Okay, it’s time to have a look at that goddamned elephant sitting over there in the corner of the room: Did the Trump campaign actually plan with Russians during the campaign in 2016, or were they just a bunch of fools who kept running into Russians in New York, Washington, London and Moscow? Did they concoct an elaborate conspiracy with the Russians to steal the election? Or did they fumble their way along and take advantage when the opportunity arose, as with stolen DNC documents and the FBI handling of Hillary’s emails?
Let’s take a look back at what we know.
In its early days, the Trump campaign for president was a skeletal operation. Traveling with the candidate to early campaign rallies was Hope Hicks, his “campaign spokesman,” and Corey Lewandowski, his campaign manager. Trump relied on his long-time lawyer, Michael Cohen, aide Sam Nunberg, and his friend and Republican dirty-trickster Roger Stone for advice in the early days of the campaign, but by August, only a month after he began his campaign, Nunberg and Stone were out.
Trump stumped at rallies through the fall and winter of 2015 and joined Republican primary debates in Ohio, California, Colorado, Wisconsin, South Carolina and Nevada. But think back to that time in his campaign. His debate performances were frequently criticized as unhinged, and the speeches he gave about Mexican rapists and banning Muslim immigration into the U.S. and requiring Muslims to register and carry ID cards were denounced by Republicans and Democrats alike. If you went on the website of the Clinton campaign, you saw a list of dozens of campaign appearances (mainly by surrogates, not the candidate herself, and mostly at fundraisers rather than free rallies), and links to more than three dozen “white papers” on issues from reform of the criminal justice system to curing Alzheimer's. Meanwhile, if you went on the Trump campaign website, you saw a list of his next campaign rallies — sometimes only a day or two ahead, and all free, all featuring Trump himself — along with a button that would present you with a PDF rally “ticket” you could print out.
That was it. By the time Trump began winning primaries in February and March of 2016, the entire Trump campaign senior staff could have met in a phone booth, if such a thing still existed by that time. Trump’s campaign was a traditional “campaign” in name only. They had no “national headquarters” beyond a few spare offices in Trump Tower staffed largely with family members and employees of the Trump Organization; no “ground organization” anyone who had ever worked on a campaign would recognize; no staff of political advertising experts already ramping up campaign ads and media buys; no system of satellite state campaign offices in the states with upcoming primaries. In short, the Trump victories in Republican primaries as they unfolded were a mystery, because the Trump campaign operation itself was a mystery. It was amateur hour on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, and yet he was knocking off primary opponents one after another. Bye-bye, Jindal; bye-bye Walker; bye-bye Perry; bye-bye Huckabee; bye-bye Graham; bye-bye Santorum; bye-bye Fiorina; bye-bye Carson.
As the primary wins accumulated and it started looking like Trump actually had a shot at winning the nomination, the campaign scrambled to appear, well, more like a normal campaign. At a meeting with the Washington Post editorial board in March, Trump announced he had a “foreign policy team” and named George Papadopoulos and Carter Page as members, officiously calling Papadopoulos an “energy and oil consultant, excellent guy,” and Page a “PhD.”
The connections of the Trump campaign to Russians are at least curious at best. How did they end up with so many Russia-connected people? Michael Flynn was appointed as a campaign adviser in February. He had attended the 10th Anniversary gala for “Russia Today” in December of 2015, sitting next to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Carter Page had worked for Merrill Lynch in Moscow. In late March, Trump hired Paul Manafort as a delegate wrangler for the campaign. Manafort hadn’t been on a Republican campaign in decades, but he had extensive contacts in the Ukraine and Russia, having spent the last 10 years or so of his life working as a political consultant over there. Manafort would go on to become campaign manager, and Flynn would end up being appointed national security adviser.
Papadopoulos started running around London and Rome in March meeting with Russians promising “dirt” and “thousands of Hillary’s emails.” He met a Russian woman introduced as “Putin’s niece” and was put in touch with Ivan Timofeev, the director of the Moscow-based “Russian International Affairs Council,” a seemingly obvious cover for a Russian intelligence operation. He reported back to his superiors in New York like Steven Miller and co-campaign chairman Sam Clovis about all of his Russian contacts and their desire to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin.
