In the depraved reality show that has become this presidency, the Trump administration’s scandals are young and relentless.
- By Max BootMax Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”
If Kremlingate: The Scandal were Kremlingate: The TV Series, it would pack in so many improbable plot twists and surprise developments that any experienced showrunner would tell the writers to slow down because that’s not how real life works. In just the past week, we saw enough news to fill an entire season’s worth of episodes in a series that is equal parts House of Cards, The Americans, and Arrested Development. For those who find it hard to keep up, here’s a recap of last week’s action.
The week’s revelations began on Monday evening, July 17, when Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group disclosed to Bloomberg’s Charlie Rose that at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, Donald Trump had a second, undisclosed meeting with Vladimir Putin. Bremmer reported that the one-on-one conversation, with no other Americans present, lasted roughly an hour. The White House suggests it was much shorter — Trump says it “could be 15 minutes” — but it’s clear that the leaders weren’t just exchanging pleasantries.
Trump himself says, “We talked about adoption” — the same lame excuse that Donald Trump Jr. originally gave for his June 2016 meeting with Russian representatives eager to help the Trump campaign. “Adoption” is code for sanctions, because after Congress’s passage in 2012 of the Magnitsky Act, imposing sanctions on major human rights violators in Russia, the Kremlin retaliated by banning adoptions of Russian children by Americans. Simply by saying the conversation was about “adoptions,” rather than about all of the Russian transgressions that have prompted sanctions, Trump was adopting Moscow’s narrative.
Further confirmation of how eager Trump is to help out how his friend Vlad comes in Syria. Trump and Putin negotiated a cease-fire in southwestern Syria that has now been denounced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who worries that it will imperil his country’s security by entrenching Russia’s allies, the Iranians, next to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. As if this weren’t enough, on Wednesday, July 19, the Washington Post reported that Trump had decided to end the CIA program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels fighting against Putin’s ally, Bashar al-Assad. A current U.S. government official told the Post: “This is a momentous decision.… Putin won in Syria.”
The final outcome of the Hamburg summit was Trump’s announcement that the United States and Russia would form an “impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, [and] many other negative things, will be guarded … and safe.” This proposal was so ridiculous — how could the United States partner with the main perpetrator of cyberattacks? — that Trump himself seemed to disown it, yet last week Putin’s top cybersecurity expert said, with no denial from the White House, that efforts to establish this farcical task force were still “underway.”
So Trump did not lay down the law at Hamburg over Putin’s meddling in the U.S. election — but he did discuss cyber-cooperation with Russia. Little wonder that The Associated Press reported Thursday that National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and other aides are expressing frustration about Trump’s friendliness with Putin.
Keeping up so far? Good. Because last week also brought fresh news that suggests the extent to which Trump has surrounded himself with people who have their own Russian entanglements.
In a prior episode — all of two weeks ago — we found out that Donald Trump Jr. jumped at the chance (“I love it,” he said) to meet with Russian representatives promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. Then we found out that Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, who flew all the way from Moscow to meet the Trump high command, had represented the FSB, the successor to the KGB. The other participants included a former Russian counterintelligence officer suspected of involvement in hacking and a Russian financier who specializes in setting up Delaware bank accounts through which his Russian clients can move hundreds of millions of dollars.
Last week, we also found out that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, was, according to the New York Times, “in debt to pro-Russia interests by as much as $17 million” before joining the Trump campaign in March 2016, which would make him a major security risk. The Wall Street Journal is now reporting that Manafort is under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. Oh, and ExxonMobil was just fined $2 million for violating sanctions on Russia while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was its CEO.
But, wait, the best is yet to come. The writers of this series, as is their wont, saved their most startling revelations for the end of last week’s episodes.
It was not until Friday evening that we found out that Attorney General Jeff Sessions not only lied about meeting Russian representatives during the campaign but apparently lied about what they discussed. The Washington Post reported that electronic intercepts revealed that Sessions and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak had “‘substantive’ discussions on matters including Trump’s positions on Russia-related issues and prospects for U.S.-Russia relations in a Trump administration.” (Sessions’s spokeswoman responded that he hadn’t discussed election “interference” but did not deny discussing the campaign per se.)
And how did this top-secret signals intelligence become public knowledge? The widespread suspicion is that it was leaked either by Trump himself or by someone close to him in an attempt to force the attorney general from office so that Trump could appoint a replacement who would fire Mueller. Who but Frank Underwood of House of Cards could possibly pull off something so Machiavellian?
Yet this scenario is perfectly plausible because just two days before the Sessions leak, Trump had gone on the record with the New York Times to trash his own attorney general for daring to recuse himself from the Kremlingate probe. Maybe Trump was just blowing off steam — or maybe he is looking to replace Sessions with someone who wouldn’t have to recuse himself and thus could terminate the Mueller investigation on his behalf.
In his Times interview, the president made clear that Mueller would be crossing a “red line” if he dared to probe his finances — something that Bloomberg reports Mueller is already doing. And for good reason: Given that Trump has a long history of financial links to Russia — his sons have boasted in the past of all the money they’ve gotten from wealthy Russians — it is imperative to find out with whom he has done business. Remember what Deep Throat told Bob Woodward in the movie adaption of All the President’s Men: “Follow the money.”
Yet, just as your drama critic predicted, Trump is becoming unhinged at the prospect of Mueller uncovering his deep, dark financial secrets. The Washington Post reported on Friday that the president “was especially disturbed after learning Mueller would be able to access several years of his tax returns,” which suggests that he is hiding something a lot more incriminating than a lower-than-claimed net worth. The Post also reported that Trump is trying to intimidate and smear the special counsel (more obstruction of justice?) while examining the prospect of pardoning his aides, family members — and possibly even himself.
Trump did nothing to dampen such speculation by defiantly proclaiming on Twitter, as part of his weekly Saturday morning meltdown, that the president has the “complete power to pardon.” Actually, many legal scholars argue that a president can’t pardon himself. Even if he does so, he will be admitting guilt and thus strengthening the case for his own impeachment.
What a crazy week. And now we are in for another — and another and another. Indeed, this week began with Jared Kushner trying to explain to congressional committees his meetings with Russian representatives last year and with his father-in-law berating his own “beleaguered” attorney general for not “looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes.”
Get used to it. The Kremlingate show isn’t going away as long as Trump remains in the White House. It’s impossible to know how this story will end, but it’s unlikely to have a happy outcome. More likely, we are going to see a presidency increasingly paralyzed by scandal and a president at war with the whole world — except, of course, for his friend in the Kremlin, whom he treats the way a giddy schoolgirl would Zac Efron.
Trump has already signaled the next plot twist: He will somehow try to fire Mueller before the special counsel can uncover any more damaging information. We’ve seen this movie before. The “Saturday Night Massacre” did not work out well for Richard Nixon, but Trump is so oblivious to history, and so desperate to cover his tracks, that he may well stage a sequel. It will be up to Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, to decide if Trump will get away with such a shocking display of villainy. Sadly, given the failure of Republicans so far to do much to stand up to the miscreant in the Oval Office, this could well be one series where the bad guy gets away with his crimes. Stay tuned at the same Trump time, on the same Trump channel, for another depressing episode.
Photo credit: MIKHAIL KLIMENTIEV/AFP/Getty Images