استراق سمعکتاب: خشم و آتش / فصل 11
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With three screens in his White House bedroom, the president was his own best cable curator. But for print he depended on Hope Hicks. Hicks, who had been his junior aide for most of the campaign and his spokesperson (although, as he would point out, he was really his own spokesperson), had been, many thought, pushed to the sidelines in the West Wing by the Bannonites, the Goldman wing, and the Priebus-RNC professionals. To the senior staff, she seemed not only too young and too inexperienced—she was famous among campaign reporters for her hard-to-maneuver-in short skirts—but a way-too-overeager yes woman, always in fear of making a mistake, ever tremulously second-guessing herself and looking for Trump’s approval. But the president kept rescuing her—“Where’s Hope?”—from any oblivion others tried to assign her to. Baffling to almost everyone, Hicks remained his closest and most trusted aide, with, perhaps, the single most important job in this White House: interpreting the media for him in the most positive way it could be interpreted, and buffering him from the media that could not be positively spun.
The day after his “reset” speech before the joint session of Congress presented a certain conundrum for Hicks. Here were the first generally good notices for the administration. But in the Post, the Times, and the New Yorker that day, there was also an ugly bouquet of very bad news. Fortunately the three different stories had not quite sunk into cable, so there was yet a brief respite. And at least for the better part of the day, March 1, Hicks herself did not entirely seem to grasp how bad the news actually was.
The Washington Post’s story was built around a leak from a Justice Department source (characterized as a “former senior American official”—hence, most likely someone from the Obama White House) saying that the new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had, on two occasions, met with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.
When the president was shown the story, he didn’t see its significance. “So what?” he said.
Well, during his confirmation, it was explained to the president, Sessions had said he didn’t.
Facing Sessions at the January 10 hearing, Al Franken, the former comedian and Democratic senator from Minnesota, appeared to be casting blindly for an elusive fish in his efforts to find a question. Stopping and starting, slogging through his sentence construction, Franken, who had been handed a question based on the just-revealed Steele dossier, got to this end: These documents also allegedly say, quote, “There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”
Now, again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so you know. But if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious and if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?
Instead of answering Franken’s circuitous question—“What will you do?”—with an easy “We will of course investigate and pursue any and all illegal actions,” a confused Sessions answered a question he wasn’t asked.
Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have—did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.
The president’s immediate focus was on the question of why anyone believed that communicating with the Russians was bad. There is nothing wrong with that, Trump insisted. As in the past, it was hard to move him off this point and to the issue at hand: a possible lie to Congress. The Post story, to the extent that it registered at all, didn’t worry him. Supported by Hicks, he saw it a way-long-shot effort to pin something on Sessions. And anyway, Sessions was saying he didn’t meet with the Russians as a campaign surrogate. So? He didn’t. Case closed.
“Fake news,” said the president, using his now all-purpose rejoinder.
As for the bad Times story, as Hicks related it to the president, it appeared to him to be good news. Briefed by anonymous sources in the Obama administration (more anonymous Obama sources), the story revealed a new dimension to the ever growing suggestion of a connection between the Trump campaign and Russian efforts to influence the U.S. election: American allies, including the British and the Dutch, had provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officials—and others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin—and associates of President-elect Trump, according to three former American officials who requested anonymity in discussing classified intelligence.
Separately, American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates.
The story went on:
Mr. Trump has denied that his campaign had any contact with Russian officials, and at one point he openly suggested that American spy agencies had cooked up intelligence suggesting that the Russian government had tried to meddle in the presidential election. Mr. Trump has accused the Obama administration of hyping the Russia story line as a way to discredit his new administration.
And then the real point:
At the Obama White House, Mr. Trump’s statements stoked fears among some that intelligence could be covered up or destroyed—or its sources exposed—once power changed hands. What followed was a push to preserve the intelligence that underscored the deep anxiety with which the White House and American intelligence agencies had come to view the threat from Moscow.
