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کتاب: خشم و آتش / فصل 7

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7 RUSSIA

Even before there was reason to suspect Sally Yates, they suspected her. The transition report said Trump wouldn’t like the fifty-six-year-old Atlanta-born University of Georgia career Justice Department lawyer slated to step up to acting attorney general. There was something about a particular kind of Obama person. Something about the way they walked and held themselves. Superiority. And about a certain kind of woman who would immediately rub Trump the wrong way—Obama women being a good tip-off, Hillary women another. Later this would be extended to “DOJ women.” Here was an elemental divide: between Trump and career government employees. He could understand politicians, but he was finding it hard to get a handle on these bureaucrat types, their temperament and motives. He couldn’t grasp what they wanted. Why would they, or anyone, be a permanent government employee? “They max out at what? Two hundred grand? Tops,” he said, expressing something like wonder.

Sally Yates could have been passed over for the acting AG spot—to serve in place while the attorney-general-designate, Jeff Sessions, waited for confirmation—and before long Trump would be furious about why she wasn’t. But she was the sitting deputy and she’d been confirmed by the Senate, and the acting AG job needed someone with Senate confirmation. And even though she seemed to see herself as something of a prisoner held in hostile territory, Yates accepted the job.

Given this context, the curious information she presented to White House counsel Don McGahn during the administration’s first week—this was before, in the second week, she refused to enforce the immigration order and was thereupon promptly fired—seemed not only unwelcome but suspect.

The newly confirmed National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, had brushed off reports in the Washington Post about a conversation with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. It was a simple meet and greet, he said. He assured the transition team—among others, Vice President-elect Pence—that there were no discussions of Obama administration sanctions against the Russians, an assurance Pence publicly repeated.

Yates now told the White House that Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak had actually been captured as part of an “incidental collection” of authorized wiretaps. That is, a wiretap had presumably been authorized on the Russian ambassador by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and, incidentally, picked up Flynn.

The FISA court had achieved a moment of notoriety after the Edward Snowden revelations briefly made it a bête noire for liberals who were angry about privacy incursions. Now it was achieving another moment, but this time as the friend of liberals, who hoped to use these “incidental” wiretaps as a way to tie the Trump camp to a wide-ranging conspiracy with Russia.

In short order, McGahn, Priebus, and Bannon, each with prior doubts about Flynn’s reliability and judgment—“a fu@k-up,” according to Bannon—conferred about the Yates message. Flynn was asked again about his call with Kislyak; he was also told that a recording might exist. Again he scoffed at any suggestion that this was a meaningful conversation about anything.

In one White House view, Yates’s tattling was little more than “like she found out her girlfriend’s husband flirted with somebody else and, standing on principle, had to tell on him.”

Of more alarm to the White House was how, in an incidental collection wherein the names of American citizens are supposedly “masked”—with complicated procedures required to “unmask” them—had Yates so handily and conveniently picked up Flynn? Her report would also seem to confirm that the leak to the Post about these recordings came from the FBI, DOJ, or Obama White House sources—part of the growing river of leaks, with the Times and the Post the leakers’ favored destinations.

The White House in its assessment of the Yates message ended up seeing this as less a problem with an always hard-to-handle Flynn than as a problem with Yates, even as a threat from her: the Justice Department, with its vast staff of career and Obama-inclined prosecutors, had ears on the Trump team.

“It’s unfair,” said Kellyanne Conway, sitting in her yet undecorated second-floor office while representing the president’s hurt feelings. “It’s obviously unfair. It’s very unfair. They lost. They didn’t win. This is so unfair. So POTUS just doesn’t want to talk about it.”

There was nobody in the White House who wanted to talk about—or even anyone who had been officially delegated to talk about—Russia, the story that, evident to most, even before they entered the White House, was certain to overwhelm the first year of the Trump administration at the very least. Nobody was prepared to deal with it.

“There’s no reason to even talk about it,” said Sean Spicer, sitting on the couch in his office, firmly crossing his arms. “There’s no reason to even talk about it,” he said again, stubbornly.

