President Trump has a self-destructive urge that he cannot sublimate. He appears to court disaster at every turn, and yet as least so far he has escaped and thrived; he has an uncanny instinct for self-preservation from his egregious mistakes. From his recent behavior I can only conclude that he laid out a neon road map of where he is vulnerable for the Office of the Special Counsel, and there just may be no escape.
To start with I do not think the Russians elected Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton should have won the presidential race by about 10 points; instead she lost the Electoral College and won the popular vote by about 2 percent. She bears responsibility for her failings as a candidate. She was unable to present a consistent and persuasive economic message, in many ways the polar opposite of her husband. She sat on her lead and failed to campaign adequately in Michigan and Wisconsin. She turned off too many blue-collar voters who should have been voting Democratic; these are not her failings alone, but were emblematic of a growing Democratic failure to connect with its natural constituencies. She spent nearly all of her time attacking Donald Trump, a rather easy target, and far too little time presenting her own (it should and could have been compelling) vision for the country.
Donald Trump ran a terrible campaign as well, making constant offensive comments and verbal gaffes to alienate wide swaths of voters. He alienated women, Hispanics, immigrants, African Americans and the college educated. The bullying of his opponents, the threats, the misogynistic, and racist comments were real. Clearly he did connect deeply with an older white rural populations who turned out in large numbers for him in the Midwest and the South. He connected both with those who felt alienated and ignored and those who were affluent. He presented a vision of a 50’s America with strong wage and job growth, revitalized steel and coal industries and unchallenged American dominion, combined with hostility to immigration, foreigners and free trade that played extremely well with some key voting sectors.
One of the reasons Trump won was that the economic recovery from the Great Recession during the Obama Administration was initially concentrated in the big cities and the coasts. It did not reach small towns as quickly. It did reach those in high income tax brackets; it did not reach forgotten voters in coal country and rust belt communities needing a new economic base. We are a nation with growing income inequality and tax shelters for the fast growing incomes of the very rich. There was no reason for these low income voters to vote for Trump; his economic platform was all about tax breaks for the rich, but his America First rhetoric and his rallies appealed to them where his economic platform did not.
Were the Russians the tipping point in what became a very close election? I don’t think so, but it was not for lack of trying on both the Russians’ part and the Trump campaign’s. And that is what is at the heart of the Special Counsel’s investigation. This is not about invalidating the election results, but it is first, about understanding the roles of the Russian electoral interference, and second, about the illegal conduct, if any, of the Trump campaign and even the President himself, particularly in firing FBI Director Comey.
President Trump and his extended family and colleagues had long standing relations with rich Russian individuals as investors, purchasers of his real estate, financiers, developers, entertainment impresarios, and colleagues. That is a part of his global business operation as practiced in Manhattan, Palm Beach and around the world, including Moscow, and it presented unique opportunities and entrees during the campaign for both Trump and the Russians.
Candidate Trump repeatedly praised President Putin during the campaign, and President Putin reciprocated. The relations between Putin and Clinton and Putin and Obama were glacial due to the Russian invasions of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine and the Russian perception that Secretary Clinton fomented unrest in Russia during and after the 2011 Russian presidential election. It is not surprising that the Russians engaged in a lot of pre-electoral manipulation in the US designed to help Candidate Trump prevail. This was not adequately publicized to the voting public or countered. The Obama Administration, the intelligence community, the media and Republican Congressional leadership knew it and share the fault of not taking action during the campaign. This Russian intervention simply could not have escaped the attention and awareness of the Trump campaign. But did they collude and how?
