There’s one thing about this whole Trump-Russia scandal and the apparent collusion in the president’s 2016 election that seems a little — off. There’s little doubt that the contacts between Team Trump and Team Putin were real and worthy of the full-blown scrutiny that they’re now getting from Congress, special prosecutor Robert Mueller, and the media. And for political geeks like me who were raised in the 1970s, the comparisons to Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal are just too rich, especially that both involved break-ins of the Democratic National Committee, even if one was a “third-rate burglary” while the other hinged on high-tech computer hacking.
Yet based on what we know so far, it’s hard to imagine classic Hollywood movies about the Trump-Russia affair emerging in the mode of Watergate’s All the President’s Men or lesser flicks like Dick. Something critical is missing from the plot — at least on this side of the Atlantic. A criminal mastermind. Let’s be honest: Based on what we’ve learned so far, there are remote, battered villages in Puerto Rico that have higher wattage than the “brain trust” that gathered in Trump Tower to elect the 45th president.
Consider Monday’s bombshell revelation in the scandal: Twitter email contacts at the height of last fall’s campaign between Donald Trump Jr. and the Julian Assange-led website Wikileaks, the platform that published many of the documents stolen from the DNC and a top Hillary Clinton aide that investigators are fairly certain were first hacked by the Russians. It’s certainly damning stuff: The contacts and the timing show Team Trump’s willingness to work on some level with these folks trafficking in stolen goods. But it’s also striking that — once again — the Trumps are not the leaders, but the ones being led. Wikileaks reached out to the son of a future president, not the other way around, and the general vibe is that while the Trumpsters weren’t 100 percent sure what the heck was going on, they were happy to help in any way they could.
Indeed, the recent flood of disclosures about Team Trump and Russia all have the same dim-bulb quality about them: Unsophisticated (and I’m being charitable) folks with inflated resumés and Model U.N.-level foreign policy experience thrilled to meet Putin’s niece (spoiler alert: she wasn’t Putin’s niece) or anyone else with Russian ties who had an enticing offer of “dirt” on Hillary. Yes, the Watergate burglars were bunglers, too — that’s how they got caught — but you can’t really compare hardened FBI and CIA men like G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt to the Forrest Gump-like “high-level Trump foreign policy adviser” Carter Page, the deer-in-the-headlights goofus with the paper-thin portfolio who’s happy to go on left-leaning MSNBC shows and make incriminating statements.
What’s still murky is whether there’s a true smoking gun in this affair — a semi-intelligent Trump higher-up caught explicitly promising a Russian representative major policy concessions in return for release of the hacked emails or the social media campaign that Russia waged to benefit Trump last November (although some might point to this possible quid pro quo). Consider the moment that’s often considered the Big Reveal in the Trump-Russia scandal, the July 27, 2016, news conference in which Trump remarkably asked, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Hillary Clinton] emails that are missing.” The candidate’s desperate plea does reflect a certain, perhaps alarming, level of awareness that America’s global rival was dangling criminally obtained “dirt” on his opponent — but Trump also doesn’t sound like a man in full control of a clever criminal enterprise, does he?
No doubt, there is a conspiracy here — occasionally unwitting but often witting enough, apparently, to help prosecutors build a case against key members of the president’s inner circle. But it appears to be — apologies to the late, great, one-and-done author John Kennedy Toole — a confederacy of dunces.
Indeed, the Trump-Russia affair reminds me a bit of one of my all-time favorite Saturday Night Live skits, the only real biting political satire the show did during the Ronald Reagan era in the 1980s. In the depths of the Iran-contra affair, the low point of the Gipper’s presidency, the also late, great Phil Hartman depicted the 40th president as doddering and slightly out of it as he offered Girl Scouts a tour of the Oval Office, only to become a brilliant Bond-like villain once the outsiders left, barking complicated financial orders at his aides and talking on the phone to his Iranian co-conspirators in fluent Farsi. The audience laughed because that second Reagan seemed so implausible.
But isn’t it also thus with Trump? Could the man who within minutes misspelled “the Phillipines” in one tweet and essentially called nuclear-armed dictator Kim Jong Un “short and fat” in another also be the brains behind the Caper of the Century, a stolen presidential election?