For his part, the president did not use, though he might have, the word “Kafkaesque.” He regarded the Russia story as senseless and inexplicable and having no basis in reality. They were just being sucked in.

They had survived scandal during the campaign—the Billy Bush weekend—which virtually no one in Trump’s inner circle had thought they could survive, only to be hit by the Russia scandal. Compared to Pussy-gate, Russia seemed like the only-desperate-thing-left-gate. What seemed unfair now was that the issue still wasn’t going away, and that, incomprehensibly, people took it seriously. When at best it was . . . nothing.

It was the media.

The White House had quickly become accustomed to media-led scandals, but they were also used to their passing. But now this one was, frustratingly, holding on.

If there was any single piece of proof not just of media bias but of the intention of the media to do anything it could to undermine this president, it was—in the view of the Trump circle—this, the Russia story, what the Washington Post termed “Russia’s attack on our political system.” (“So terribly, terribly unfair, with no proof of one vote changed,” according to Conway.) It was insidious. It was, to them, although they didn’t put it this way, similar to the kind of dark Clinton-like conspiracies that Republicans were more wont to accuse liberals of—Whitewater, Benghazi, Email-gate. That is, an obsessive narrative that leads to investigations, which lead to other investigations, and to more obsessive no-escape media coverage. This was modern politics: blood-sport conspiracies that were about trying to destroy people and careers.

When the comparison to Whitewater was made to Conway, she, rather proving the point about obsessions, immediately began to argue the particulars involving Webster Hubbell, a mostly forgotten figure in the Whitewater affair, and the culpability of the Rose Law Firm in Arkansas, where Hillary Clinton was a partner. Everybody believed their side’s conspiracies, while utterly, and righteously, rejecting the conspiracies leveled at them. To call something a conspiracy was to dismiss it.

As for Bannon, who had himself promoted many conspiracies, he dismissed the Russia story in textbook fashion: “It’s just a conspiracy theory.” And, he added, the Trump team wasn’t capable of conspiring about anything.

The Russia story was—just two weeks into the new presidency—a dividing line with each side viewing the other as pushing fake news.

The greater White House wholly believed that the story was an invented construct of weak if not preposterous narrative threads, with a mind-boggling thesis: We fixed the election with the Russians, OMG! The anti-Trump world, and especially its media—that is, the media—believed that there was a high, if not overwhelming, likelihood that there was something significant there, and a decent chance that it could be brought home.

If the media, self-righteously, saw it as the Holy Grail and silver bullet of Trump destruction, and the Trump White House saw it, with quite some self-pity, as a desperate effort to concoct a scandal, there was also a range of smart money in the middle.

The congressional Democrats had everything to gain by insisting, Benghazi-like, that where there was smoke (even if they were desperately working the bellows) there was fire, and by using investigations as a forum to promote their minority opinion (and for members to promote themselves).

For Republicans in Congress, the investigations were a card to play against Trump’s vengefulness and unpredictability. Defending him—or something less than defending him and, indeed, possibly pursuing him—offered Republicans a new source of leverage in their dealings with him.

The intelligence community—with its myriad separate fiefdoms as suspicious of Trump as of any incoming president in memory—would, at will, have the threat of drip-drip-drip leaks to protect its own interests.

The FBI and DOJ would evaluate the evidence—and the opportunity—through their own lenses of righteousness and careerism. (“The DOJ is filled with women prosecutors like Yates who hate him,” said a Trump aide, with a curiously gender-biased view of the growing challenge.)

If all politics is a test of your opponent’s strength, acumen, and forbearance, then this, regardless of the empirical facts, was quite a clever test, with many traps that many people might fall into. Indeed, in many ways the issue was not Russia but, in fact, strength, acumen, and forbearance, the qualities Trump seemed clearly to lack. The constant harping about a possible crime, even if there wasn’t an actual crime—and no one was yet pointing to a specific act of criminal collusion, or in fact any other clear violation of the law—could force a cover-up which might then turn into a crime. Or turn up a perfect storm of stupidity and cupidity.