First, Candidate Trump brought in Paul Manafort (an experienced and respected political operative) to manage his campaign. Among other undertakings including campaigns for the corrupt Mobutu Sese Seko Zaire leadership and corrupt Marcos Phillipines leadership, Manafort had previously managed the Ukraine political campaigns of Victor Yanukovich, who was and is the Kremlin’s preferred Ukrainian political leader and had been a noted kleptocrat. Campaign Manager Manafort and colleagues apparently watered down the Republican platform, which called for arming the government of Ukraine against Russian interference. He might also have been involved in money laundering in Manhattan real estate for prominent Russian figures and appears to have had a large consulting contract to promote Russian interests in the West beginning in 2005. Manafort failed to register as an agent of a foreign government for his hefty contracts with the pro-Russian elements of the Ukraine, and it is possible that not all his foreign income was reported to the IRS, this too is under investigation.
When the Russians offered to provide damaging information about Candidate Clinton explaining that the Russian government was trying to help Trump, Trump’s top campaign team including his Campaign Manger Manafort, Don Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner leapt like a trout after a fly. You will not see a much higher-level response from a political campaign. They passed this off as “we were just discussing Russian adoptions”. Why are the three top Trump campaign leaders discussing “Russian adoptions”? “Russian adoptions” is the code word for the US sanctions imposed after the Ukraine invasion. President’s Trump’s responses were “he’s a good boy”, “he didn’t get anything damaging” and “everybody does it, who wouldn’t take that meeting”. Were the Russians fishing, what was said, and what did they get?
After the election, Jared Kushner along with General Flynn met with the Russian ambassador and tried to set up a secure communications line in the Russian embassy between the triumphant Trump campaign and the Kremlin. His defense was “I was politically naïve and didn’t know any better and didn’t do anything” – kind of a pathetic defense from someone who runs a multi-billion dollar corporation and a newspaper and is now the President’s right hand man. Shortly afterwards at the Russian ambassador’s behest, he met with the head of a large Russian bank; the true topic of their conversation is as yet unknown. According to Kushner, this was just getting to know you pleasantries. If so, why bother?
Second, General Mike Flynn had had a distinguished military career specializing in military intelligence that came to an unpleasant end during the Obama Administration when his performance as head of the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) was judged to be chaotic, disruptive and ineffectual, and he was terminated. He then set up a consulting agency with lucrative contracts with the Turks to present the Turkish government point of view to American policy makers and to seek extradition of an elderly Turkish religious leader based in Pennsylvania who President Erdogan believes has been trying to overthrow him. He became a paid TV analyst for Russia Today, the Kremlin’s media arm, and made an appearance and policy speech in Moscow seated at the side of President Putin. None of this was disclosed to or approved by the Defense Department, and General Flynn failed to register as an agent of a foreign government for his consulting contracts.
General Flynn was brought into the Trump campaign in February 2016; he rapidly rose to a position of prominence and responsibility and at one point was even considered a contender for the VP slot. President Trump and his Administration were explicitly and repeatedly warned by President Obama and top intelligence and justice officials that General Flynn had problematic relationships with the Russians. Nevertheless he was appointed by President Trump as his National Security Advisor after the election.
He then had secret back door communications with the Russian Ambassador about the new sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration after their election year meddling. This led the Russians to hold off on retaliating as they then expected Russo-American relations would improve under a President Trump as promised by General Flynn.
Eventually, General Flynn was fired ostensibly for lying about his behind the scenes work with the Russians to Vice President Pence. President Trump had been well aware of those efforts, and asked FBI Director Comey to go easy on Flynn, extolling – he’s a good man who has served his country well.
Third, Roger Stone has been a long time Republican dirty trickster dating back to the Nixon era, a partner with Paul Manafort in their political consulting firm that represented President Marcos of the Philippines and Mobutu Sese Seko of the Congo. He was an early consultant and strategist and unpaid adviser for Donald Trump’s Presidential Campaign and previously for his casino operations. He was a conduit among the Trump campaign, Wikileaks, Julian Assange and Guccifer 2.0, the Russian cyber group that stole the DNC and Podesta e-mails, and distributed, published and promoted them. He was praised by President Trump as a good man, loyal and true.
