Fortified by news in the Washington Post that the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee paid the oppo-research outfit Fusion GPS to produce the Steele Dossier, President Donald Trump overran his opponents’ positions this week. Splattering them with half-truths and hyperbole, Trump charged that “the whole Russian thing” was a “hoax” and an excuse for Democrats unwilling to accept that they lost the election. Then he rolled in a grenade, calling the dossier “fake.” Finally, he sparked his flamethrower to life and hosed his political foes with rhetorical fire by invoking the uranium deal in none-dare-call-it-conspiracy style, describing Uranium One’s sale to a Russian company during the Obama era as the equal of Watergate.
At least that’s how it looked in Trump’s version of the war movie until late Friday, when it turned out that the president was rushing to take the wrong hill. First, the conservative Washington Free Beacon website—funded by a billionaire from the never-Trump movement—’fessed to having paid for Fusion GPS’s original anti-Trump work before the Clinton Democrats took over the payments. Then CNN reported that special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III had fired a bunker buster, bringing his first indictment in the probe. The identity of the person charged is under seal still, CNN reported, and will remain so until the person is arrested, possibly as soon as Monday. Will it be Paul Manfort, whom prosecutors reportedly all but promised to indict? It will be a long weekend of rampant speculation until the scoop is confirmed.
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During the week, when the news still appeared to be on Trump’s side, he tried to make the Democrats’ funding of the dossier sound like a bombshell, but even casual news consumers knew from numerous accounts—including the first mention of the dossier in the press by Mother Jones’ David Corn—that they had paid for it. What gave the story dimension was the fact that attorney Marc E. Elias, who paid for the report at the behest of the Clinton campaign and the DNC, had lied about it for months, which made it look like they were trying to hide something. Elias has paid for his sin. Reporters don’t like being lied to, and when they are, they pour the scorn on, as lied-to-reporter Ken Vogel did on Twitter and in the pages of the New York Times. Trump welcomed the Post’s raw news with such enthusiasm he seemed to have forgotten that he and his spokespeople had gone on record saying the paper isn’t a legitimate news source.
His imaginary battlefield smoking and in disarray, Trump retreated to the White House to celebrate what looked like his public relations victories. As the New York Times reported, the three Hill committees investigating the Russia stuff can’t seem to get their acts together. The Republican-led House Intelligence Committee, as the Daily Beast noted, was “blocking and tackling for Trump” by turning its Trump-Russia probe into a counter-investigation, grilling former Obama administration officials Samantha Power and Susan Rice on the “unmasking“ issue, seeking to discredit the dossier, and digging into the uranium allegations. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) went rogue on the Senate Judiciary Committee chair Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) by requesting information from Facebook, Twitter, and the White House without asking him first. Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers were urging an early end to the probes. “Wrap it up,” Trump loyalist Gov. Chris Christie said Friday of the Mueller Russia investigation before news of the indictment hit.
If the Trump Tower scandal could be boiled down to a war of words, we would have crowned Trump the winner months ago because he’s so dang good at jaw-jamming. Whenever accused, he assumes the role of the accuser, deflecting charges by hurling them back at his challengers. The Clinton camp and the press try to pin campaign collusion with Russia on him, and he flips it around by weirdly claiming it was Hillary Clinton who committed collusion with the Russians by commissioning the dossier. And remember when he argued that Facebook, the New York Times and the Washington Post committed collusion against him?
The new interest in a Uranium One scandal Trump has fanned with his Twitter feed fits this pattern. As assessed by Factcheck.org, Snopes, Politifact, and the Washington Post, there doesn’t seem to be much to Trump’s shouting. He could be right. The Russians might have bought the House of Clinton. She might be the Moscow Candidate! Or the ballyhoo might be just the Benghazi crap retreaded for another roll around the track. In any event, no matter what Hillary Clinton’s sins, they have nothing to do with the Trump-Russia probes, so if we’re going to tussle over them, let’s put them in a separate lane.
But the scandal is less about Trumpian word-war, the forging of public opinion through the services of the Fox News Channel, and the side-show of the uranium story than it is about Mueller’s ultimate findings and his power to bring criminal indictments. Mueller’s team, which has kept radio silence since mustered into being in May by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, has been steadily building its evidentiary munitions depot in a secretive bunker that so far has been impervious to the counter assaults of the White House. Mueller’s staff has issued subpoenas in profusion and interviewed Rosenstein himself, dossier author Christopher Steele, top current and former intelligence officials, and former Trump administration officials, and plans to interview current administration officials, culminating almost certainly with an interview with the president.
A new Trump strategem now surfacing holds that the investigations are not just a waste of time but a waste of money. On Friday morning, he tweeted, “It is now commonly agreed, after many months of COSTLY looking, that there was NO collusion between Russia and Trump. Was collusion with HC!” To begin with, it’s not commonly agreed (outside the White House at least) that there was no collusion, and nobody but Trump loyalists could know that until Mueller finishes his work. As for the cost of Mueller’s investigation, everybody knows these things don’t come cheap. The Iran-Contra investigation swallowed $47 million, which is about $104 million in today’s dollars. Even at $200 million, the Mueller investigation will be a bargain if it uncovers obstruction of justice, money laundering, and tax fraud by the president or his associates.
By week’s end, the New York Times moved a story that helped restore battlefield vigor—if not to Mueller himself then to Trump’s doubters. Citing interviews and record, the Times asserted that Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian attorney who set up the infamous meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016 with the design of peddling information damaging to the Democrats and Clinton, was working from an established playbook. The memo she brought to Trump town “closely followed” a document that Russia’s prosecutor general had given to an American congressman two months earlier.
The Times story demolishes Veselnitskaya’s claim that she was an independent actor in the Trump Tower saga, and makes a persuasive case that she was part of an official “synchronized information campaign.” Sort of smells like collusion when you nose your way around the entire story.
Synchronized information campaigning would be a great Olympic event. Send your best event ideas to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts waste money, my Twitter feed wastes time, and my RSS feed gets wasted.