“They take everything I’ve ever said and exaggerate it,” said the president in his first week in the White House during a late-night call. “It’s all exaggerated. My exaggerations are exaggerated.”

Franklin Foer, the Washington-based former editor of the New Republic, made an early case for a Trump-Putin conspiracy on July 4, 2016, in Slate. His piece reflected the incredulity that had suddenly possessed the media and political intelligentsia: Trump, the unserious candidate, had, however incomprehensibly, become a more or less serious one. And somehow, because of his prior unseriousness, and his what-you-see-is-what-you-get nature, the braggart businessman, with his bankruptcies, casinos, and beauty pageants, had avoided serious vetting. For Trump students—which, over his thirty years of courting attention, many in the media had become—the New York real estate deals were dirty, the Atlantic City ventures were dirty, the Trump airline was dirty, Mar-a-Lago, the golf courses, and the hotels all dirty. No reasonable candidate could have survived a recounting of even one of these deals. But somehow a genial amount of corruption had been figured into the Trump candidacy—that, after all, was the platform he was running on. I’ll do for you what a tough businessman does for himself.

To really see his corruption, you had to see it on a bigger stage. Foer was suggesting a fabulous one.

Assembling a detailed road map for a scandal that did not yet exist, Foer, without anything resembling smoking guns or even real evidence, pulled together in July virtually all of the circumstantial and thematic threads and many of the various characters that would play out over the next eighteen months. (Unbeknownst to the public or even most media or political insiders, Fusion GPS had by this point hired the former British spy Christopher Steele to investigate a connection between Trump and the Russian government.) Putin was seeking a resurgence of Russian power and, as well, to block encroachments by the European Union and NATO. Trump’s refusal to treat Putin as a semi-outlaw—not to mention what often seemed like a man crush on him—meant, ipso facto, that Trump was sanguine about a return of Russian power and might actually be promoting it.

Why? What could possibly be in it for an American politician to publicly embrace—sycophantically embrace—Vladimir Putin and to encourage what the West saw as Russian adventurism?

Theory 1: Trump was drawn to authoritarian strongmen. Foer recounted Trump’s longtime fascination with Russia, including being duped by a Gorbachev look-alike who visited Trump Tower in the 1980s, and his many fulsome and unnecessary “odes to Putin.” This suggested a lie-down-with-dogs-wake-up-with-fleas vulnerability: consorting with or looking favorably upon politicians whose power lies partly in their tolerance of corruption brings you closer to corruption. Likewise, Putin was drawn to populist strongmen in his own image: hence, Foer asked, “Why wouldn’t the Russians offer him the same furtive assistance they’ve lavished on Le Pen, Berlusconi, and the rest?” Theory 2: Trump was part of a less-than-blue-chip (much less) international business set, feeding off the rivers of dubious wealth that had been unleashed by all the efforts to move cash, much of it from Russia and China, out of political harm’s way. Such money, or rumors of such money, became an explanation—still only a circumstantial one—in trying to assess all the Trump business dealings that largely remained hidden from view. (There were two contradictory theories here: he had hidden these dealings because he didn’t want to admit their paucity, or he had hidden them to mask their disreputableness.) Because Trump is less than creditworthy, Foer was among many who concluded that Trump needed to turn to other sources—more or less dirty money, or money with other sorts of strings attached. (One way the process can work is, roughly speaking, as follows: an oligarch makes an investment in a more or less legitimate third-party investment fund, which, quid pro quo, makes an investment in Trump.) And while Trump would categorically deny that he had any loans or investments from Russia, one would, of course, not have dirty money on one’s books.

As a subset of this theory, Trump—never very scrupulous about vetting his people—surrounded himself with a variety of hustlers working their own deals, and, plausibly, aiding Trump’s deals. Foer identified the following characters as part of a possible Russian conspiracy:

• Tevfik Arif, a former Rus sian official who ran the Bayrock Group, a middleman in Trump financings with an office in Trump Tower.

