We’re Looking At It All Wrong

We shouldn’t be thinking of Trump’s campaign shenanigans with the Russians and his payoffs to silence former mistresses as normal, Watergate-style scandals. Either of these clumps of mini-scandals would be enough to bring a normal  presidency crashing to the ground, but they are more likely to end up a footnote, remembered not for their intrinsic importance but as the threads investigators first pulled on that ultimately unraveled the Republican party and exposed the bizarre epochal political disaster that started America on an historic decline as a world power.

Russia's President Putin visits Kaliningrad Stadium

What’s going on is widely recognized as a scandal, but it’s not usually spoken of in such cataclysmic terms. Is this author overly excited or will we look back one day and feel that the mainstream press missed something obvious?

The media is struggling because what’s going is unprecedented. To be fair, everyone else is struggling too: law enforcement, our intelligence apparatus, the courts; even the KGB doesn’t know quite what to do. Trump’s Russia problem is morphing into that rarest political thing: something new under the sun.

Campaign Meddling is Nothing

Trump’s deference to Vladimir Putin has been one of the most extraordinary political spectacles since Neville Chamberlain met with Hitler, remarked upon  with stark incredulity around the world, even by arch-conservative members of his own party.  The president has openly promoted Russian interests since he took office, even when it goes directly against the United State’s national security needs, and he’s done it so openly that analysts literally can’t believe what they are seeing.

That’s pretty bad, but the monster that is rising out of the deep is the unfortunate context for the Presidents eccentric politics. It is rapidly becoming evident that Trump’s affection for the Russians isn’t a quirk; it turns out he’s been in bed with the Russian mob since before some members of the current United States Congress were born.

It’s Not Like Crime In The West

The Russian mob isn’t like the Gambino crime family.  American mobsters might buy the odd politician, judge, or policeman, but in Russia, it’s almost the reverse.  In modern Russia, business, the government, and the mob aren’t really distinct entities in the sense they are here—they are more like spheres of influence under a single ultimate leadership. The top-level mobsters and business people essentially operate under government license, functioning as needed as auxiliary resources for the KGB. When state security asks that something be done, both business people and criminals hop to it, not just because the KGB can bury you in some oubliette in Siberia, but worse; they can turn you into an ordinary citizen. (If you’re confused, the name KGB, an acronym for the Russian for “Committee for State Security,” was not used for a generation, but now it’s back. The KGB was nominally split into multiple organizations in 1991 but Putin recently reorganized the state security apparatus and revived the old name KGB. Either way it’s the same organization that has been in operation under one name or another since the Revolution, and arguably, even before.)

The point is, if you’re a somebody anywhere in the world, and you’re dealing with either Russian mobsters or the Russian “oligarchs”, then directly or indirectly, you’re dealing with the KGB, no two ways about it.

Where Is The Hue and Cry?

Journalists have known or suspected for ages that Trump is in deep with the Russians. It’s been in the papers for years and there is an embarrassment of evidentiary riches out there. Just have a look at “House of Trump, House of Putin” by Craig Unger.  Unger himself seems to be in an ongoing state of amazement about how much evidence is just sitting there in public sources and Google. He counts 1300 money laundering transactions with known Russian mobsters, but it is by no means a definitive total; he’s just a guy poking around in what’s accessible to a private citizen

Nobody has proven that Trump works for Putin, but Trump’s actions on Russia’s behalf are simply inexplicable without assuming that he’s beholden to his country’s enemies in some way. Decades of secret involvement with Russians point to a pretty good motive.

The press, members of the House and Senate including Republicans, and national security heavies have all expressed strong suspicion and even outright conviction that the President is working for the Russians.

The President systematically selling out his own country should be the biggest news story since the attack on Pearl Harbor, yet mysteriously, the public discussion of the scandals in the media is overwhelmingly focused on relative trivialities such as campaign finance irregularities, collaborating with Russians to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, obstruction of justice for attempting to conceal these things, etc. All of that is deplorable of course, but hardly on the level of deliberately subverting the North Atlantic alliance or picking a bogus fight with Turkey to drive them into the arms of the Russians.  Given the gravity of the President’s apparent actions and the abundant circumstantial evidence, the quiet is deafening.

It’s an elephant-in-the-room problem.  The crime of a President secretly working for our enemies is so huge that the normal social/political mechanisms of accusation don’t quite apply.  Sexual improprieties, financial crimes, and crimes relating to bare-knuckled campaigning aren’t rare; we know how to deal with that. Coverups and obstruction of justice are an unsurprising consequence of that kind of foolishness, and we’re used to that too. But the legal system has never had to deal with anything remotely like an unhinged President who appears to be engaged in ongoing betrayal of his country.

