A short while ago on her new MSNBC show, Nicole Wallace was asking whether all of the focus on things that happened around the turnover of the administrations (say, December 2016 to February 2017) isn’t misplaced. What about the much more out in the open events that happened earlier in the year, like that never explained change to the GOP platform? This raised in my mind a slightly different point.
Back at the end of the third week of July 2016 I wrote my first lengthy piece on Trump and Russia, or rather on Trump and Putin. I spent a couple days working on the piece, stitching together the various threads of information that had drawn my attention over the previous few months. Then while I was working on it, on July 22nd, Wikileaks released the first batch of Clinton emails. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I knew Russia had been accused of being behind hacking the DNC computer network. But at that time, I was skeptical of the accusation. So while some were already speculating about Russian involvement, I did not include it in my piece because I didn’t want to muddy what I thought was strong circumstantial evidence for a relationship between Trump and Russia with a theory that then struck me as wholly speculative if not necessarily conspiratorial.
My point in raising this is not to celebrate some wild prescience on my part. It is to note something that I think is now frequently lost. There were lots and lots of warning signs about Trump’s relationship with Russia (both policy subservience and business ties) before what we now think of as the centerpiece of the story even happened. The possible quid pro quo of policy subservience in exchange for business opportunities and cash was right there in the open before Russia began a massive campaign of more or less open interventions on Trump’s behalf.
So back to Nicole’s question: Why are we so focused on how many times Jeff Sessions met with Sergei Kislyak and not on just what it was that led to the relatively small but stick-out-like-a sore-thumb change in the GOP convention platform? One answer I think is that it was only late in the campaign and after the election that various kinds of scrutiny and surveillance ramped up. I don’t mean unmasking. I just mean that when you’re running a presidential transition a lot of people are watching. You’re in the process of taking over the state. You leave a lot of tracks. Another part of the equation, I think, is that most of what we’re seeing is being driven by what is closest to us in chronology. Perhaps a better way to put it is that this is where the evidence trail starts or this is what we’re hearing about first.
However that may be, I’m quite confident that Jeff Sessions schedule, completely crazy stuff like Jared Kushner trying to access Russia’s secure communication technology to open a backchannel to Russia and more are only going to be pieces of the puzzle which were put in place late or relatively late in the story. If it is true as I suspect that Jared Kushner was during the transition meeting with state-backed Russian bankers trying to secure an infusion of cash to bail out the family business, I scarcely believe that the idea began with him or was first broached so late in the game.
Something like that could only have happened in an on-going channel of communication and cultivated relationships. Perhaps it was merely unconventional or inappropriate up to that point, rather than crossing the brightest of red lines. But it is quite clear that the mix of communications involving Mike Flynn, Jared Kushner, Jeff Sessions and others didn’t just stand up in November and December. We seem to be catching this story halfway or more through.
If you’ve immersed yourself in this story, the timelines, business records, minor mysteries and more, you can have some sense of the broad range of possible scenarios that were afoot from late 2015 until the November election. Whatever happened stretches way back to the earliest days of the race and likely, in key respects, long before. The meetings and events that are now the focus are more like the fruition of whatever was afoot. They are far from the whole story.