By Tim Weiner
Admit nothing. “You’re the puppet!” Deny everything. “Trump Russia story is a hoax!” Make counter accusations. “How low has President Obama gone to tap my phones during the very sacred election process.” That’s Donald Trump reacting to the Kremlin’s malevolent meddling in the 2016 election.
The net effect of these comments can be summarized by one word: stonewalling, the tactic of the Confederate Civil War General Stonewall Jackson, whose motto was “mystify, mislead, and surprise.” Jackson died after he was shot accidentally by his own troops – and Trump needs to watch his right flank in days to come.
His allies in Congress have tried to defuse the explosive Russia affair, and to confuse the citizenry with wild charges. That tactic isn’t working. Some Republicans now want a hearing in the Senate. The congressional intelligence committees cannot stay silent. The Federal Bureau of Investigation will not retreat. The stone wall surrounding the White House may not stand.
Whether Americans conspired with Russian spies to disrupt democracy is one of the thorniest questions the FBI ever has confronted. Its investigation will hover over the White House for many months.
Two weeks before Trump was inaugurated, the leaders of every major U.S. intelligence service told him they had concluded that his election had been supported by the Kremlin. Russia worked to damage Hillary Clinton and help Trump – in part by purloining Democratic party emails and weaponizing them through WikiLeaks, a publisher of stolen secrets.
“I love WikiLeaks!” candidate Trump had proclaimed when his opponent was wounded. But WikiLeaks was a “hostile intelligence service” abetted by Russian spies, who used it “to release data of U.S. victims…obtained through cyber operations against the Democratic National Committee,” Trump’s CIA director, Mike Pompeo, said on April 13.
He added: “Russia’s primary propaganda outlet, RT, has actively collaborated with WikiLeaks.” Love WikiLeaks or hate it, Russia used it to great effect, injecting poison pills into the American mainstream.
Was Trump’s campaign allied in any way with this warfare? Trump himself egged on Russia’s hacking. He praised President Vladimir Putin while Putin was making war on the American political system.
His first campaign manager, Paul Manafort, lost his job for longstanding ties to Russian-aligned oligarchs; these included a political consultancy intended to "greatly benefit the Putin Government." His first national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, served as a paid mouthpiece for RT, then was fired for lying to his superiors about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
The FBI is following a trail in cyberspace. It will seek evidence of ties – personal, political, financial – between members of Team Putin and Team Trump. Farther down that path, the FBI may reach a crossroads.
Will its counterintelligence case, the pursuit of spies, evolve into a criminal case, with charges presented for prosecution? Will Trump himself become a subject of the investigation? A sitting president cannot be indicted, but he can, as Richard M. Nixon was, be named as an unindicted co-conspirator by a federal grand jury.
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