Week 14: The Trump Dossier Resurfaces – Politico
Has the scandal-with-no-name left you feeling a little scrambled? Like you’re marinating in the pungent sauces of conspiracy? When you rise each morning, does the world appear as if viewed through a wilderness of mirrors? Don’t worry, these are standard symptoms of Washington Scandal Syndrome. Every modern D.C. upheaval—from Watergate to Iran-Contra to BCCI to Whitewater to the Clinton sex scandal to the Valerie Plame breach—has flummoxed the public. Especially in the early stages, scandals encompass too much to take in at a single sitting. Like the scandals before it, the no-name scandal isn’t about just one thing or one person—it’s about a multitude of things, a punk symphony of press investigations, congressional subpoenas, closed-door testimony, tax audits, criminal investigations, intelligence findings, charges of collusion and suspected kompromat all trussed to Russia or Donald Trump.
You have every right to feel drunk. Prepare to feel drunker.
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Shafer’s Iron Law of Scandals holds that every big-bore investigation contains at least a few surprise prizes at the bottom of the bag. Watergate revealed not just one criminal break-in but an on-going criminal enterprise of black-bag jobs and pay-offs.
Our bottom-of-the-bag prize may turn out to be crimes committed by former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort—crimes unrelated to Russian meddling in the 2016 election. We learned this week, for example, that special counsel Robert Mueller has subpoenaed the PR executives who worked for Manafort on a Ukraine initiative in 2013 and 2014 when pro-Russian politicians ran Ukraine. Manafort and associates did not register as foreign agents while lobbying, a potential violation of the law. It is, NBC News declared, a “further indication” that Manafort “could be in serious legal jeopardy.” Meanwhile, McClatchy reported Mueller’s people are exploring whether Manafort evaded taxes or assisted money laundering schemes.
The Clinton emails pushed their way back into the news as the Wall Street Journal reported that Mueller investigators “have been conducting interviews and collecting information” to determine how deeply enmeshed former national security adviser Michael Flynn became in a scheme during the campaign to obtain the Hillary Clinton emails from Russian hackers. If Mueller’s plan was to collect damning information on associates like Manafort and get them to flip and become witnesses against Trump, he got some rude news on Friday when the president pardoned Joe Arpaio. Sit tight, the pardon said to the subjects of the Mueller probe, and I’ll pardon you, too. Unfortunately, the only check on abuse of the presidential power to pardon is impeachment.
But in the absence of new light shows by the investigative reporters at the Washington Post and the New York Times, speculation about the infamous Trump dossier shone the brightest this week. The man who assigned it, Glenn Simpson of the oppo-research and corporate intelligence outfit Fusion GPS, got the once-over in a marathon closed-door session with the investigators from the Senate Judiciary Committee. According to Simpson’s attorney, he did not divulge the identities of the dossier funders, which remains one of the many mysteries of the saga.
The dossier, reportedly commissioned in September 2015 by a Republican and then bought like a used car by a Democrat in the summer of 2016 after Trump destroyed the other Republican contestants for president, lies at the origin of what we call the no-name scandal. Shared with the government and top journalists, the dossier was first teased into public view by Mother Jones’s David Corn in late October after multiple outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, and the New Yorker viewed it but did not go with it because they could not confirm all of its claims. Sen. John McCain passed it to then FBI Director James Comey in December, and it was finally published by BuzzFeed in January before the inauguration. Written by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, the dossier asserted that the Russian government had cultivated Trump for several years, garnering compromising information about him in the process. Some of the dossier’s claims have been verified, others disproved. Steele himself has said the package itself needs additional verification and has told the FBI the names of his sources.
Trump has called the dossier a fabrication, but from this founding document the no-name scandal has spread to encompass its own universe of subterfuge and stealth. In the words of the official U.S. intelligence report on the Russian influence campaign in the 2016 campaign, published in January, Moscow followed a “messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls.’ ”
When digesting the no-name scandal, it’s only rational that we might suffer a little heartburn as the conflicting information passes through our mental gullets. If the Russians so favored Trump that they (allegedly) pinched and released emails that damaged his opponent Hillary Clinton and fed the disinformation machine with stories that helped his campaign, why would it also assemble kompromat on him that might be discovered by the press and backfire on them, crippling their purported “asset”? Why stage such a visible operation as the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between a gaggle of suspicious Russians with top Trump aides Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr., if the Russian intention was to keep its effort on the down low? As one observer has noted, the Trump Tower meeting was so public it looks like it was meant to be discovered. If the Russians are such wizards, why did they leave such obvious crumbs all over the email hacks that led U.S. investigators back to them?
If the Russian operations don’t add up to a single rational number, that’s to be expected. The Russian playbook teaches its operatives to “create so much confusion and uncertainty and mystery that no one knows what the truth is,” British journalist Ben Macintyre told novelist John le Carré in a recent conversation. “It’s called maskirovka—little masquerade.”