Here was more confirmation of a central Trump thesis: The previous administration, its own candidate defeated, was not just disregarding the democratic custom of smoothing the way for the winner of the election; rather, in the Trump White House view, Obama’s people had plotted with the intelligence community to put land mines in the new administration’s way. Secret intelligence was, the story suggested, being widely distributed across intelligence agencies so as to make it easier to leak, and at the same time to protect the leakers. This intelligence, it was rumored, consisted of spreadsheets kept by Susan Rice that listed the Trump team’s Russian contacts; borrowing a technique from WikiLeaks, the documents were secreted on a dozen servers in different places. Before this broad distribution, when the information was held tightly, it would have been easy to identify the small pool of leakers. But the Obama administration had significantly expanded that pool.
So this was good news, right? Wasn’t this proof, the president asked, that Obama and his people were out to get him? The Times story was a leak about a plan to leak—and it provided clear evidence of the deep state.
Hope Hicks, as always, supported Trump’s view. The crime was leaking and the culprit was the Obama administration. The Justice Department, the president was confident, was now going to investigate the former president and his people. Finally.
Hope Hicks also brought to the president a big piece in the New Yorker. The magazine had just published an article by three authors—Evan Osnos, David Remnick, and Joshua Yaffa—attributing Russian aggressiveness to a new cold war. Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, had, since the Trump election, propounded an absolutist view that Trump’s election imperiled Democratic norms.
This 13,500-word story—handily connecting the dots of Russia’s geopolitical mortification, Putin’s ambition, the country’s cyber talents, Trump’s own nascent authoritarianism, and the U.S. intelligence community’s suspicions about Putin and Russia—codified a new narrative as coherent and as apocalyptic as the one about the old cold war. The difference was that in this one, the ultimate result was Donald Trump—he was the nuclear bomb. One of the frequently quoted sources in the article was Ben Rhodes, the Obama aide who, Trump’s camp believed, was a key leaker, if not one of the architects of the Obama administration’s continued effort to connect Trump and his team to Putin and Russia. Rhodes, many in the White House believed, was the deep state. They also believed that every time a leak was credited to “former and current officials,” Rhodes was the former official who was in close touch with current officials.
While the article was largely just a dire recapitulation of fears about Putin and Trump, it did, in a parenthesis toward the end of the article—quite burying the lead—connect Jared Kushner to Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, in a meeting in Trump Tower with Michael Flynn in December.
Hicks missed this point; later, it had to be highlighted for the president by Bannon.
Three people in the Trump administration—the former National Security Advisor, the current attorney general, and the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law—had now been directly connected to the Russian diplomat.
To Kushner and his wife, this was less than innocent: they would, with a sense of deepening threat, suspect Bannon of leaking the information about Kushner’s meeting with Kislyak.
Few jobs in the Trump administration seemed so right, fitting, and even destined to their holder as Jeff Sessions’s appointment as the nation’s top law enforcement officer. As he viewed his work as AG, it was his mandate to curb, circumscribe, and undo the interpretation of federal law that had for three generations undermined American culture and offended his own place in it. “This is his life’s work,” said Steve Bannon.
And Sessions was certainly not going to risk his job over the silly Russia business, with its growing collection of slapstick Trump figures. God knows what those characters were up to—nothing good, everybody assumed. Best to have nothing to do with it.
Without consulting the president or, ostensibly, anyone in the White House, Sessions decided to move as far as possible out of harm’s way. On March 2, the day after the Post story, he recused himself from anything having to do with the Russia investigation.
The news of the attorney general’s recusal exploded like an IED in the White House. Sessions was Trump’s protection against an overly aggressive Russian investigation. The president just could not grasp the logic here. He railed to friends: Why would Sessions not want to protect him? What would Sessions gain? Did he think this stuff was real? Sessions needed to do his job!
In fact, Trump already had good reason to worry about the DOJ. The president had a private source, one of his frequent callers, who, he believed, was keeping him abreast of what was going on in the Justice Department—and, the president noted, doing a much better job of it than Sessions himself.