It’s important to take a step back and see the Trump campaign for what it was — starting out as nothing more complicated than an alleged billionaire narcissist’s quest for power and aggrandizement. The idea of Trump as president should have seemed absurd, since he’d spent much of the 21st century as a reality-show star and second-class grifter peddling obvious scams like Trump University, launching ridiculous vanity ventures like Trump Steaks or Trump Vodka, and doing business with shady types like the Russian-mob-tied ex-felon Felix Sater. But when Trump’s campaign amazingly took flight in 2015 and early 2016 — after stumbling into just the right recipe of economic populism, white nationalism, and resentment — his campaign filled out with other second-class con men, posers, and wannabes. To paraphrase a famous Trumpism, when the world sent its people to the campaign, they weren’t sending their best.
When reporters started asking whether Trump even had a foreign policy team, they basically grabbed people off the street who were totally unknown to the real U.S. foreign-policy establishment. How else to explain George Papadopoulos, who showed the campaign a resumé that lied about his think-tank experience and soon found himself meeting high-level foreign officials on behalf of the Trump effort and passing along information about Clinton “dirt” from a shadowy pro-Russia in professor who now has mysteriously “gone to ground“? Or the ability of the less-than-underwhelming Page — a “Russian policy expert” with a mysterious background whom the FBI had been monitoring since 2014 as someone Russians were trying to recruit — to travel to Moscow and meet with high-level officials? These are folks who don’t seem remotely capable of running a conspiracy — but were more than capable of getting sucked into one.
Back home, Trump was primarily trusting his family members like his sons Don Jr. and Eric, daughter Ivanka, and son-in-law Jared Kushner — all of whom had spent recent years involved in dodgy if not unlawful real estate dealings. We now know that the Manhattan DA had been investigating and was urged by staff to bring charges against Don Jr. and Ivanka for allegedly misleading investors in a Manhattan condo and hotel project, while Kushner was meeting a rogue’s gallery of investors from Qatar to China desperately seeking a bailout of his disastrous $1.8 billion boondoggle on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. This all seems highly relevant, because it’s more proof of the family’s loose, grifty ethical moorings coming into the campaign. Getting Hillary’s secret emails seemed like another big score, just like a multimillion-dollar real estate deal, and they weren’t prone to think twice about cutting corners to get there. It’s not surprising that when Don Jr. was told the Russian government was supporting his dad and was offering scandalous material on the Clintons, his reaction wasn’t to go the FBI but rather to write, “I love it.” The Trumps just weren’t go-to-the-FBI kind of people.
But this wasn’t playing Glengarry Glen Ross with Soho condo deals. The thing about desperate — remember that most experts thought Trump couldn’t win in November without a deus ex machina like a Clinton scandal — and unsophisticated con artists like Team Trump is that they were also such easy marks. By late spring 2016, as Trump clinched the GOP nomination, the sharks were already circling. Enter new campaign manager Paul Manafort, who was long tied to Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian interests and is said to have owed millions to pro-Putin plutocrats; the fact that he was willing to work for Trump for free now looks like another “tell,” doesn’t it?
The mysterious Russian lawyers and professors and translators with their shadowy backgrounds came knocking soon after, and the Trump “braintrust” of Don Jr., Jared, Carter Page, George Papadopoulos and all the others were soon swimming in the shark-infested waters without a wet suit. Did Team Trump actually know that Russia would soon be releasing the hacked emails? Does it matter that much? The Trumpsters were already in way too deep. The only real mastermind here — Vladimir Putin — might get major concessions from the Trump administration, or maybe he only triggered a major crisis of American confidence, but he wins either way.
Stupidity is not a valid excuse for criminal behavior. You don’t need Carter Page’s Ph.D. to know that it’s a major violation of U.S. election laws for Russia or pro-Russian interests to contribute anything of value to Trump’s campaign, let alone to realize the Watergate-size illegality of an electronic break-in and theft of Democratic files and emails. Yet Don Jr. and other campaign officials didn’t seem to think twice about documenting their dumb dealings for all eternity — and for a future special prosecutor — in their emails and tweets. Indeed, this week’s most significant discovery is that just 15 or so minutes after Wikileaks asked Don Jr. to help promote its purloined files, Donald Sr. tweeted out just such a plug — placing our current president right in the middle of this confederacy of dunces.
The growing evidence tying Don Jr. to criminal stupidity raises the specter that prosecutor Mueller could resort to the art of the plea deal: Telling the president that he must resign to spare his first-born son from prosecution and possibly prison. That could end up being the best deal for the Trumps and for America — but one could easily see our vain and stubborn president turning it down. Could they all be that stupid? Signs point to yes.