• Felix Sater (sometimes spelled Satter), a Russian-born immigrant to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, who had previously served time in prison in connection with a fraud at a Mafia-run brokerage and who went to work for Bayrock and had a business card identifying him as senior adviser to Donald Trump. (When Sater’s name later continued to surface, Trump assured Bannon he didn’t know Sater at all.) • Carter Page, a banker of uncertain portfolio who had spent time in Russia and billed himself as having advised the state-run oil company, Gazprom, and who showed up on a hastily assembled list of Trump foreign policy advisers and who, it would turn out, the FBI was closely monitoring in what it said was a Russian intelligence effort to turn him. (Trump would later deny ever meeting Page, and the FBI would say that it believed Russian intelligence had targeted Page in an effort to turn him.) • Michael Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency—fired by Obama for unclear reasons—who had yet to emerge as Trump’s key foreign policy counselor and future National Security Advisor, but who was accompanying him on many campaign trips and who earlier in the year had been paid a $45,000 speaking fee in Moscow and been photographed sitting at a dinner with Putin.

• Paul Manafort, whom, along with serving as Trump’s campaign manager, Foer highlighted as a political operative and consultant who had generated substantial income advising Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych, who successfully ran for the presidency of Ukraine in 2010, was later deposed in 2014, and had been in business with the Russian oligarch and Putin crony Oleg Deripaska.

More than a year later, each of these men would be part of the near-daily Russia-Trump news cycle.

Theory 3: The Holy Grail proposition was that Trump and the Russians—perhaps even Putin himself—had gotten together to hack the Democratic National Committee.

Theory 4: But then there was the those-that-know-him-best theory, some version of which most Trumpers would come to embrace. He was just star-fu@king. He took his beauty pageant to Russia because he thought Putin was going to be his friend. But Putin couldn’t have cared less, and in the end Trump found himself at the promised gala dinner seated on one side next to a guy who looked like he had never used a utensil and on the other side Jabba the Hutt in a golf shirt. In other words, Trump—however foolish his sucking-up might have been, and however suspicious it might look in hindsight—just wanted a little respect.

Theory 5: The Russians, holding damaging information about Trump, were blackmailing him. He was a Manchurian Candidate.

On January 6, 2017—nearly six months to the day after Foer’s piece was published—the CIA, FBI, and NSA announced their joint conclusion that “Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.” From the Steele dossier, to the steady leaks from the U.S. intelligence community, to testimony and statements from the leadership of U.S. intelligence agencies, a firm consensus had emerged. There was a nefarious connection, perhaps an ongoing one, between Trump and his campaign and the Russian government.

Still, this could yet be seen as highly wishful thinking by Trump opponents. “The underlying premise of the case is that spies tell the truth,” said the veteran intelligence community journalist Edward Jay Epstein. “Who knew?” And, indeed, the worry in the White House was not about collusion—which seemed implausible if not farcical—but what, if the unraveling began, would likely lead to the messy Trump (and Kushner) business dealings. On this subject every member of the senior staff shrugged helplessly, covering eyes, ears, and mouth.

This was the peculiar and haunting consensus—not that Trump was guilty of all that he was accused of, but that he was guilty of so much else. It was all too possible that the hardly plausible would lead to the totally credible.

On February 13, twenty-four days into the new administration, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn became the first actual link between Russia and the White House.

Flynn had really only one supporter in the Trump administration, and that was the president himself. They were best friends during the campaign—buddy movie stuff. Post-inauguration, this translated into a total-access relationship. On Flynn’s part, it led to a set of misapprehensions that was common inside Trump’s circle: that the president’s personal endorsement indicated your status in the White House and that Trump’s level of flattery was a convincing indication that you had an unbreakable bond with him and that you were, in his eyes, and in his White House, something close to omnipotent. Trump, with his love of generals, had even for a moment wanted to make Michael Flynn his vice president.

Intoxicated by Trump’s flattery during the campaign, Flynn—a lower-tier general and quite a flaky one at that—had become something of a Trump dancing monkey. When former generals make alliances with political candidates, they customarily position themselves as providers of expertise and figures of a special maturity. But Flynn had become quite a maniacal partisan, part of the Trump traveling road show, one of the ranters and ravers opening Trump rallies. This all-in enthusiasm and loyalty had helped win him access to Trump’s ear, into which he poured his anti-intelligence-community theories.