In consequence, a bass note of something like “Listen, I know this sounds crazy but…” underlies much of the extraordinarily well-researched exposés by Bernstein, Unger, Wolf, and others. These guys are hardened career muckrakers but you can sense them holding back, tempering the urge to come out and say what it all means lest they be taken for conspiracy theorist loonies.  The have to be thinking, at least a little bit, that if it’s that big and that obvious, why isn’t everyone shouting it?

The silence of government insiders is probably motivated differently. The national security people, the FBI, and others probably know much more but don’t want to precipitate a crisis when they’re still only half cocked because they won’t necessarily get a second crack at it.  It’s a bizarre situation. The crime is huge, and every week that passes the consequences snowball further, but it’s above the pay grade of practically every person in government.

Except of course Robert Mueller. It’s not above his pay grade, but he’s not talking until his every duck is in a row.

A Comedy of Errors

Trump’s involvement with the Russian mob/KGB is almost certainly an ongoing fact. Either Trump favors Russian interests because they effectively own Trump Inc. through the paper they hold or the Russians own Trump Inc. and they own Donald Trump personally through knowledge of his criminal activity. The KGB famously makes an art form of blackmail and Trump, with all due respect, was never the brightest bulb on the yolka even back in the 1990’s when it all started.

He wasn’t such a big deal back then–just a hustling NY businessman in financial trouble who’d be open to helping launder some money. Guys like that were something for the KGB mama cat to bat over to the kittens to practice on.

Decades later, through a bizarre series of flukes, the American political system coughed up Trump as a Presidential contender, and with a little help from his Russian friends, he somehow actually got himself elected. It seems unlikely that even the KGB ever believed he’d win. They were just messing with us. Not even Trump thought he’d win, not even on election day. As a plot for a political pot-boiler, it would get you laughed out of your publisher’s office, but it happened.

Never in modern history has a Western power been lead by such a buffoon and certainly not one under the thumb of the KGB. In consequence, nobody, not even the KGB itself, has known quite what to do with it. We’re all in virgin territory.

Trump winning was too far fetched for anyone to bother gaming it out in advance, so there were some comical missteps early on. In one famous example, Trump’s right hand kid, Jared Kushner, actually went on his own to the Russian consulate to try to set up a private communication link with Vladimir Putin so as to circumvent his own government’s intelligence agencies. The Russians, unable to fathom the naivete and stupidity that this implied, were flummoxed and stiffly rejected the overture, apparently miffed that anyone would think them stupid enough to fall for it, even if they couldn’t figure out exactly what “it” was.  You have to sympathize; they were dealing with a level of idiocy that was new to them.

For the Russians, it’s been like the geopolitical equivalent of a three-wishes fable but to their credit, they have stepped up. U.S. alliances around the world are now in tatters. The EU is openly talking about the opportunity they have to fill the vacuum the United States has left, a chance for Europe to have another day in the sun. The Pacific alliances are shaken. We’ve essentially abandoned the Far East and Africa to China, and we’re hacking away at long-standing trade relationships with Mexico and Canada. The Russians even have a shot at an alliance with Turkey. It’s Christmas morning in the Kremlin, but that’s not all. The US President repeatedly abased himself before Putin in front of an international audience. Had he allowed himself to be spanked on that stage it would hardly have been more appalling to the West or more gratifying to the battered Russian national self-image. The whole thing is like a KGB pipe dream.

The United States came out of WWII militarily and economically stronger than any country in the history of the world had ever been. On that foundation, a U.S.-centered world order evolved as the contingent result of decades of diplomacy and trade. Trump’s day will end, and something will be sorted out from the wreckage, but the U.S. was dealt a royal straight flush after WWII; you can’t reshuffle the deck and expect to get a second hand like that.

So What Are We Waiting For?

Democrats and even many Republicans have been mystified and appalled at the Republican leadership’s failure to “put patriotism ahead of party” and go after Trump for more than a year after any reasonable person should have been screaming for an all-hands-on-deck response.

It’s not really so mysterious.

The Republican leadership isn’t stupid; they know a political disaster is coming.  The obvious strategy would be to recognize that it is inevitable and try to get ahead of it, declare that they are shocked to discover what the President has been up to, and outshout the Democrats in calling for Trump’s head on a pike. In fact, the serious Republicans abominate Trump and would love to throw him to the wolves. He was always a loose cannon and an embarrassment, like a drunk at an office party, blurting out loud all the things that are supposed to be quietly understood.

It’s not the fabled base that stops them. The base held them off for a while, but the base’s loyalty to Trump is a house of cards. They are essentially a mob, and a mob is an idiot. A unified leadership could sell ditching Trump to the base with the betrayal card: “The son of a bitch was working for Putin/Hillary/Obama the whole time!  He screwed us, but we have to put that behind us and stay focused or Obama will be back to confiscate your guns.” There is clearly nothing so far-fetched that it can’t be sold to the base if it’s spun right. We’re talking about people who not only bought into Trump in the first place but stuck with him, for God’s sake!