The Trump administration, as a consequence of the Russia story, was involved in a high-stakes bureaucratic push-pull, with the president going outside government to find out what was happening in his own government. The source, a longtime friend with his own DOJ sources—many of the president’s rich and powerful friends had their own reasons to keep close tabs on what was happening at the Justice Department—fed the president a bleak picture of a Justice Department and an FBI run amok in its efforts to get him. “Treason” was a word that was being used, the president was told.
“The DOJ,” the president’s source told him, “was filled with women who hated him.” It was an army of lawyers and investigators taking instructions from the former administration. “They want to make Watergate look like Pissgate,” the president was told. This comparison confused Trump; he thought his friend was making a reference to the Steele dossier and its tale of the golden showers.
After the attorney general’s recusal, the president, whose instinctive reaction to every problem was to fire someone, right away, thought he should just get rid of Sessions. At the same time, there was little doubt in his mind about what was happening here. He knew where this Russia stuff was coming from, and if these Obama people thought they were going to get away with it they had another think coming. He would expose them all!
One of Jared Kushner’s many new patrons was Tony Blair, the former —British prime minister, whom Kushner had gotten to know when, on the banks of the River Jordan in 2010, they both attended the baptism of Grace and Chloe Murdoch, the young daughters of Rupert Murdoch and his then wife, Wendi. Jared and Ivanka had also lived in the same Trump building on Park Avenue where the Murdochs lived (for the Murdochs it was a temporary rental apartment while their grand triplex on Fifth Avenue was —renovated, but the renovation had lasted for four years), and during that period Ivanka Trump had become one of Wendi Murdoch’s closest friends. Blair, godfather to Grace, would later be accused by Murdoch of having an affair with his wife, and of being the cause of their breakup (something Blair has categorically denied). In the divorce, Wendi got the Trumps.
But once in the White House, the president’s daughter and son-in-law became the target of a renewed and eager cultivation by, with quite some irony, both Blair and Murdoch. Lacking a circle of influence in almost all of the many areas of government with which he was now involved, Kushner was both susceptible to cultivation and more than a little desperate for the advice his cultivators had to offer. Blair, now with philanthropic, private diplomatic, and varied business interests in the Middle East, was particularly intent on helping shepherd some of Jared’s Middle East initiatives.
In February, Blair visited Kushner in the White House.
On this trip, the now freelance diplomat, perhaps seeking to prove his usefulness to this new White House, mentioned a juicy rumor: the possibility that the British had had the Trump campaign staff under surveillance, monitoring its telephone calls and other communications and possibly even Trump himself. This was, as Kushner might understand, the Sabbath goy theory of intelligence. On the Sabbath, observant Jews could not turn on the lights, nor ask someone else to turn on the lights. But if they expressed the view that it would be much easier to see with light, and if a non-Jew then happened to turn them on, that would be fine. So although the Obama administration would not have asked the British to spy on the Trump campaign, the Brits would have been led to understand how helpful it might be if they did.
It was unclear whether the information was rumor, informed conjecture, speculation, or solid stuff. But, as it churned and festered in the president’s mind, Kushner and Bannon went out to CIA headquarters in Langley to meet with Mike Pompeo and his deputy director Gina Haspel to check it out. A few days later, the CIA opaquely reported back that the information was not correct; it was a “miscommunication.”
Politics had seemed to become, even well before the age of Trump, a mortal affair. It was now zero-sum: When one side profited, another lost. One side’s victory was another’s death. The old notion that politics was a trader’s game, an understanding that somebody else had something you wanted—a vote, goodwill, old-fashioned patronage—and that in the end the only issue was cost, had gone out of fashion. Now it was a battle between good and evil.
Curiously, for a man who seemed to have led a movement based in anger and retribution, Trump was very much (or believed he was very much) a politician of the old stripe—a let’s-work-it-out guy. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. He was, in his mind, the ultimate tactician, always knowing what the other guy wanted.
