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Trump's Tangled Web

Here is a brief sample of Trump tweets from recent days (feel free to just skim or scroll past):

Nov. 22 - “It wasn’t the White House, it wasn’t the State Department, it wasn’t father LaVar’s so-called people on the ground in China that got his son out of a long term prison sentence - IT WAS ME. Too bad! LaVar is just a poor man’s version of Don King, but without the hair. Just think..”

Nov. 22 - “...LaVar, you could have spent the next 5 to 10 years during Thanksgiving with your son in China, but no NBA contract to support you. But remember LaVar, shoplifting is NOT a little thing. It’s a really big deal, especially in China. Ungrateful fool!”

Nov. 24 - “Will be calling the President of Egypt in a short while to discuss the tragic terrorist attack, with so much loss of life. We have to get TOUGHER AND SMARTER than ever before, and we will. Need the WALL, need the BAN! God bless the people of Egypt.”

Nov. 24 – “Time Magazine called to say that I was PROBABLY going to be named “Man (Person) of the Year,” like last year, but I would have to agree to an interview and a major photo shoot. I said probably is no good and took a pass. Thanks anyway!”

Please don’t spend too much time and mental energy parsing these quotes. I made myself a promise not to give his tweets too much attention, and I even wonder why so many news sources continue to report these in real time. Collecting them, as CNN does here is one thing. Reporting the tweets as if they are news, when there is no opportunity for reporters to question the president on them, constitutes a real journalistic problem in my mind.

During the past three days (November 22-24), Trump has sent out 20 tweets. In contrast, during the four days prior (November 18-21), he tweeted only eight times. I won’t pretend that this is a scientific sample, but I wonder if there is a reason for the spurt in activity. Is he bored at Mara Lago? Not enough golf time? It hasn’t rained at all over the last few days, so that probably isn’t the explanation.

My working theory is that Trump’s tweets are only partly the pastime of someone with a brief attention span and limited impulse control. More than this, the tweets are designed to distract our focus away from something else. What could this be? What topic do he and his team want us to avoid? It could be many things, but I propose it is the Mueller investigation and the web of Russia connections.

I am intrigued by two recent interviews I heard with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air”. On November 20, Reporter Jake Bernstein discussed the story of the Panama Papers, the leaked documents that detail the offshore tax havens of the super-rich, detailed in his new book Secrecy World. The next day, Guardian reporter Luke Harding (author of the new book, Collusion) outlined the “constellation of Russian connections circling around Planet Trump.”

There is so much detail to unravel that it is impossible to get a full handle on it all. However, listening to these two journalists speak, within the context of what has been reported to date, I conclude that all of this appears evident--

  • Russian leadership and oligarchs have been interested in and cultivating Trump, family, and associates for a long time. As Harding explains, they found Trump useful because he was self-interested, motivated by money, involved in multiple relationships, and not particularly loyal to country.

  • These Russians, along with Trump (and many other super-rich oligarchs, corporate titans, hedge fund managers, etc.) use the secret banking system to avoid paying taxes and perhaps launder money. The tax avoidance strategies may not be illegal, but these options are certainly not available to us who do not have mega-wealth.

  • Trump participated in business ventures with Russian oligarchs. These undertakings were probably legal, but many of these Russian associates had previously gained their money illicitly.

  • Many key Trump associates and campaign officials were strongly connected to influential Russians. Any influential Russian is connected to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

  • Putin had an interest in changing American policy, particularly by removing the sanctions that were implemented after its takeover of Crimea.

  • As we know from multiple news stories over the past year, Russians hacked files during the 2016 campaign and used social media to try and influence the election. It had an interest in Trump winning, for many of the reasons stated above.

  • This influence may have been the last push to help Trump win the Electoral College. Hillary Clinton was strongly damaged by some of the revelations, and the social media campaigns may have influenced voters.

  • Trump's web of Russia connections continues to grow, with additional individuals he named to join his administration. A partial list of these compromised individuals, currently or previously involved with Trump, includes Wilbur Ross, Rex Tillerson, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, George Papadopolous, and Felix Sater. We also know that Donald Trump, Jr. and Jared Kushner participated in meetings with Russian officials.

  • Manafort earned $75 million for running the campaign of Victor Yanukovych to be Ukrainian president. Yanukovych is connected to Russia and was expected to pursue Russia-centric, anti-US/western/NATO policies. One of his first acts was to jail his opponent, Yulia Timoshenko (there is no record on whether he stated, “Lock her up!”). He was later pushed out of power in the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014. After advising Yanukovych, Manafort turned up to run Trump's campaign, for free.

  • Putin played the tactical game and gained an unexpected victory through Trump. But his larger strategic goal is unfulfilled. Because so many questions about Trump's connections remain unanswered, it is politically difficult to get the sanctions removed in Congress, and thus they remain in place.

At the very least, all of this shows that Trump has been seen as useful to Russia. We don't have full evidence as to how useful he has been, and how willing he has been to serve Russian interests. Right now, I see no evidence of any explicit quid pro quo, so I cannot conclude that Trump has been anything more than an unwitting object of Russian attention.

But here’s the thing: If a president learns that a foreign, potentially hostile, power has a tangled web of influence in our country and our elections, shouldn’t this at the very least warrant his attention? Under normal circumstances, the conservative response to the above set of facts would be to call for a serious investigation, and I believe that the three previous Republican presidents (Reagan and the two Bushes) would not have let this matter rest without some internal inquiry. But so far, Trump has shown little interest in addressing the concerns regarding his associates' Russian connections. I also suspect that if similar evidence emerged under Barack Obama, congressional representatives and conservative citizens would be emphatically calling for impeachment.

So what gives? Does loyalty to team (my party) trump loyalty to country? Is it all perceived as fake news? Or is the distraction factor working?

I will say this, however—It is not clear that Robert Mueller will be so easily distracted.

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