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Our man in Moscow


The basic insanity of the present political situation in America is captured by the question of the moment, which is whether the president of the United States is an asset of the Russian government.  That is, is Donald Trump in some sort of compromised situation that allows Vladimir Putin and his merry band of oligarchs to manipulate Trump because of that situation?

The very fact that this is a real, live question illustrates how insane it was to elect Trump president in the first place.  Here’s Carl Bernstein on CNN yesterday:

I think you have to wait until the end of a very deliberative investigation that Mueller is making. And what we know and what that “Washington Post” story and “The New York Times” stories show is that Mueller is operating, as has been members of the president’s own national security team, Mattis, among others, some people who are still there, some who have left, that indeed he has become a pawn of the Russians.

Now, whether that is a witting pawn, a unwitting pawn, a half witting pawn, that is something that perhaps Mueller’s report will tell us because one of the things Mueller is doing is he is looking at the obstruction, the obstruction of justice by the president of the United States, that seems to be apparent and whether the obstruction itself has furthered Putin’s aims and becomes part of some kind of collusive notion. . .

Well, first of all, “The New York Times” and “The Washington Post” were more advanced on this story than I was, but I did know something. And part of what I know comes from lawyers of some of the other defendants in this matter who have appeared before Mueller, including members of the joint defense team which collaborates with the White House and those lawyers believe the president has been lying at every turn about his relationship with Russia, about those of his aides.

Look, let us look at all of the lies, follow the money, follow the lies. They are all mostly and most vehemently about Russia. Whether we are talking about Flynn, Trump, his son, Kushner, back to lying about questions having to do with Russia, about what happened at the Trump Tower meeting. The president of the United States drafts a totally false statement about what happened at that meeting that his son was at.

Look, you set it up right, we don’t know the answers. But what we do know is that Donald Trump has tried to convince us that unless there is some kind of smoking gun, a recording of him in the room with Putin saying, yes, Vladimir, I will do your bidding, there has been, quote, no collusion. That’s nonsense.

What this counterintelligence investigation was about, unprecedented, the FBI — and this is not about the deep state, this is about the most serious counterintelligence people we have in the U.S. government saying, oh, my god, the president’s words and actions lead us to conclude that somehow he has become a witting, unwitting or half witting pawn, certainly in some regards to Vladimir Putin.

Look, Trump keeps going back to the idea we need better relations with Russia. Could be. He could well be right.

But from a point of view of strength and what everybody can see is that he has not acted with Russia from the United States having a strength advantage with Russia, rather he has done what appears to be Putin’s goals. He has helped Putin destabilize the United States and interfere in the election, no matter whether it was purposeful or not.

And that is part of what the draft of Mueller’s report, I’m told, is to be about.

What fits hand in glove is both the cover-up and the possibility, likelihood — we know there has been collusion. We know there has been collusion by Flynn. We know there has been collusion of some sort by Manafort.

The question is, yes, what did the president know and when did he know it? But also it could be unwitting, half witting, that’s what we’re going to find out.

But the idea that this is just benign behavior and conduct, there is nothing benign about what the consequences of this have been. What the hell happened at Helsinki? Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, still does not know what happened at Helsinki because the president as the Washington — a great “Washington Post” story points out, hasn’t allowed his aides to know or to say what they know about what happened at Helsinki and in his other meetings with Putin.

Why is he so beholden?

And, you know, it’s his son that told us years ago, hey, we do a tremendous amount of business in Russia. It is the source of a huge amount of our family income. Well, clearly, Mueller is looking at that.

All of Trump’s behavior can be explained by a very simple hypothesis, which fits perfectly with everything we know about him.  That hypothesis is: Donald Trump owes people in Russia money that he can’t pay back.  That is both why he is president, and why he is doing what he is doing now that he is president.

Now of course the fact that this theory explains the known facts with such elegance and economy doesn’t mean it’s true.  It just means there’s a good chance it’s true.  What flows from this?

(1) There is no way of knowing if this fact — that there’s a good chance that Donald Trump is a Russian asset — will be enough to cause him to be removed from the presidency in the next two years.  This is an unprecedented situation, and therefore it’s necessarily difficult to predict how the political system will deal with it.

Up until now, the Republican party has decided to ignore that its leader may be a Russian asset. But the other leaders of the party may not be in a position to maintain that attitude indefinitely.  The Mueller report is the key here of course.  (Another key variable is that it’s far from unlikely that some of those leaders may be compromised as well).

(2) Thinking of this issue primarily in terms of criminal law is a big mistake.  The question isn’t: can Donald Trump and his associates be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal court of having violated this or that law? There will be time enough to answer that question later.  The question of the moment should be: is it acceptable for the probability of the president of the United States being an asset of the Russian government to be above X?

This question is based on the following suppositions: That there is some (very low) value of X which makes the answer “no,” and that there is a very real chance — indeed a high likelihood — that this value has already be exceeded in the case of Donald Trump.

(3) All this merely highlights the further insanity of the very real possibility that Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for president next year, which means American voters will be facing the question of what probability that a presidential candidate is a Russian asset is too high to make it unacceptable to vote for him.

When thinking about that latter question, the inappropriateness of the criminal law model becomes even more stark.  Imagine that you’re interviewing someone to be the chief financial officer of an institution, and you conclude that, based on the available evidence, there’s a 5% chance the candidate embezzled money from their previous employer.  That of course would be the end of that candidate’s chances of getting the job, since there will be a large number of candidates whose life histories include no evidence that they’re embezzlers.

In other words, just as any substantial evidence of embezzling is disqualifying in the case of a candidate for a job that requires trusting the person with the finances of an organization, any substantial evidence that a candidate for president of the United States is secretly beholden to another government is, by itself, completely disqualifying.

In my view, the odds that Trump is in a compromised position in regard to Russia are vastly higher than 5%, but even if they were only 5%, the idea of voting for him for president would be obviously crazy, even if I thought he was a splendid candidate in every other respect. But I suspect about 37% of the country continues, and will continue, to think otherwise.

So here we are.


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