Like a poker player whose flagrant tell gives him away, President Donald Trump telegraphed a twitchy bit of direction to Trump Tower scandal-watchers this week. Or was it indirection? After the founder of the oppo-research company Fusion GPS that commissioned the infamous Steele Dossier told the House Intelligence Committee he would take the Fifth Amendment if subpoenaed to testify, Trump responded with a brain-bender of a tweet that thrust the dossier to the center of the stage again.
“Workers of firm involved with the discredited and Fake Dossier take the 5th. Who paid for it, Russia, the FBI or the Dems (or all)?” Trump’s tweet said.
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Like many Trump tweets, it proved more difficult to untangle than a mound of last night’s dried out spaghetti. Why was Trump screaming about the dossier now? Does he sense that investigators are closing in on him and he needs to divert them? BuzzFeed published the 35-page smutty and salacious document, which purports that the Russians had compromised him personally and financially, more than nine months ago. Was it because the dossier had floated back into the news because Fusion GPS’s Glenn Simpson had refused to testify and he’s a reflexive beast? Or because he worries that the investigations may be used to unlock his secrets? Or is it just a new tactic in his campaign to undercut its origin?
Trump may claim that the contents of the dossier have been discredited, but as Reuters’ Mark Hosenball wrote last week, elements of the dossier may have been denied but none of it has been disproved. Trump reliably affixes the “fake” label to every utterance he dislikes or finds threatening, and the dossier abounds with potentially damaging assertions like, “Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years.” By jumping up and down with the fury of a Yosemite Sam, is Trump really confirming the accuracy and potency of the dossier?
Even if you sympathize with Trump’s position that the dossier is fake, the rest of the tweet makes no sense. It resembles the “broken wing act” that killdeers put on to deter beasts of prey from attacking their newly hatched chicks—lookee here, lookee here, not over there! Logically speaking, in what universe could the Russians have paid a former British spy to compile the dossier? Trump likes Putin. Putin likes Trump. In what hall of mirrors would it make sense for the Russians to hire Fusion GPS to produce a file that documented or purported to document how it had compromised Trump? And if Trump has acquired evidence of such skullduggery, shouldn’t he be goosing his attorney general with it instead of fashioning it into an early morning tweet?
And what gives Trump the idea that the FBI paid for the dossier? We know he takes a fluid approach to the facts, adapting bits and pieces from true stories into fresh lies. Remember back in March when he accused President Barack Obama of having wiretapped him in Trump Tower? We have since learned that he inflated a true story—that his one-time campaign director, Paul Manafort had been subjected to a FISA surveillance warrant—into the claim that Obama wiretapped him.
We can find a sliver of truth in Trump’s “the FBI paid for the dossier” line, but it’s as sturdy as a wet Kleenex. The FBI did pay the former British spy for information in October 2016 to further its understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 election, but hell’s bells, that’s not remotely close to having the FBI bankrolling the whole project. Trump remains the guy who deliberately confuses lightning bugs with lightning to get himself out of a jam.
Similarly, Trump’s belief that the Democrats are behind the dossier contains a dram of truth. The dossier’s murky provenance seems to indicate that its original client was a “wealthy Republican donor who opposed” Trump, but that once Trump locked up the party’s nomination, the Democratic supporters of Hillary Clinton became the new patrons. Nobody seems to know their identities for sure except Glenn Simpson and he ain’t talking—he refused to tell the Senate investigators in August. But how on earth could the Russians and the FBI and the Democrats have teamed up on the dossier, as Trump surmises? How exactly would an international conspiracy like that work?
By stitching all of these unmatched remnants into a hypothetical conspiracy, Trump seeks to undermine not the investigators on Capitol Hill or those working for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, but the public. He’s like a kid with a box of kitchen matches riding his trail bike through a dry forest, stopping every 100 yards to play pyromaniac and then bicycling on. He had better hope that the winds don’t shift and fires end up crisping him.
“The whole Russia thing was an excuse for the Democrats losing the election,” Trump said at the White House this week before calling for Mueller’s investigation to wrap. “So there has been absolutely no collusion. … They ought to get to the end of it because I think the American public is sick of it.” Of course, as the Washington Post reported, Mueller’s job covers more than just collusion, including obstruction of justice and other possible crimes. Is political arson conducted with words instead of matches a crime?
Trump wasn’t alone this week in taking liberties with the Russia facts. His CIA director, Mike Pompeo, alleged that U.S. intelligence had determined that Russian interference in the 2016 had not altered the outcome when that’s not what the intelligence community stated in its January 2017 report. The report was agnostic on whether the Russians changed the outcome. Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Jeff Sessions projected a “What, me worry?” attitude about stopping future Russian intrusions into the American political process. “So what steps has the department taken” to prevent a replay of 2016, asked Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). Sessions, who had famously trouble getting his story right about when and why he met with the Russian ambassador, offered nothing of substance to Sasse. Call him the arsonist’s accomplice.
Trump moved this week to reduce investigative pressure on him by personally interviewing two candidates for U.S. attorney positions in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
“It is neither normal nor advisable for Trump to personally interview candidates for US Attorney positions, especially the one in Manhattan,” tweeted Preet Bharara, former Manhattan U.S. attorney who was sacked by Trump earlier this year. These jurisdictions would have authority to bring indictments against Trump, noted Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn), saying that the moves “seems to smack of political interference.”
Isn’t it always the guy who with a bad kitchen-matches habit who ends up ordering an asbestos suit?
Lightning bug with lightning—I lifted that from Mark Twain. Send live lightning bugs to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts believe everything they read, my Twitter feed is a Russian bot, and my RSS feed has seceded from the column.