While Donald Trump’s allies often seem to be striking out randomly in all directions when defending him on the topic of Russia, the underlying theme of their arguments is that the whole scandal is, as the president himself often says, phony, made up, a hoax, fake news. Over time, this claim has grown weaker and weaker.
Two articles released Wednesday show how much harder it’s going to get for them, because they cast light on a Trump campaign acting like it knew it was doing something wrong.
The first and more colorful one comes from the Guardian, which obtained a copy of a soon-to-be-released book by Michael Wolff based on extensive interviews with Trump associates. Unlike most Trump allies, Steve Bannon makes no excuses for the meeting that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort had in June 2016 with a group of Russians who had offered up damaging information on Hillary Clinton:
“The meeting was revealed by the New York Times in July last year, prompting Trump Jr to say no consequential material was produced. Soon after, Wolff writes, Bannon remarked mockingly: “The three senior guys in the campaign thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the 25th floor - with no lawyers. They didn’t have any lawyers.
“’Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad (expletive), and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately.’”
Bannon hasn’t confirmed or denied that he said that rather explosive thing to Wolff, although Breitbart, the website he runs, has reprinted that excerpt without objection. The meeting with the Russians happened before Bannon joined the Trump campaign, and it should be noted that he feuded with Jared Kushner for much of the time he was in Trump’s employ (and now uses Breitbart to attack the First Son-In-Law). That could have been part of his motivation for condemning Kushner, Trump Jr., and Manafort, but he also seemed to believe the scandal is going to get much bigger - and keep in mind, he was telling Wolff these things last summer.
Bannon also identifies money laundering as a key area of vulnerability for the Trump family, which is indeed one of the prime areas of focus for Robert Mueller’s investigation. When they start asking about money, “They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV,” Bannon told Wolff.
Money laundering also comes up in the second fascinating piece out Wednesday, an op-ed in the New York Times by Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, the founders of Fusion GPS. Their firm was hired first by a conservative website to do opposition research on Trump, and when he became the Republican nominee, the research was picked up by the Clinton campaign. They’ve already testified before Congress, and seem frustrated by the fact that the Republicans who control the congressional investigations don’t want to pursue evidence of money laundering:
“We told Congress that from Manhattan to Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., and from Toronto to Panama, we found widespread evidence that Mr. Trump and his organization had worked with a wide array of dubious Russians in arrangements that often raised questions about money laundering. Likewise, those deals don’t seem to interest Congress.”
Simpson and Fritsch note that Republicans have refused to release their full testimony, but what they seem most interested in is the so-called “Steele Dossier.” In June 2016, Fusion GPS hired former British intelligence operative Christopher Steele, who used his contacts in Russia to assemble a dossier containing both facts Steele was able to verify and rumors he had heard but couldn’t confirm about the connection between Trump and the Russian government.
It’s important to understand that what’s in the dossier doesn’t really matter at this point, because now there are formal investigations underway, both in Congress and from the special counsel, that will allow us to get proof of what did and didn’t happen. Materials are being subpoenaed, witnesses are testifying under oath, and in some cases trials will eventually take place.
And though some conservatives have claimed the FBI only began investigating the Russia scandal because they were given the dossier, we’ve since learned that isn’t true: the FBI was alerted by the Australian government that Trump adviser George Papadopoulos had told an Australian diplomat, “During a night of heavy drinking at an upscale London bar in May 2016,” that Russia had damaging information on Clinton in the form of hacked emails.
The meeting at which Papadopoulos learned about the “thousands of emails” the Russians purportedly had containing information on Clinton occurred on April 26, 2016; it was a month earlier, in March, that Clinton campaign chair John Podesta inadvertently allowed hackers access to his emails. If Papadopoulos was blabbing about what he had learned to an Australian diplomat, the chances he hadn’t told his superiors on the Trump campaign (whom he was obviously desperate to impress) are probably close to zero.
If he did tell his superiors, that would mean the Trump campaign learned Russia was hacking Democrats as early as April 2016 and didn’t inform the FBI. Nor did the campaign inform the FBI in June 2016 when Russians who had been presented to them as representing the Kremlin asked for a meeting to pass on damaging information on Hillary Clinton. (”This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Donald Trump Jr. was told.)
Simpson and Fritsch write that upon realizing that Russia was trying to help Trump get elected, “Mr. Steele saw this as a crime in progress and decided he needed to report it to the F.B.I.” So both Steele and the Australian government alerted the FBI that Russia was trying to influence the election, but those with more direct knowledge - the Trump campaign - didn’t.
If you’re a Trump partisan, you might explain the campaign’s behavior with the ignorance defense: perhaps they were so stupid and naïve that they didn’t realize there was a problem seeking help in their campaign from a hostile foreign government. Or you might argue, as some have, that since there is no specific crime called “collusion,” (even though collusion with Russia very well may have violated one or more of a number of statutes), the campaign did nothing wrong and therefore there was no need to alert the authorities about what Russia was attempting.
The trouble is that when the story of the Kusher/Don Jr./Manafort meeting broke in the press in June 2017, the president and those closest to him attempted to cover it up. President Donald Trump personally dictated an absurdly misleading statement for Don Jr. to release to the press, stating that the meeting “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children” and had nothing to do with the campaign, which was false.
As you might expect, President Trump was not pleased to hear about Bannon’s comments. Wednesday afternoon the White House released a statement from the president, which reads in part, “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind. . .Steve was rarely in a one-on-one meeting with me and only pretends to have had influence to fool a few people with no access and no clue, whom he helped write phony books.” The tone is pure Trump, although the correct use of the word “whom” suggests someone may have helped him compose the statement.
The coming Trump/Bannon feud should be entertaining, but to wrap this all up, I’ll refer you to something else Bannon told Michael Wolff, about the meeting with the Russians:
“’The chance that Don Jr. did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor is zero.’”
Bannon is guessing here, because he wasn’t there at the time. And he could be wrong. But it’s hard to believe that Donald Jr., who expressed his excitement about meeting the Russians, wouldn’t have kept his father abreast of developments. That matters a great deal, because in the end the most important political question will be the old one from Watergate: What did the president know, and when did he know it?
We don’t know the answer yet, and I’m pretty sure President Trump is hoping we never find out.
Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog at the Washington Post and a senior writer at The American Prospect. Follow him on Twitter @paulwaldman1.