During the early part of the transition, when Bannon and Kushner had seemed joined at the hip, this was part of their bond: an effort to disintermediate Flynn and his often problematic message. A subtext in the White House estimation of Flynn, slyly insinuated by Bannon, was that Defense Secretary Mattis was a four-star general and Flynn but a three-star.

“I like Flynn, he reminds me of my uncles,” said Bannon. “But that’s the problem: he reminds me of my uncles.”

Bannon used the general odor that had more and more attached to Flynn among everybody except the president to help secure a seat for himself on the National Security Council. This was, for many in the national security community, a signal moment in the effort by the nationalist right wing to seize power. But Bannon’s presence on the council was just as much driven by the need to babysit the impetuous Flynn, prone to antagonizing almost everyone else in the national security community. (Flynn was “a colonel in a general’s uniform,” according to one senior intelligence figure.) Flynn, like everyone around Trump, was besotted by the otherworldly sense of opportunity that came with, against all odds, being in the White House. And inevitably, he had been made more grandiose by it.

In 2014, Flynn had been roughly cashiered out of government, for which he blamed his many enemies in the CIA. But he had energetically set himself up in business, joining the ranks of former government officials profiting off the ever growing globalist corporate-financial-government policy and business networks. Then, after flirting with several other Republican presidential candidates, he bonded with Trump. Both Flynn and Trump were antiglobalists—or, anyway, they believed the United States was getting screwed in global transactions. Still, money was money, and Flynn, who, when he retired, had been receiving a few hundred thousand a year on his general’s pension, was not turning any of it down. Various friends and advisers—including Michael Ledeen, a longtime anti-Iran and anti-CIA crony, and the coauthor of Flynn’s book, whose daughter now worked for Flynn—advised Flynn that he ought not to accept fees from Russia or the larger “consulting” assignments from Turkey.

It was in fact the sort of carelessness that almost everyone in Trump’s world, including the president and his family, was guilty of. They lived with parallel realities in which, while proceeding with a presidential campaign, they also had to live in a vastly more likely world—rather a certain world—in which Donald Trump would never be president. Hence, business as usual.

In early February, an Obama administration lawyer friendly with Sally Yates remarked with some relish and considerable accuracy: “It certainly is an odd circumstance if you live your life without regard for being elected and then get elected—and quite an opportunity for your enemies.”

In this, there was not only the Russian cloud hanging over the administration, but a sense that the intelligence community so distrusted Flynn, and so blamed its bad blood with Trump on him, that Flynn was the target here. Within the White House there was even a feeling that a soft trade was being implicitly offered: Flynn for the goodwill of the intelligence community.

At the same time, in what some thought a direct result of the president’s rage over the Russia insinuations—particularly the insinuation about the golden shower—the president seemed to bond even more strongly with Flynn, assuring his National Security Advisor over and over again that he had his back, that the Russia accusations, those related both to Flynn and to himself, were “garbage.” After Flynn’s dismissal, a narrative describing Trump’s increasing doubts about his adviser would be offered to the press, but in fact the opposite was true: the more doubts gathered around Flynn, the more certain the president became that Flynn was his all-important ally.

The final or deadliest leak during Michael Flynn’s brief tenure is as likely to have come from the National Security Advisor’s antagonists inside the White House as from the Justice Department.

On Wednesday, February 8, the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung came to visit Flynn for what was billed as an off-the-record interview. They met not in his office but in the most ornate room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building—the same room where Japanese diplomats waited to meet with Secretary of State Cordell Hull as he learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

To all outward appearances, it was an uneventful background interview, and DeYoung, Columbo-like in her affect, aroused no suspicions when she broached the de rigueur question: “My colleagues asked me to ask you this: Did you talk to the Russians about sanctions?”

