“Perhaps the mystery is a little too plain,” said Dupin.
“Oh, good heavens! Who ever heard of such an idea?”
“A little too self-evident.”
“Ha! ha! ha!—ha! ha! ha!—ho! ho! ho!”
–Edgar Allan Poe, The Purloined Letter
Today the major networks will all air former FBI director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee live, hoping for bombshells about the so-called Kremlingate scandal. Comey has already submitted written testimony accusing President Trump of pressuring him to drop the FBI’s Russia investigation, which could suggest his firing was part of a presidential effort to obstruct justice. But who knows what else Comey will say? Maybe he’ll dish dirt from the FBI investigation, divulging links between the Trump campaign and the Russians. Maybe he’ll reveal evidence of Trump himself encouraging the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s campaign, or even Trump threatening him over his testimony, which could amount to witness intimidation by the most powerful man on earth.
In a normal hearing, those revelations would be eye-popping. In this one, none of them would even be revelations. Trump has already publicly blurted out that he fired Comey over the Russia investigation, in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt. There is voluminous public evidence of his campaign’s contacts with the Russians, and of his top aides covering up those contacts. Trump publicly encouraged the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails at a news conference. And he publicly threatened Comey about his testimony on Twitter.
The Russia scandal, like the purloined letter from Poe’s famous short story, is hidden in plain sight. It has not followed the traditional rhythms of Washington scandals, which usually expand gradually as dots get connected and lowly aides implicate their superiors. The president routinely dismisses it as “fake news,” but its dots are already connected all the way to the highest levels of TrumpWorld. As Poe’s detective Dupin would say, the mystery is a little too plain, a little too self-evident.
There are still plenty of unanswered questions about Russia—including the usual questions about what the president knew and when he knew it—but what’s shocking is how many questions have already been answered. The scandal has already led to the abrupt firing of Trump’s national security adviser. His attorney general and his son-in-law are also under siege for making false statements about their contacts with Russians; his former campaign manager is in legal jeopardy over his own political and financial ties to Russian operatives. And Trump himself keeps saying and tweeting things that would make any defense lawyer cringe, while doing things in his official capacity that make Vladimir Putin smile. It isn’t clear how much, if any, of this behavior has been criminal, but a lot of it is pretty clearly scandalous.
The main unanswered question is whether the Republicans who control Congress will do anything about any of it. So far, their response has mostly amounted to “Ha! ha! ha!”
Just as Poe’s prefect assumed the purloined letter must be concealed in a secret drawer or hollow table leg or some other deviously inaccessible hiding spot—he even removed the suspect’s carpets and examined his floor boards with a microscope—we tend to assume the smoking guns from Washington scandals will emerge from secret tapes or exhaustive investigations. It can be harder to process information when it’s right in front of our noses, like the purloined letter sitting in plain view on the suspect’s mantle. Comey’s written testimony accuses the president of repeatedly demanding his loyalty and repeatedly urging him to back off the Russia investigation, which is a big deal, but after less than five months of the Trump administration, it already feels like a rehash. The mystery, as Poe wrote, is a little too plain.
There is much that remains murky and complex about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. And it’s impossible to know where a wide-ranging investigation into a president and his aides will lead; Watergate turned out to be much bigger than a burglary, and Whitewater didn’t start as a probe of Bill Clinton’s sex life. But you don’t need to be Dupin to see that certain truths about this mess are self-evident.
Trump’s Top Aides Have Been Super-Shady About Russia. If Kremlingate had unfolded like Watergate, the star of the first few months might have been Carter Page, an obscure Trump campaign adviser who is under federal investigation for espionage. It would be news if an aide that Trump had once named on a short list of foreign policy advisers was spying for Russia, although not necessarily stop-the-presses news; Page didn’t seem to have close ties to Trump, just as the Watergate burglars seemed unconnected to Nixon.
But Kremlingate quickly moved way past Carter Page. Its first scalp was retired general Michael Flynn, who was Trump’s top foreign policy aide on the campaign, and then his national security adviser in the White House. Flynn was fired after just 24 days for lying about a chat he had with Russia’s ambassador to the United States; Flynn claimed they hadn’t discussed President Obama’s sanctions against Russia for meddling in the U.S. election, but they had, and Putin was apparently happy enough with the discussion to announce the same day that he wouldn’t retaliate. It has also come out that Flynn failed to report a payment from a Russian propaganda outlet in his security clearance, and that he also neglected to disclose that he had secretly served as a well-paid foreign agent for Turkey while working on Trump’s campaign. This wasn’t some low-level aide with a lobbying gig on the side. This was Trump’s top foreign policy adviser, literally taking money from a Russian source and lobbying for a Russian ally, and somehow forgetting to mention it.
Jeff Sessions, who chaired Trump’s national security advisory committee during the campaign and is now Trump’s attorney general, also got himself in trouble when he testified under oath before the Senate that he didn’t have contact with Russian officials during the campaign. In fact, he had met twice with that same Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak. Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser, Jared Kushner, also neglected to mention a meeting with the apparently easy-to-forget Kislyak and a well-connected Russian banker on his security clearance application; U.S. intelligence officials reportedly overheard him trying to set up a secret back channel to Moscow, which, to put it mildly, would be extremely unusual. The FBI is also investigating the links between Russia and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, a former adviser to Russia-backed political forces in Ukraine, and longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone, a onetime dirty trickster for Nixon who was in contact with Wikileaks, seemed to predict its release of leaked emails, and reportedly urged Trump to fire Comey.
