Put this down as a reporters’ hunch, educated speculation. The information we’ve seen in the last week makes me think that President Trump is still, in effect, being blackmailed by Russia. President Trump may be instinctively sympathetic to Putin because of his authoritarian tendencies and his role as avatar of the global ‘nationalist’ right. But I don’t think he could cross him even if he hated him with a passion.
I know that sounds like a wild claim or allegation. It is. Let me explain specifically what I mean. I don’t know that anyone has made any specific threat. I don’t think anyone needs to. I think President Trump knows that he’s sitting on a powder keg of information showing that key members of his inner circle conspired with Russian operatives to trade election assistance for promises of future policy help.
In a sense this is no different from what many of us have long suspected. Trump and his confederates either made deals with Russians or crossed lines with them during the campaign. Once they had, they were compromised. They could be blackmailed with the threat of revelations of their earlier bad acts. I wasn’t sure they’d actually crossed the line. There was a good chance that Trump’s extreme concern about the Russia investigation could rest solely on his knowledge that his business history couldn’t withstand scrutiny.
I don’t think that any more.
Looking at the email threads revealed in the Papadopoulos court documents and the emails read into the record in the Carter congressional testimony it becomes clear that these guys’ contacts and discussions with Russian operatives were widely aired within Trump’s inner circle and significantly directed by them. Getting dirt on Hillary Clinton came up numerous times. So did the need to undo the sanctions which have become a prime focus of Russian foreign policy. Just the same applies to the Trump Tower meeting which was now clearly just one of numerous contacts and probes in the period between Trump becoming the odds-on nominee and the release of the DNC emails. The bases of the bargain are all right there with both sides eager for it. There was certainly an understanding and, even if there hadn’t been, more than enough to be politically fatal (in the light of subsequent events) if the full details were ever known.
Yesterday Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer from the Trump Tower meeting, let drop that Don Jr. had said that sanctions relief was possible in the midst of the conversation about dirt on Clinton. I strongly suspect that Trump did say this. It fits and it sounds like him. I also have zero doubt that Veselnitskaya would happily make it up if it weren’t true. In practice, it doesn’t matter. Russians have enough on Trump and his inner circle and Trump has so little credibility on this issue that they can do him great harm whenever they choose. It’s simple. Think of everything we’ve learned over the last year. All of it, by definition, was known on the Russian side from the beginning and could have been divulged at any time. Do we really think that’s all there is?
The President almost certainly knows this. So we shouldn’t be surprised that he is acting accordingly.
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