February 17, 2018–Yesterday we saw some of the foot soldiers of the Russian Caper. That op began in 2014. No one knew in advance of this foreign conspiracy to meddle in America’s elections, and since then the nation has been divided among those who believe an influence operation took place, those who thought the reports a smokescreen for some kind of domestic machination, and the “Fake News!” bunch who proclaimed all this a nothingburger. The indictments brought yesterday by a federal grand jury in the District of Columbia attest to the investigative efforts of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. It is not any longer reasonable to deny the existence of a plot.
I can’t say I had any more advance knowledge than the next person, but I began writing on the Russian Caper in 2016 while the election campaigns were still underway. I still hold to the theory of the case expressed then: the Russian op started as revenge for U.S. encouragement of political alternatives to Vladimir Putin in the last Russian election. It grew more ambitious as Donald Trump emerged as frontrunner, then candidate, for the Republican Party. Yesterday’s indictment speaks of actual contacts between Russian operatives and “unwitting” members of the Trump campaign organization. That brings into high relief the fact that there had to be such approaches, contacts located in time and geography. To maximize its impact, Moscow needed a degree of American political expertise to aim its sallies most effectively, some modicum of cooperation with a Clinton opponent–make that Trump–to capitalize on the SVR-GRU managers of the caper, and a communications channel to permit advance knowledge and coordination. No doubt the Russians thought gleefully that while carrying out their op they could extract a price from the Americans they were helping–a side benefit of the caper.
In 2016 it appeared to me that the quid pro quo Moscow received was the Trump campaign’s move at the Republican convention that July to get rid of the Russia sanctions part of the Republican party platform. The most likely moment for a Russian offer was when candidate Trump met Russian ambassador Kislyak at a dinner that April, and the July events represented confirmation the Trump forces were on board. After that high level communications could pass between Russian officials and Trump representatives. The set of more than a dozen meetings documented between the sides includes participation on the American side from Jeff Sessions, Michael Flynn, Donald Trump, Jr., Carter Page, and George Papadopoulos. So far we have learned of some Russian foot soldiers and some American “unwittings,” but the higher reaches of this conspiracy are still in the shadows. They will out. Depend on it.
The Russian caper unfolds as Mr. Trump continues his litany of denials. So prolonged has been his song you could make it into a musical. Better, an opera–more gravitas, which Trump certainly needs. Imagine the numbers that could go in this production, lyrics courtesy of the title character in Trump, the Opera! There could be the theme song, “No Collusion!” In Act I, with the primary campaign still in progress, you could have “He’s no Hero–John McCain,” and “Lyin’ Ted, No Energy Jeb.” Up against Hillary in Act II there’s the inimitable “Lock Her Up!” and, perhaps too close to home, “Russia, I Hope You can Find the 30,000 Emails.” If there’s space for a reflective piece on Trump’s pre-political career you could put music to “The Birth Certificate,” and the immortal “Art of the Deal.” And, from that art, the man himself–“I have the best Words,” or “Small Hands.” If there is time we can add “I’m, Like, Really Smart!” As the record unravels on the candidate’s personal behavior the song would be, “Just Locker Room Talk.” On the election we have the dance numbers “Voter Fraud,” and “I Won the Popular Vote.” And Trump in power, Act III, will feature “Drain the Swamp!”–another dance number–“Alternative Facts,” and the climactic “Fake News!”
Quite a show. Too bad it was orchestrated in Moscow and first played St. Petersburg.
United States intelligence officials went to the congressional oversight committees, first in the summer-fall of 2016, to warn of the Russian op. But the CIA had burned its bridges with Congress in its efforts to suppress the Senate investigation of CIA torture, as documented in my Ghosts of Langley, and the spooks got no traction at all. Equally distressing, the public warnings issued by the Director of National Intelligence with the Department of Homeland Security, and around the transition, by several intelligence agencies together, were so devoid of relevant detail (officials were terrified of revealing “sources and methods”) they actually fueled speculation the Russian caper had been ginned up. Everyone ought to have known better.