What’s frustrating about the investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia — an investigation that seems to be conducted almost exclusively by the intelligence community and the press — is that there’s a lot of smoke, and we suspect there’s a fire, but we may never see the fire. It’s a circumstantial case, and unless there’s secret recordings of these meetings, or unless the feds manage to use, say, a perjury charge to get someone to roll over, we may never find out what the substance of these meetings are.
All we have is circumstantial evidence, and it may be all we ever get. We know that Carter Page, Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and Jeff Sessions met with Sergey Kislyak during the campaign. But we also know that members of the Obama White House met with Kislyak on numerous occasions, because it was the President’s job to meet with Russian envoys. What’s unusual about Trump meeting with Kislyak was that Trump was in the midst of an election campaign and not conducting our foreign policy. If Hillary had also met with Kislyak, then perhaps we could chalk all of this up to routine meetings.
But this was anything but routine: Members of the Trump campaign — high level members, like Kushner and Sessions — met with Kislyak in the midst of the Russian hacking scandal. The assumption by many is that there was collusion; Trump was using the Russians to take down Hillary’s campaign (a tactic that worked).
What journalists need to stop doing at this point is pointing out the smoke and leaving everyone else to draw their own conclusions about the fire. It’s time to describe the goddamn fire.
Based on what we know, what it looks like to me is that Trump’s campaign made certain promises to Russia in exchange for their efforts to destroy the Clinton campaign. That is most apparent in what we know about Michael Flynn’s phone calls with Kislyak. We know for a fact that Flynn suggested to the Russians — the day after Obama ordered sanctions — that the United States would ease those sanctions once Donald Trump was inaugurated. Why? What would the United States otherwise have to gain by lifting those sanctions? Russia is on the ropes, financially speaking. They’re a struggling country propped up by wars. We could theoretically keep them irrelevant for years. Meanwhile, lifting sanctions would improve Russia’s economic situation and thus the situation of Putin, whose popularity within Russia will bottom out if the country cannot provide jobs to the country. That’s not good for America, so there must be an ulterior motive at play.
Look: Putin not only wants to create chaos within the United States in order to make Russia look more favorable by comparison, he wants a better relationship with us because it means a better economic outlook for Russia. So why would Trump’s campaign meet with Russian officials? The only conclusion a reasonable person can draw is that the Trump campaign was working out the details of deals that would improve those relations and thus the economic situation in Russia. “We do this for you, you do this for us.” In those meetings, they must have been talking about how to go about lifting sanctions, about what people to put into power (Rex Tillerson), and about what Donald Trump could do to assist Putin in his empiric ambitions. After all, Trump’s campaign wasn’t having similar meeting with Britain or the Netherlands or Australia during the campaign. Why? Because he owed them nothing.
That train of thought — that Trump was repaying Russia for its meddling efforts — is further bolstered by the timing of the meeting between Kislyak and Sessions, as “Caroline O.” concluded with a simple LexisNexis search:
At the G20 summit, Obama & Putin discussed sanctions that US imposed on Sept 1, which Putin said were inconsistent w/future cooperation. 3/ pic.twitter.com/OaMMcm7XzB— Caroline O. (@RVAwonk) March 2, 2017
On Sept 7, Dir. of National Intelligence James Clapper publicly suggested for the first time that Russia was behind the DNC hack. 4/ pic.twitter.com/WvWKxWz9aP— Caroline O. (@RVAwonk) March 2, 2017
Coincidences. Take. Planning. -X-https://t.co/A9QNIkvIQ0— Caroline O. (@RVAwonk) March 2, 2017
This is exactly the kind of dot connecting the Post and NYTimes needs to do more of, rather than simply pointing out all the dots. It’s not enough to point out connections; one has to draw conclusions about coordination and planning even if we don’t have — or never receive — the exact details.
But if Trump is working with Putin, why does Putin keep challenging Trump? This week, Russian forces “accidentally” bombed US-backed forces in Syria. A few weeks ago, there was a Russian spy ship off the east coast. Putin has buzzed one of our ships. Putin has violated a treaty.
What are these acts of aggression all about?
Think about who Putin is. His background. He’s a homegrown KGB spy. He’s a bully. A thug. He’s all about shows of force. Basically, he’s a mob boss of an entire country. He wants to keep the pressure on Trump to fulfill whatever promises Trump made during the campaign. Putin is like a mob boss collecting a debt. He’s not going to shoot the guy who owes him money, because he’s never going to get his money, which is why if Putin has blackmail on Trump — he won’t use it until and unless it’s apparent that he’s never going to get his money from Trump. Instead, Putin’s going to shoot Trump’s best friend, so to speak. He’s going to leave threatening messages on his wife’s answering machine. That’s what mob bosses do.
When asked about these incidents during a press conference a couple of weeks ago, Trump didn’t suggest he would retaliate. He said, these incidents “all happened recently, and I understand what they’re doing, because they’re doing the same thing … ” trails off, changes subject. Donald understands what they’re doing, but he’s not going to share that information with us, apparently, because what they’re doing is what a mob boss like-figure Putin would do: He’s reminding Trump of his debts. He’s trying to make Trump uncomfortable.
We convict murderers all the time based on circumstantial evidence. Hell, we convicted Steven Avery (rightfully, I believe) based on circumstantial evidence: Teresa Halbach was last seen at his house; Avery started a fire that night; Halbach’s remains were found in the fire. We don’t need a f*cking witness to know that Avery killed Halbach anymore than we need the exact details of Sessions or Kusnher’s or Flynn’s conversations with a Russian envoy. Build the case. Connect the dots. Convict. Stop telling us there is smoke and light the fucking fire.