They could do that if it were just a Trump problem but the Russian involvement with right-wing American politics is bigger than the 2016 election.  The NRA turns out to have been surfing on rubles for years and through them, Russian money has supported a host of right-wing politicians and causes. While there isn’t yet much specific evidence linking individual legislators to Russian money, it would be very strange if such evidence doesn’t eventually turn up. Why would anyone devote that level of attention and money to a single organization and then leave it at that? In politics, money is access and the NRA opens a barn-sized door into the right-wing political community. The KGB knows an opportunity when it sees one.

Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda

The Republican desire to crush the Mueller investigation isn’t about saving Trump—the Republicans backed Mueller initially. They’re terrified of him now because the snowballing investigation is uncovering the sorry fact that they’ve been running their own campaigns on Russian money since even they don’t know when. In fairness, a lot of them probably didn’t know it, but when it all hits the fan, the spatter will be wide and messy.

Maybe if they’d faced up to how bad this could get early on, they could have done something, but what can they do now? That’s all water under the bridge now; the leaders have backed him so ferociously for so long that they can’t do an about face without bringing the temple down on their own heads.  Even if they escape being tarred with Russian money, the still knew, or should have known, they were backing a traitor.

For the big boys, it looks like it’s be destroyed now or be destroyed later but if the reckoning can be put off, well, you can’t be deader than dead, and unexpected things happen. As long as you’re still alive, you have a chance.

In that spirit, they have little choice other than to brass it out. If it gets bad enough the little fish might be able to swim through a net woven to catch the big ones.  They can say “Yes, it looks like the Russians attempted to subvert Republican-backed  organizations, but we didn’t know.”  It might actually work out for some of them; the situation is already so far-fetched that it’s almost a believable excuse, and the troubles in the offing for the President are so overwhelming that lesser criminality by legislators may well be overlooked.

The Nuclear Option

Every missile, MIG, and infantry division that the Soviet Union and subsequently, Russia, deployed in decades of attempting to achieve military parity with the West only strengthened NATO’s resolve. The effort to keep up ultimately bankrupted the Soviet Union.

Putin, on the other hand, for negligible money, discredited the government of the United States and arguably American democracy itself, broke the unity of NATO, made the United States secondary to China and a weaker EU on the world stage, and may well see the United States become a minor power, sort of like a giant England.  Even if he accomplishes not one thing more, the name Putin will go down in history with Metternich, Bismark, Cardinal Richelieu, and handful of others who did so much with so little.

But Putin isn’t done yet. The KGB has always been a trans-national long-line trawler with hooks dangling all over the world. Shady deals, criminal acts,  bribes offered or accepted, visits to prostitutes, the thousand things that happen in hotel rooms; they record it all in an endless quest to gain advantage over people who may someday be useful.  Would the people who practically invented political blackmail somehow have forgotten to record every dirty deed Trump or his people were party to?

For sixty years, Russia has been sitting on nuclear weapons that cost an arm and a leg but can’t be used. Now Putin has given his country a bomb they can set off anytime they like.  It’s the very best kind of bomb, because after it goes off, they can say it wasn’t a bomb at all, but a great and selfless gift.

Sometime in the not-to-distant-future, after Mueller’s big round of indictments against the Trump kids, other Trump Inc. insiders, and Roger Stone; after the tidal wave of plea-bargains and allegations against Trump crests; after he goes off half-cocked pardoning left, right, and center; after a real congressional investigation gets underway, Putin will have a window to launch.

The investigation will be public and gruesome, and in the United States’s hour of bitterest self-examination, Putin will offer us the fruits of his own investigations into the activities of the “gangsters and rogue intelligence agents” who seduced Donald Trump, Trump Inc, the NRA, and countless other organizations and political campaigns. It will be the full story of how our President and a huge slice of our democratically elected government sold itself to Eastern European criminals.

It doesn’t have to go down exactly like that. Maybe Putin will choose to get the story out through a contrived Wiki Leaks release of KGB data “stolen” by mysterious hackers, or maybe he’ll use some channel yet undreamed of.

It really doesn’t matter how he drops the information on us. It doesn’t even matter what proportion of the data bomb ultimately turns out to be true. What will matter is the damage it will do to the faith of the United States in it’s own government and to our already increasingly tattered credibility world-wide.

And what will we be in any position to do about it? Declare war on them? Impose more trade sanctions? Hardly. The data won’t implicate the Russian government. The rogue actors will be from other former USSR countries, or Russian criminals who are conveniently now deceased. With our former President an obvious traitor and scores of top elected officials implicated for having received Russian money and assistance, or at least tainted by their spirited two-year defense of Trump in the face of overwhelming evidence, we’ll be in an awkward position for splitting hairs about the Russian evidence.

No, we’re just going to have to suck it up, accept the delivery, smile weakly, and get used to the New World Order.

 

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