One of the most consistent things about the Trump/Russia story is the way that what we might call “the evidence” is so frequently outstripped by the explanations for it and reactions to it in driving a fair-minded person’s suspicion that something just ain’t right. This isn’t to say “the evidence” doesn’t hold its own weight; it does just fine. But the inability to give even remotely straight answers, the need for deflections and subterfuges that are demonstrably preposterous (Manafort was a marginal figure in the campaign) keeps coming up again and again.
The other persistent feature is what we’re seeing now unfold with Devin Nunes, until recently a fairly unremarkable and uncontroversial member of the Republican House caucus. As I wrote after Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from the Trump/Russia investigation at the beginning of this month, “People who don’t even appear to be that close to the action keep getting pulled under for what seem like needless deceptions.” When we see this kind of pattern, “the answer is usually that the stuff at the center of the scandal is so big that it requires concealment, even about things distant from the main action, things that it would seem much better and less damaging simply to admit.”
I’ve been on vacation abroad. So I’ve intentionally kept a distance from the news. But the progression of events with Nunes, from the slavering fealty to the President, serial rapidly debunked denials of new Trump revelations, the bizarre late night cloak and dagger stunt all building to this refusal to disclose whatever secret evidence he possesses to any other member of his committee … the chain of events is so wild and far-fetched that under normal circumstances official Washington might be considering whether Nunes was having some kind of psychological breakdown.
Whatever we think of his judgement or integrity, step back and consider this: What is being hidden here that drives such erratic and inexplicable behavior from close to everyone who gets into what I earlier called the ‘event horizon’ of this scandal? What at the center of it has such a profound gravitational pull?
It is fair to say that there is one possible ‘innocent’ explanation, which is simply the President’s bull-headedness, his insistence of fighting and denying in every case and every time. That might drive suspicion where there isn’t guilt but simply pugnacity and aggression. But that is at best only a partial explanation and I suspect in this case it plays very little role. That’s simply not how big scandals work. Even Trump’s penchant to fight, even on self-defeating fronts, doesn’t change that.
Rather than searching for the single unifying piece of evidence, the smoking gun, as it were, it is better for us to start with the story we already know and simply keep pulling on the numerous dangling threads that story puts in front of us. In recent weeks, I’ve written a series of posts, which are in the majority of cases built on public records and weaving together the reporting of others. The picture they paint has a few critical elements. The first is that Trump built his ‘second act’, starting in the first years of this century, on a free flow of money from the former Soviet Union. Numerous Trump business ventures partnered with people tied to the Russian or post-Soviet criminal underworld. This pattern is so widespread and consistent that it is a hugely important story in itself, though it tends to get overshadowed by the hunt for ties to President Vladimir Putin. Many of these ventures bear key hallmarks of money laundering. The most straightforward explanation is that Trump needed capital but had ruined his access to legitimate lenders and scared off most sensible investors. He was a perfect match for overseas money, specifically post-Soviet money, which needed to get out of its countries of origin and into the safety of the US, particularly US real estate. This was money you couldn’t ask a lot of questions about; and Trump was happy not to ask.
Now just a couple days ago, Russ Baker and his colleagues at Baker’s independent news site WhoWhatWhy.org published a lengthy story on this topic. As you’ll see when you read it, the bulk of information is material I covered here, here and in various other posts over recent months. Baker and his colleagues focus largely on Felix Sater, his cooperation with the FBI and CIA, Trump’s business association with Sater and other ties to Russian money and organized crime. But in addition to adding more information on certain fronts, he adds a critical new dimension to the story, one I hinted at here. Indeed, Baker takes it to another level.
Baker argues that the FBI was itself likely compromised in its efforts and ability to handle the Trump investigation because of how deeply enmeshed it was with Sater and its own investigations and operations targeting Russian organized crime, as well as related counterintelligence operations. The FBI likely didn’t want to threaten or divulge details of its own investigations for entirely legitimate reasons. It also may not have wanted to divulge how deeply involved it was with Sater and how many bad acts he committed while he was under the FBI’s protection. (Let’s call this the Whitey Bulger scenario.)
Baker’s reporting is somewhat opaque to me on how much this is a logical, evidence-backed surmise and how much it is based on the sources he worked with on the story. If nothing else, as I’ve written, the DOJ, the FBI and key federal judges have gone to herculean and all the unprecedented lengths to keep the details of Sater’s cooperation and work for the government a secret. I don’t think we’ll have any real understanding of all this until we have a better if not a fully transparent explanation of that relationship.
What does this mean exactly? Does it mean the FBI is covering for Trump? I don’t think it means that and I don’t think Baker is suggesting that. What I think Baker is suggesting is that some of the hard to explain laggardness and other oddities of the investigation in 2016 could be a product of conflicting priorities different parts of the FBI brought to the investigation. Indeed, the FBI may still be unable or resisting telling all of what it knows about the case.
Step back and consider this. The Director of the FBI has now confirmed publicly that there is an on-going counter-intelligence investigation probing whether close advisors and associates of the President colluded with a hostile foreign power to help elect the President. The jarring and disorienting effects of Trump’s two months’ presidency, makes it hard for us to process just what a stunning revelation that is. This is a matter of sufficient gravity that it is hardly sufficient to say that this will be examined deep in the national security apparatus out of the public eye for months or maybe years. We’ve been told something all but unbelievable is happening. But we can’t know really anything about it. The deeply classified, secretive nature of these investigations is a sufficient explanation for all that. But perhaps there’s more to it. Remember, it’s not just what’s been discussed in open session. Top members of Congress have also pressed the FBI’s apparent reluctance to share all of what it knows in closed sessions.
The key point in my mind is that for the reasons I explained here, the FBI and likely the CIA knew quite a lot about Trump’s ties to the post-Soviet criminal underworld and reliance on Russian, Ukrainian and Kazakhstani money of dubious origins years before he ran for President. What role did that knowledge play, what uses was it put to, once those multiple red flags triggered a formal counter-intelligence investigation late last July? Indeed, just what is known about these ties and business relationships? Most all of what we know comes from marginal details from public records and the occasional lawsuit where a lot of beans get spilled. I’d figure we know 5% or maybe 10% of the story. The rest remains hidden. Criminal prosecutions and counter-intelligence secrets are important. But nothing is more important than allowing the public to know who the President is, what he’s done and what’s driving his actions.
Whatever is there will take a firm hand to uncover. Like the violent gravitational forces around a black hole, the force of this story will just tear a hapless goober like Nunes to pieces.