He along with Flynn and Manafort are under investigation by the FBI and the Special Counsel for their connections with the Trump campaign and the Russian government. All proclaim their innocence. Will any of these individuals flip, what do they know, and exactly how much trouble are they in?
During the election campaign, President Trump made a case for collaborating with the Russians to build a peace process in Syria, and accepting Bashar Assad’s ongoing leadership of Syria. He maintained that NATO was obsolete and unnecessary. He declared that the Russians were not in the Ukraine. These are his opinions on the campaign trail, and there is nothing wrong with that per se. They do correspond with President Putin’s positions and rhetoric, as did much of the rhetoric about the Clinton, DNC and Podesta e-mails. The responses to the investigation from the White House and the Kremlin seem at times as tightly choreographed as synchronized swimming at the Olympics.
Since the election, President Trump has had many meetings with world leaders, frosty ones with our traditional allies in Germany, Australia, Mexico, and NATO partners and convivial ones with President Putin. When asked about the hour-long, one-on-one, after dinner conversation with President Putin without any accompanying American personnel, he said it was just getting to know him, and it was only 15 minutes. This was after their 2 and ¼ hour one-on-one meeting earlier in the day. Maybe he’s just being a good and charming salesman with another leader well known for his enmity with the West, and maybe not. Subsequent to the G 20 meeting, President Trump pulled US support for the moderate Syrian opposition, saying it was ineffective; there has as yet been no reciprocity from the Russian side.
President Trump is unnaturally obsessed with the investigation of the Russian role in his campaign. He sought to curtail it with orders to FBI Director Comey and then fired him when that was clearly not working. He has been furious with the recusal of and trying to maneuver Attorney General Jeff Sessions to quit so he can fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. He has warned the Special Counsel to stay away from his and his family’s finances. If, as he proclaims, there is no “there” there, then why is he firing Comey and seeking excuses and an avenue to fire Mueller and warning him off the money trail?
What is the “there” that he is trying to hide? My own guess is it’s financial shenanigans with Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin, maybe it’s in his tax returns. Probably there are ties that could be embarrassing and even far more disabling to his Presidency than the steady drip, drip of these investigations. Maybe they include family members, which could explain this level of obsession.
Possibly he cannot figure out quite how he became the President of the United States. Maybe he convulsively lashes out at anyone who challenges his electoral legitimacy.
President Trump recognized immediately the narrow edge of his upset victory and in an unusual turn of events for an electoral victor began to claim voter fraud by undocumented voters as the reason he lost the popular vote. Was this to divert attention from the Russian efforts on his behalf, of which he was aware? Who knows?
One approach to a narrow victory is to reach out with magnanimity to the vanquished. No, not so much. Another approach is to begin with bipartisanship on rebuilding America’s infrastructure. No, that is way down the list. Yet another approach is to develop bi-partisan tax reform, which is sorely needed. He has done none of that. Or one could build a broadly representative Cabinet. No, not that either.
Instead he has chosen a hard right alliance on immigration, on the budget and on health reform. He has chosen bullying and belittling tactics. He has alienated allies around the world and all over the Capitol. He will have little residual good will when the Special Counsel’s cards, such as they may be, are laid on the table.
What was their long-term strategic thinking? This is entirely my speculation. Putin wanted to regain control of the Ukraine and an end to US and European sanctions; Manafort and Trump were the key to that. Flynn wanted Russian assistance in destroying ISIS, Al Qaeda and radical Islam in Syria, Iraq and maybe Afghanistan; Putin was key to that. Tillerson and the US energy corporations wanted American access to Russian oil and gas development; Putin was key to that. Putin was interested in regaining sway in the Baltics and Balkans, and Trump could be key to loosening the NATO alliance. North Korea is now an area of common and urgent concern as well. At any rate, there were and still are ample opportunities for and interest in the art of the deal between Presidents Putin and Trump, but the obstacles are now huge because each has vastly overplayed his hand.
Prepared by: Lucien Wulsin