Week 53: Trump Goes Spy Hunting and Gets Skunked
Master table-turner Donald Trump is at it again, spinning the latest damning news from the Russia investigation and flinging it back at his critics to make him look like a victim, not a perp.
This week’s twirl of the table had Trump spinning his interpretive energies into “SPYGATE,” his racy label for the alleged “Criminal Deep State” conspiracy against him. Why call it Spygate? Trump, who lives for catchy buzz-phrases and slogans, told an ally he wanted “to brand” the informant as a spy, and that such language would leave a more lasting impression on the media and public.
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On Sunday, the president issued his pompous “I hereby demand” decree on Twitter that the Department of Justice investigate his suspicions that the Obama administration had “infiltrated or surveilled” his campaign. According to Trump’s theory, the FBI wasn’t investigating the possible penetration of his 2016 presidential campaign by Russian intelligence when it assigned an informant to speak to three members of his campaign staff. It was embedding a spy in his campaign for political purposes, resulting in a scandalous affair that could be “bigger than Watergate!“ “Illegal!” he tweeted, all designed to “frame“ him for crimes he didn’t commit. The president raised such a fuss that he instigated two mini-briefings on Capitol Hill about the FBI’s tactics so that select members of Congress could judge for themselves.
The “spy” in question turns out to be Stefan A. Halper, Republican stalwart and University of Cambridge professor emeritus who worked for the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations and George H.W. Bush’s campaign. (If this be the Deep State, maybe it’s not as dark and mysterious as we thought.) He allegedly spied on President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 campaign for Reagan, and some say he used former CIA agents to gather his information.
As much as Trump would like you to believe that Halper was a spy and not a legitimate informant working on an investigation, he can’t get independent voices with clout (outside of Kimberley A. Strassel of the Wall Street Journal editorial page) to echo his opinions. This week, a leading member of the president’s party, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina (who didn’t attend the briefings), declined an invitation to endorse the Trump view. “A confidential informant is not a spy,” Graham said succinctly. Republicans who attended the briefing were mum, ducking out without speaking to reporters. Democrats who attended—Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and Sen. Mark Warner—were adamant in insisting that no “spying” had occurred. Even Rudy Giuliani, who had asserted his boss’ right to know if Halper had gathered exculpatory evidence in his conversations with George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, didn’t suggest afterward that anything like that had emerged.
One of the many problems with Trump’s SPYGATE theory is the idea that the nefarious FBI and the “Criminal Deep State” would go to all that trouble penetrating his campaign with a “spy” and then not use what they had gleaned to destroy his chances of winning the election? It’s a strange bit of sabotage when the saboteur sets the charges under the bridge and then doesn’t strike the fuse. Like the similar table-turning by Trump’s supporters who advocated for the release of the Nunes memo, or Trump’s insistence that the real Russia scandal was the Uranium One deal, or his claim that the Obama administration had “tapped“ his phones, or the business about “unmasking,” his new harping about a government spy infiltrating his campaign is just another obfuscating slow-simmer idea to leap out of his mental Crock-Pot. Trump barks, Mueller’s caravan moves on.
This week we learned of yet another previously undisclosed contact between a powerful Russian and a member of the Trump court. On Friday, the New York Times reported that oligarch Viktor Vekselberg met with Trump attorney and fixer Michael Cohen in his Trump Tower office just 11 days before the inauguration.
A few days after Trump took the oath of office, Cohen won a $1 million consulting contract from Columbus Nova, which is an affiliate of Vekselberg’s Renova Group—both of which landed on the Treasury Department sanctions list last month. (Cohen ended up only collecting $580,000 of the contract.) Also attending the meeting was Columbus Nova head Andrew Intrater, Vekselberg’s cousin, who later donated $250,000 to the Trump inaugural committee. Both Intrater and Vekselberg have been interviewed by Mueller’s team. The Intrater and Vekselberg arrival was captured by the C-SPAN camera positioned in the Trump Tower lobby. Isn’t it lovely that C-SPAN has ended up being the operator of the national security security-cam?
“Mr. Trump was in the building that day, and his office was just doors down from Mr. Cohen’s, though Mr. Intrater said they did not see the president-elect,” the Times reports.
So many meetings between foreigners and Trumpies in the Trump Tower! Let’s count!