In early June, Donald Trump Jr. received an email from a friend, a British PR man who offered to set up a meeting with some Russians who had a bunch of “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and be very useful to your father.” On June 9, Don Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner met at Trump Tower with the British PR man and three Russians who claimed to have the dirt on Hillary. On June 15, Russian hackers released the first tranche of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee. On July 7, Carter Page traveled to Moscow to give a spurious address to the New Economic School. He also met with Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich and a top board member of Gazprom, the oil giant owned by the Russian government and controlled by Putin. Later in July, Trump campaign officials including Jeff Sessions would meet with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the Republican National Convention. Campaign adviser Michael Flynn made a connection with Kislyak that would extend the way to Dec. 29, after Trump had been elected, when the two had their famous five phone calls. Manafort and others worked at the convention to alter the Republican platform to be less friendly to Ukraine and more friendly to Russia.
The problem is, what did all of these contacts with Russians actually produce? I remember wondering last year as the Russia connections leaked out, who was doing the conspiring? I started thinking, maybe they were using these lesser characters like Page as cut-outs. But Don Jr. and Kushner and Manafort weren’t lesser characters. And they weren’t meeting in Rome and London coffee shops like Papadopoulos did with a shifty “professor” and a putative Putin “niece.” They met in fucking Trump Tower! In the fucking campaign office! Who would engage in a conspiracy like that in broad daylight?
It began to look less like a conspiracy to steal an election and more like what we knew the early Trump campaign to be: a shoestring operation run by a bunch of bumbling amateurs who would take a meeting with anyone. Look at how easy it was for the Russians to get the meeting at Trump Tower. They get some sketchy Brit PR guy to email Don Jr., and six days later they’re sitting in Trump Tower with the top troika of the campaign! Do you remember what happened in the final days of the Clinton campaign? The state campaign managers for Wisconsin and Michigan realized they were losing in the Rust Belt, so they began calling desperately to the campaign headquarters in Brooklyn — and they couldn’t reach anyone! They couldn’t get a meeting, they couldn’t even get anyone on the phone.
I don’t know what Special Counsel Robert Mueller is going to come up with, but they say he’s going to flip Rick Gates, who was Manafort’s longtime partner and deputy on the Trump campaign, and there are rumors about Hope Hicks and Steve Bannon and god only knows who else. So maybe he’ll come up with some kind of collusion and conspiracy to use stolen materials (the DNC documents taken by Russians and given to WikiLeaks) or violations of campaign finance laws.
But we know this much: Whether they bumbled and stumbled or colluded and conspired, they began lying about their connections to Russians and covering them up the minute Russia was mentioned. Sessions lied to the Senate about his meeting with Russians. Trump lied loudly and repeatedly, saying there had been no meetings with Russians by his campaign. When contacts between his campaign and Russians came out, he lied that they hadn’t been about the campaign. When the Trump Tower meeting with Russians was exposed, Trump conspired on Air Force One to produce a statement claiming the meeting was about “adoptions.” When that story fell apart, Trump began saying that nothing they did amounted to “collusion.” When it began looking more and more like some kind of collusion had gone on, Trump began claiming that none of what he had said or done amounted to “obstruction.” He tried to get James Comey to back off Flynn, and when he wouldn’t, he fired Comey. Dozens have either left their jobs in the White House or been fired. He’s threatening another round of firings in the White House, FBI and Department of Justice.
So the big question is this: If Trump and his people didn’t conspire with the Russians to steal the election, why have they risked so much with all of their lies and distractions and cover-ups and attempts to derail, if not actually obstruct, the investigation?
I can see only two answers to that question. The first is: They actually did conspire to steal the election, so they know that they are guilty. The second is: Trump’s ego. If his people simply bumbled their way into meetings and other contacts with Russians, Trump himself took advantage of the “scandal” of the stolen DNC documents, so the Russians ended up helping him one way or another. His ego won’t let him live with the idea that he didn’t win the election by virtue of his own genius and the adoration of his millions of supporters.
Either way, he’s in deep trouble. He’s facing the prospect of being interrogated by Mueller’s investigators. Two of his senior campaign officials have been indicted on multiple felonies. Two of his campaign advisers, one of whom ended up as his National Security Adviser, have pled guilty to lying to the FBI and are cooperating with Mueller’s investigation. All of the lies Trump and his people have told about Russians are now looking like a conspiracy to obstruct justice that puts numerous former campaign and White House officials in legal jeopardy and Trump himself increasingly vulnerable to indictment if not impeachment.
Winning is such a bitch. Sad.