WASHINGTON ― Russia’s tyrant works to help the Republican nominee win America’s presidential election.
Members of the nominee’s campaign know of the effort and try to coordinate with it.
The nominee wins the election and then, realizing the FBI is looking into the whole mess, fires the person running the investigation in hopes of putting an end to it.
As implausible as that scenario sounds even as a Hollywood screenplay, that’s where the nation stands as Donald Trump enters the final weeks of his first year in office: with a Justice Department special counsel running at full speed, two indictments and a guilty plea already under his belt.
“The fact pattern that continues to emerge is amazing,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant and among the first to question Trump’s ties to Moscow during the GOP primary campaign. “When I was a young cold warrior, back at the dawn of time, we had a healthy suspicion of Russia.”
The White House lawyer hired to coordinate its response to special counsel Robert Mueller’s work dismissed the very idea of collusion, saying that he expects the probe to finish within weeks. “I think it could be wrapped up in the early part of the new year,” Ty Cobb told HuffPost.
Trump personally continues to deride the investigation as “fake news” and a waste of resources. In a series of tweets on Oct. 29, the president complained that Mueller’s probe is looking at “phony Trump/Russia, ‘collusion,’ which doesn’t exist. The Dems are using this terrible (and bad for our country) Witch Hunt for evil politics.”
Facts that have emerged over the past year, however, suggest otherwise.
On Jan. 6, 2017, the U.S. intelligence community released a declassified version of its analysis finding that Russian President Vladimir Putin had not only interfered in the 2016 election, but had actively tried to help Trump. Among the tools Russia used was the theft of emails from the campaign of Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, and their release through Russia-friendly WikiLeaks.
Trump campaign foreign policy aide George Papadopoulos detailed in filings associated with his guilty plea agreement how Russians in April 2016 were offering the campaign emails damaging to Clinton. Emails between the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and a former business partner show that the younger Trump was eager to see the supposedly incriminating information in advance of a Trump Tower meeting. Trump Jr. later traded messages with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange about his father’s exploitation of emails stolen from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. On Oct. 12, 2016, after Assange suggested that the GOP nominee help publicize the latest batch of stolen emails, Trump himself sent a tweet praising WikiLeaks just 15 minutes later.
On May 9, 2017, after three months of complaining about the FBI’s Russia probe, Trump fired the agency’s director, James Comey. The reason initially stated was that Comey had mishandled an investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state. But the very next day, Trump reportedly told Russia’s foreign minister and its U.S. ambassador during an Oval Office visit that he’d fired Comey to block the probe. Trump again cited the Russia investigation as a reason for firing Comey in an interview with NBC News on May 11. That firing led quickly to Mueller’s appointment to take over the investigation.
Cobb still denied that the contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials constituted “collusion” and said that Comey’s dismissal had been overblown.
“The press has made Comey’s firing a cornerstone of this investigation,” Cobb said. “He had the absolute right to fire him, and when he did fire him, he did it for very appropriate reasons.”
But collusion per se is no longer the issue, according to Wilson. “There’s no law against collusion,” he said. “But you know what? There are a whole bunch of other laws that cover conspiracy, money laundering, accepting campaign help of material value from a foreign power to win an election.”
Trump’s denials about Russia began on July 27, 2016, at the same news conference where he invited Russia to hack Clinton’s computers to find the thousands of emails she had deleted from her private server. “I mean I will tell you right now, zero, I have nothing to do with Russia,” Trump said.
In the months that followed, Trump continued to deny any contacts with Russia. After the Oct. 7, 2016, statement by the Department of Homeland Security that Russia was interfering with the election, he questioned that analysis.
At the Oct. 19, 2016, presidential debate, when Clinton said that Putin preferred Trump because he would be Putin’s “puppet,” Trump argued that it was impossible to know who had done election-related hacking. “Our country has no idea,” he said at the debate, blaming instead at various times China, a “400-pound guy” in his bed or someone from New Jersey.
Trump for the first time acknowledged that the hacking was done by Russia at his Jan. 11, 2017, news conference ― five days after the intelligence community’s release ― but since then he has reverted to calling the Russia story a “hoax” and an attempt by Democrats to pin blame for their election loss elsewhere.
More recently, Trump and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders have taken to attacking the credibility of a report prepared by a former British Secret Service agent, Christopher Steele. That 35-page report, which has become known simply as “the dossier,” included a long list of contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials as well as claims that Russian intelligence obtained blackmail material against Trump by setting up an encounter with prostitutes at a Moscow hotel in 2013. The report was originally commissioned by a Republican donor; after Trump won the GOP nomination, Democrats took over paying for it.
Both Trump and Sanders have argued that the Democratic financing makes the findings suspect. They even claim it proves that Democrats were the ones “colluding” with Russians because Steele was communicating with Russian sources.
“I think it’s very sad what they’ve done with this fake dossier,” Trump said on Oct. 25. “But I think it’s a disgrace. It’s just really ― it’s a very sad ― it’s a very sad commentary on politics in this country.”
But GOP consultant Rick Tyler, who worked for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) during the presidential primaries, said that as more details have emerged ― verified meetings between Trump campaign aides and Russian officials, for example ― the more accurate the dossier appears to be.
“The dossier seems more authenticated than phony,” Tyler said.
Interviewed in a new book about the Russia election interference, Steele himself said he believed that between 70 and 90 percent of the raw intelligence he reported is accurate. The new book also suggests that when Steele took his findings to an FBI agent in Rome, the investigation into the Trump campaign had already started, thanks to communications intercepted by British intelligence between Trump campaign aides and Russians.
For Tyler, the issue is not whether Russian assistance ultimately swung the election to Trump ― who won the presidency thanks to a total margin of 80,000 votes across three key states. “The Russians clearly had an influence. Did it make a difference in the race? I don’t know how you get to that,” he said.
More important to Tyler is learning what information, if any, that Putin has on the president. “Is he compromised? Every American has a right to know,” Tyler said.
Trump claimed in his January news conference that there was no compromising material from his 2013 visit to Moscow. He also said he had no business dealings with Russia. “I have no dealings with Russia. I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we’ve stayed away. And I have no loans with Russia,” he said.
But critics, both Republicans and Democrats, point to Trump’s continued kid-glove treatment of Putin ― in stark contrast to the harsh words he’s had for some traditional U.S. allies ― as a sign that he fears Putin for some reason.
Trump expressed anger that Congress had passed a bill imposing new sanctions on Russia for its interference in the election and repeatedly states that he wants good relations with Putin. During his recent visit to Asia, the president met with Putin and claimed he again pressed the Russian leader on the election meddling.
“He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times. But I just asked him again, and he said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they’re saying he did,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One. “And I believe ― I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it. But he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ I think he’s very insulted by it, if you want to know the truth.”
(The Russians, for their part, denied that the elections topic even came up in the meeting.)
Democrats, meanwhile, hope to use the Russia investigation to remind voters heading into next year’s congressional elections that most Republicans continue to support Trump. The Democratic opposition research group American Bridge even created a website with a Russian URL to drive home that message.
“Trump won’t be on the ballot next year,” said Harrell Kirstein, a former Clinton campaign spokesman and now American Bridge’s “Trump War Room” communications director. “But Republicans in Congress ― the same people who were fully aware of the Russian cyberattack against the United States last year but have still done nothing to stand up for the American people ― will be.”