Trump's Russia scandal keeps getting deeper: At this point, campaign collusion might be the least of his problems

Firing Comey didn't end the collusion inquiry — but Trump's clumsy cover-up and financial ties are his real problem

Published May 15, 2017 9:00AM (EDT)


With every passing day and every passing derp, President Donald Trump makes his campaign's possible collusion with Russia to hijack last year’s election seem almost secondary. Surely that’s not his intention; indeed, it’s exactly the opposite. But anyone, regardless of politics, who has observed Trump’s reactions to the deepening Russia story can plainly see that the 45th president is way out of his depth.

Anyone with even a remedial understanding of politics and public relations understands that Trump is bungling the White House reaction to the ongoing investigation, turning an already harrowing treason probe into a harrowing treason probe made far more toxic by an obvious coverup.

It’s still unclear exactly what’s wrong with the president that he continues to botch and fumble the political reaction to the widening Russia scandal. We should definitely rule out, with prejudice, any argument that the president is practicing "three-dimensional chess" — that is, the “crazy like a fox” theory suggesting that Trump is working his way through a twisty Machiavellian strategy that we mere mortals are incapable of understanding. There’s nothing like that going on here. Chances are, Trump is being perpetually stymied by a combination of his desperation to kill the Russia probe; his clinical delusions, in which he believes certain things are real that clearly aren’t; his political ignorance; and, of course, his erratic knee-jerk style of blurting out gibberish and lies without any message discipline or self-censorship.

As a result, we’re treated to events like last week when the president fired James Comey, the now-former FBI director who was deeply involved with investigating Trump's links to Russia, followed by a shit show the likes of which we have rarely witnessed in presidential politics since 1974. As if the firing of Comey wasn’t suspicious enough, the White House at first tried to claim that this happened specifically because of the way Comey had handled Hillary Clinton email scandal. That was the line throughout the first 24 hours of the aftermath.

Then came the whiplash.

Contrary to everything the White House, along with Vice President Mike Pence, had said about Comey’s firing, Trump inexplicably confessed to NBC News’ Lester Holt that he had fired Comey because he wanted the Russian scandal to end — which, of course, screams out obstruction of justice. Trump said to Holt, "And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, 'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.'"

That day White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeated Trump’s perhaps inadvertent confession, noting in the press room, "We want [the Trump-Russia matter] to come to its conclusion; we want it to come to its conclusion with integrity," she said. "And we think that we've actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen."

Making matters even worse, the president later hinted in a tweet that he might have secretly recorded his conversations with Comey, adding witness tampering and intimidation to the rap sheet. It's worth noting that Trump attempted something similar just before the Senate testimony of former acting Attorney General Sally Yates: As a last-minute threat, Trump hinted that she might have leaked details about the Michael Flynn prong of the Trump-Russia fiasco to the press.

Consequently, Trump managed to open up an entirely new wing of the scandal, further blurring the distinctions between himself and Richard Nixon while deep in the belly of the Watergate crisis. Now everyone wants to know whether Trump has a Nixonian secret recording system in the White House — and if he does, there are more than a few senators, members of Congress and federal investigators who want copies of the recordings — immediately.

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All in all, we have at least several actionable if not impeachable offenses from last week alone, and it all emerged from the attempted cover-up and firing of Comey — an action Trump didn’t have to take except to relieve the pressure valves on the Russia scandal. Why? Why is Trump so desperate to scramble the story?

If he is innocent, there’s no reason for the White House to have tripped over itself so spectacularly. In that case, Comey's investigation would ultimately have reached that conclusion. So why try to kill off the investigation that could hypothetically exonerate Trump and his closest associates and put the whole thing to rest? Obviously because Trump and his closest associates are guilty.

But guilt over collusion doesn’t even need to be proved at this point. The investigation could be entirely blown up, by Trump or someone else, and we'd still be left with a massively suspicious cover-up when various high crimes have been committed.

Furthermore, if the investigations of  the campaign collusion and the resulting cover-up are abandoned tomorrow, there’s still the third chunk of this mess that could bring down the administration: Trump’s alleged links to Russian money laundering, whether that means Trump's laundering money for Russian plutocrats or the plutocrats' laundering money for him. Toss into the mix the widespread rumors (unsubstantiated for now) about Russian loans having been used for Trump’s campaign war chest.

Toward the end of last week, we heard from Trump’s outside counselors, the Washington law firm of Morgan Lewis, which issued a letter confirming that Trump has various links to Russian money. It’s worth mentioning here that Morgan Lewis was voted “Russia Law Firm of the Year.” Yes, really. Jesus, is anyone in the White House paying attention to its spin? Nevertheless, the letter confirms several above-board links between Trump and Russian cash. But come on; it's not like a review of Trump’s tax returns would show glaring evidence of money laundering or other malfeasance. We also have to assume that Trump has established an entire roster of shell corporations and fronts over the years. Are all these offshore accounts and corporate entities reflected in his stupid 1040s? Certainly not.

By the way, Morgan Lewis did, in fact, confirm one of the “loony” conspiracy theories you might have heard on Rachel Maddow's show and elsewhere. It turns out that Trump stumbled into a $54 million windfall when he sold his colossal Florida estate to Dmitry Rybolovlev, the Russian “Fertilizer King,” for $95 million — a house Trump had purchased for $41 million. It’s important to note that Rybolovlev allegedly laundered a considerable amount of his personal fortune through the Bank of Cyprus, the bank that previously employed Wilbur Ross, Trump’s secretary of commerce. If you think everything about that transaction was on the level, I have some robot insurance to sell you.

Trump should be terrified. No one knows for sure whether he is, but he should be. Charges of collusion are very much alive and he knows it. But the thing is, those collusion charges could evaporate tomorrow and we'd still be left with two more scandals: the cover-up and the dubious financial links to Russian oligarchs. Those could be more than enough to summarily boot him out of the Oval Office and into a federal penitentiary where orange could be the new orange.

Trump stupidly thought he could use and abuse the power of the presidency to wiggle out of this predicament, but it’s the unstoppable wiggling that’s getting him into more and more trouble. For a guy who everyone says is so media savvy, Donald Trump is even more incompetent at cleaning up his own messes than he is at being president.

By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.