny since permission to wiretap Trump would only have been granted if there was reason to believe a crime had been committed, while the pushback by FBI Director James Comey, who is nominally a Trump ally, puts already beleaguered AG Sessions in the impossible position of either validating the feverish hallucinations of the president or publicly disagreeing with him.
Meanwhile, former CIA Director Michael Hayden said on Monday that Trump could simply have demanded proof that his phones had been tapped from the intelligence community, and perhaps Trump “just for a moment forgot that he was president” in making the claim without proof.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Hillary Clinton] emails that are missing,” Trump had declared at a press conference last summer.
He later claimed he was just joking, and when confronted a short time later about his ties to the Russian president, he asserted that “I have no relationship with Putin” although in each of the three previous years, he had boasted about how extensive and deep those ties were.
As the scandal keeps growing new tentacles, the reason Trump has refused to release his tax returns becomes more obvious: He has to hide his own extensive financial ties to Russia.
The reason that Trump took the perilous step of cooperating with a foreign power — let alone an enemy power — to undermine democracy by trying to influence a presidential election is not yet clear. But my vote would go to money first, vulnerability to blackmail second, and a thirst for good old power third.
The Trump White House, has finally tweeted itself into a corner.
As one pundit noted, it is now speeding down a road with no guardrails as it not only can’t mount a credible defense in the face of the Russia scandal, it keeps making things much worse. A crash seems increasingly likely, if not inevitable.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on March 6, 2017, on Kiko’s House, a website featuring commentary by journalist and author, Shaun Mullen. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Mullen.