Steve Bannon had pressed him to invoke Andrew Jackson as his populist model, and he had loaded up on Jackson books (they remained unread). But his real beau ideal was Lyndon Johnson. LBJ was a big man who could knock heads, do deals, and bend lesser men to his will. Trade it out so in the end everyone got something, and the better dealmaker got a little more. (Trump did not, however, appreciate the irony of where Lyndon Johnson ended up—one of the first modern politicians to have found himself on the wrong end of both mortal and moral politics.) But now, after little more than seven weeks in office, Trump saw his own predicament as unique and overwhelming. Like no other president before (though he did make some allowances for Bill Clinton), his enemies were out to get him. Worse, the system was rigged against him. The bureaucratic swamp, the intelligence agencies, the unfair courts, the lying media—they were all lined up against him. This was, for his senior staff, a reliable topic of conversation with him: the possible martyrdom of Donald Trump.
In the president’s nighttime calls, he kept coming back to how unfair this was, and to what Tony Blair had said—and others, too! It all added up. There was a plot against him.
Now, it was certainly true that Trump’s closest staff appreciated his volatility, and, to a person, was alarmed by it. At points on the day’s spectrum of adverse political developments, he could have moments of, almost everyone would admit, irrationality. When that happened, he was alone in his anger and not approachable by anyone. His senior staff largely dealt with these dark hours by agreeing with him, no matter what he said. And if some of them occasionally tried to hedge, Hope Hicks never did. She agreed absolutely with all of it.
At Mar-a-Lago on the evening of March 3, the president watched Bret Baier interview Paul Ryan on Fox. Baier asked the Speaker about a report on the online news site Circa—owned by Sinclair, the conservative broadcast group—involving allegations that Trump Tower had been surveilled during the campaign.
On March 4, Trump’s early morning tweets began:
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism! (4:35 a.m.)
Is it legal for a sitting President to be “wire tapping” a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW! (4:49 a.m.)
How low has President Obama gone to tap my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy! (5:02 a.m.)
At 6:40 he called Priebus, waking him up. “Did you see my tweet?” he asked. “We’ve caught them red-handed!” Then the president held his phone so Priebus could hear the playback of the Baier show.
He had no interest in precision, or even any ability to be precise. This was pure public exclamation, a window into pain and frustration. With his misspellings and his use of 1970s lingo—“wire tapping” called up an image of FBI agents crouched in a van on Fifth Avenue—it seemed kooky and farcical. Of the many tweets that Trump had seemed to hoist himself by, from the point of view of the media, intelligence community, and extremely satisfied Democrats, the wiretap tweets had pulled him highest and most left him dangling in ignorance and embarrassment.
According to CNN, “Two former senior U.S. officials quickly dismissed Trump’s accusations out of hand. ‘Just nonsense,’ said one former senior U.S. intelligence official.” Inside the White House, the “just nonsense” quote was thought to be from Ben Rhodes, offered in cat-that-swallowed-the-canary fashion.
Ryan, for his part, told Priebus he had no idea what Baier was talking about and that he was just BSing through the interview.
But if tapping Trump’s phones wasn’t literally true, there was a sudden effort to find something that might be, and a frantic White House dished up a Breitbart article that linked to a piece by Louise Mensch, a former British politician who, now living in the United States, had become a kind of conspiracy-central of the Trump-Russia connection.
There was a further effort to push aggressive incidental collection and unmasking back onto the Obama White House. But in the end, this was another—and to some quite the ultimate—example of how difficult it was for the president to function in a literal, definitional, lawyerly, cause-and-effect political world.
It was a turning point. Until now, Trump’s inner circle had been mostly game to defend him. But after the wiretap tweets, everybody, save perhaps Hope Hicks, moved into a state of queasy sheepishness, if not constant incredulity.
Sean Spicer, for one, kept repeating his daily, if not hourly, mantra: “You can’t make this sh@t up.”
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