It is tempting to examine the crises President Donald Trump creates for himself as they come, and thus lose sight of the fact that his entire presidency appears to be irredeemably tainted.
His multipronged defense of white supremacists this month raised thorny moral and political questions, but they were the kinds of questions that treated Trump’s racism in isolation, and presupposed his presidency might be salvageable. Would and should his advisers resign? Could they force Trump to apologize? Discussing the issue in those terms made it difficult to remember that even if Trump manages to put the events of August behind him, he will not be starting from square one. Instead, he will return to a pre-August baseline of suspicion that his campaign conspired with Russian government agents to help him win last year’s election.
Reports published over the weekend and on Monday, in the Washington Post and the New York Times, have fleshed out a subplot in the Russia-Trump story, wherein the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign essentially operated as a single unit until the eve of the first primaries last year, hoping to use the campaign as a springboard for securing approval for licensing a Trump Tower in Moscow and then to somehow turn that deal into a fulcrum for helping Trump win the presidency.
In this telling—a telling that seems very clearly sourced to the Trump diaspora—the central transgression is the intermingling of Trump’s business interests and his campaign, which would indeed amount to a major corruption scandal in its own right, and would give the lie to Trump’s routine denials about his Russia ties. But if you squint at the particulars of the stories, Trump’s private financial interest starts to look like a sideshow that is being shoved into the center of the drama to distract us from the grander political scheming of two figures who have been friends from childhood, and in bed with Trump for years: Michael Cohen, his personal lawyer and surrogate, and Felix Sater, a mob-connected Russian émigré who has helped finance Trump real estate deals.
Supposedly, the men’s primary motive was financial—securing a huge new Trump Tower in the heart of Moscow—and the political considerations were ancillary. But a different reading of the evidence suggests it was the other way around. That the deal was conceived and proffered not on the merits, but as a way for Russia to help Trump land a perverse public relations coup ahead of the election. That they saw it as simply one of many potential avenues for collusion.
In a story headlined “Trump Associate Boasted That Moscow Business Deal ‘Will Get Donald Elected,’” the Times published excerpts of an email Sater sent to Cohen in November 2015 with the subject-line “Re: Putin/Trump.” The excerpts themselves make no specific mention of a real-estate transaction. Instead, they confuse—and ultimately conflate—business and politics:
“Michael we can own this story. Donald doesn’t stare down, he negotiates and understands the economic issues and Putin only want to deal with a pragmatic leader, and a successful business man is a good candidate for someone who knows how to negotiate. ‘Business, politics, whatever it all is the same for someone who knows how to deal’ …
“Michael I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin. I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. We both know no one else knows how to pull this off without stupidity or greed getting in the way. I know how to play it and we will get this done. Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this. I will …”
Sater was obviously salivating over getting Putin’s “buy in” for something. It’s just not clear what.
Shortly after the Times dropped its story, the Post reported that by January 2016, with primary voting about to begin, Cohen had made at least one entreaty to Vladimir Putin’s press secretary and political lackey Dmitry Peskov—who is suspected of playing a significant role in the Russian subversion effort—to complain that the Trump Tower deal had “stalled.”
Here again, the story makes more sense if you bracket the Trump organization’s interest in striking a big real estate deal per se, or assume the interest in the deal was part and parcel of a grander election-related collaboration.
These are, to be clear, only my inferences. But they fit the facts better than a credulous reading in which Cohen and Sater explored a real estate deal that went nowhere and then everything else happened by coincidence.
Recall that in June of last year, just six months after all of Cohen and Sater’s conniving, Donald Trump Jr. received an email describing “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” and he responded as if the information was second nature to him. House GOP leaders were able to intuit in real time that the Russian government was helping Trump; it beggars belief that by then Trump and his advisers didn’t know the full story, and it’s more than plausible that they were directly implicated in it.
Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Cohen and Sater teamed up again, this time to transmit a dossier detailing a Russia-Ukraine “peace plan” from a pro-Russian Ukrainian MP to Trump.
Maybe Trump Tower Moscow is a red herring of a sort, or maybe it’s not. Either way, multiple lines of reporting have now found that people throughout the Trump Organization and campaign were eager to work with the Russian government on many fronts to help elect Trump, do favors for Russia in return, and then deny it all afterward.
This is what awaits Trump on the flip side of his terrible August. It’s why anyone holding out for the possibility that Trump’s presidency might somehow become more ordinary over time is making a category error. It can’t become more ordinary, because it came into existence under unacceptable circumstances. Lawyers describe the knowledge gained from ill-gotten evidence as the fruit of the poisonous tree, because the information, no matter how compelling, can’t escape the taint of its forbidden provenance, and must be tossed out. With each passing day, the Trump presidency looks more and more like a political manifestation of the same metaphor.