Flynn declared that he had had no such conversations, absolutely no conversation, he confirmed again, and the interview, attended by senior National Security Council official and spokesman Michael Anton, ended soon thereafter.

But later that day, DeYoung called Anton and asked if she could use Flynn’s denial on the record. Anton said he saw no problem—after all, the White House wanted Flynn’s denial to be clear—and notified Flynn.

A few hours later, Flynn called Anton back with some worries about the statement. Anton applied an obvious test: “If you knew that there might be a tape of this conversation that could surface, would you still be a hundred percent sure?”

Flynn equivocated, and Anton, suddenly concerned, advised him that if he couldn’t be sure they ought to “walk it back.”

The Post piece, which appeared the next day under three other bylines—indicating that DeYoung’s interview was hardly the point of the story—contained new leaked details of the Kislyak phone call, which the Post now said had indeed dealt with the issue of sanctions. The article also contained Flynn’s denial—“he twice said ‘no’ ”—as well as his walk-back: “On Thursday, Flynn, through his spokesman, backed away from the denial. The spokesman said Flynn ‘indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.’ ” After the Post story, Priebus and Bannon questioned Flynn again. Flynn professed not to remember what he had said; if the subject of sanctions came up, he told them, it was at most glossed over. Curiously, no one seemed to have actually heard the conversation with Kislyak or seen a transcript.

Meanwhile, the vice president’s people, caught unaware by the sudden Flynn controversy, were taking particular umbrage, less about Flynn’s possible misrepresentations than about the fact that they had been kept out of the loop. But the president was undisturbed—or, in one version, “aggressively defensive”—and, while the greater White House looked on askance, Trump chose to take Flynn with him to Mar-a-Lago for his scheduled weekend with Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister.

That Saturday night, in a bizarre spectacle, the Mar-a-Lago terrace became a public Situation Room when President Trump and Prime Minister Abe openly discussed how to respond to North Korea’s launch of a missile three hundred miles into the Sea of Japan. Standing right over the president’s shoulder was Michael Flynn. If Bannon, Priebus, and Kushner believed that Flynn’s fate hung in the balance, the president seemed to have no such doubts.

For the senior White House staff, the underlying concern was less about getting rid of Flynn than about the president’s relationship with Flynn. What had Flynn, in essence a spy in a soldier’s uniform, roped the president into? What might they have got up to together?

On Monday morning, Kellyanne Conway appeared on MSNBC and offered a firm defense of the National Security Advisor. “Yes,” she said, “General Flynn does enjoy the full confidence of the president.” And while this seemed to many an indication that Conway was out of the loop, it was more accurately an indication that she had been talking directly to the president.

A White House meeting that morning failed to convince Trump to fire Flynn. He was concerned about what it would look like to lose his National Security Advisor after just twenty-four days. And he was adamant about not wanting to blame Flynn for talking to the Russians, even about sanctions. In Trump’s view, condemning his adviser would connect him to a plot where there was no plot. His fury wasn’t directed toward Flynn but to the “incidental” wiretap that had surveilled him. Making clear his confidence in his adviser, Trump insisted that Flynn come to Monday’s lunch with the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau.

Lunch was followed by another meeting about the furor. There were yet more details of the phone call and a growing itemization of the money Flynn had been paid by various Russian entities; there was also increasing focus on the theory that the leaks from the intel community—that is, the whole Russia mess—was directed at Flynn. Finally, there was a new rationale that Flynn should be fired not because of his Russian contacts, but because he had lied about them to the vice president. This was a convenient invention of a chain of command: in fact, Flynn did not report to Vice President Pence, and he was arguably a good deal more powerful than Pence.

The new rationale appealed to Trump, and he at last agreed that Flynn had to go.

Still, the president did not waiver in his belief in Flynn. Rather, Flynn’s enemies were his enemies. And Russia was a gun to his head. He might, however ruefully, have had to fire Flynn, but Flynn was still his guy.

Flynn, ejected from the White House, had become the first established direct link between Trump and Russia. And depending on what he might say to whom, he was now potentially the most powerful person in Washington.

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