None of this is evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with a foreign power to hack the election, but all of it is weird and sketchy. A president’s national security adviser, closest White House adviser and top law enforcement official don’t normally face FBI investigations in the first year of a presidency. Russian ambassadors don’t normally become the diplomatic equivalent of Mr. Cellophane. Presidential campaign managers don’t normally have to deny having contacts with Russian intelligence officers (as Manafort did) with the remarkable caveat that “it’s not like these people wear badges that say ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’” And Trump’s behavior regarding Russia has also been weird and sketchy.
Trump Has Tried to Meddle With the Russia Investigation. In the written testimony the Senate released yesterday, Comey recounts under oath how Trump badgered him to pledge his loyalty, insisting that “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” He says Trump once cleared the Oval Office to talk to him alone about squelching the Flynn investigation, saying “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” He says Trump called him to complain the Russia investigation was “a cloud” over his presidency, and asked what Comey could do to “lift the cloud.”
It’s damning testimony, and even more damning given that Comey did not drop the investigation, and that Trump subsequently fired him. Initially, the White House claimed Comey was canned because of a memo by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein—whose worst criticism of Comey was that he treated Hillary Clinton too harshly, a rather implausible rationale for Trump to get rid of him—but the president admitted to Holt two days later that he intended to fire Comey no matter what Rosenstein said because of the Russia investigation.
“When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,” Trump said on national television.
That’s a pretty explosive admission, arguably a public confession to obstruction of justice. And at an Oval Office meeting the next day, Trump reportedly assured Russia’s foreign minister and the inevitable Kislyak that he had “faced great pressure” because of the Russia probe, but that the pressure was “taken off” now that Comey was gone. The president later fired off a bizarre tweet that certainly sounded like an attempt to muzzle a potential witness: “James Comey better hope there are no “tapes” of our conversation before he starts leaking to the press!” He tweeted a similar threat before the testimony of former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who had warned the White House that Flynn was lying about his meeting with the Russians, a warning that was ignored until the lies were exposed in The Washington Post: “Ask Sally Yates, under oath, if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to W.H. Counsel!”
Trump has made all kinds of statements about this sensitive legal and foreign policy matter that a normal president simply wouldn’t make. He initially raged that leaks about his Russia problems made him feel like he was living in Nazi Germany. He then claimed the real scandal was President Obama wiretapping his team, a baseless allegation that was debunked by intelligence officials from both parties. He reportedly urged his intelligence officials to back off the Russia investigation as well; yesterday, National Security Agency director Mike Rogers and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats refused to divulge details about their discussions with the president in open session. He apparently raged at Sessions for recusing himself from Russia-related matters, because he wanted a loyalist overseeing the investigations. And Flynn has reportedly told associates that Trump recently sent him a message to “stay strong,” a fishy message to send to an embattled former aide who has requested immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony.
Republicans in Congress will decide whether any of this is impeachable. But plenty of it seems inappropriate. And whether or not there Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia, the election certainly worked out well for Russia.
Trump Has Been Super-Nice to Putin. Trump has hung up on the prime minister of Australia, publicly attacked the chancellor of Germany, and tweeted nasty things about Arnold Schwarzenegger, Meryl Streep, and a previously unknown Indiana union official who questioned his job creation claims. It is odd that he’s never had an unkind word to say about the ruthless dictator of Russia. He actually tweeted that Putin was “very smart” when Russia declined to retaliate against Obama’s sanctions. And when Bill O’Reilly pointed out during an interview that Putin is a killer, Trump replied: “There are lots of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”
There’s no evidence that Trump had any involvement in Russian meddling with the U.S. election, but he continued to deny that the meddling even existed long after the U.S. intelligence community confirmed it. And he did famously urge Russia to hack Clinton’s emails at the last campaign news conference he held last July, the kind of hidden-in-plain-view outrage that probably would have had a more lasting impact if his sentiments been revealed in a private memo or a secret audiotape. Since his election, he has never shown any inclination to punish Russia for interfering in American democracy for his benefit; in fact, when he grudgingly acknowledged that Russia was probably involved in the hacks, he slyly suggested that it all worked out for the best. “Look at the things that were hacked, look at what was learned from that hacking,” he said.
At that jovial Oval Office meeting with the Russians the day after Trump fired Comey, he also blabbed to them about secret intelligence regarding an ISIS threat to bomb airplanes with laptops. His aides denied that he violated any laws against divulging classified information, because the president decides what’s classified, but he may have burned an Israeli source, and U.S. allies have threatened to stop sharing secrets they can’t trust the president to keep. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is reportedly planning to give back two Russian spy compounds that Obama seized as punishment for Moscow’s meddling in the election. And Trump has personally advanced Russia’s goal of sowing discord within NATO, most recently by deleting a firm commitment to defend NATO allies from the text of his speech to NATO.
The president has the power to conduct diplomacy has he sees fit. But if the investigations turn up evidence that Trump or his underlings were aware of Russia’s efforts on their behalf, it won’t be tough to speculate what Russia got in return.
Trump Has Other Stuff to Hide. Trump was the first major-party presidential nominee in decades to refuse to release his tax returns, and nobody knows exactly why. But he was clearly willing to pay a political price to keep them private, and as the Russia investigation veers into financial issues—the Manafort angle apparently involves suspicions of money laundering—Trump must be concerned that investigators will want to see what he’s so eager to hide from the public.
Special prosecutor Robert Mueller has the power to follow the Russia investigation wherever it leads. It’s easy to imagine how it could lead down roads that Trump won’t want it to travel, because many of those roads—just like Trump’s coziness with the foreign adversary that helped his candidacy—are hidden in plain sight as well. For example, Trump has made virtually no effort to avoid conflicts of interest as president. He produces a marketing windfall for his golf clubs just about every weekend; China approved his personal trademarks almost immediately after he agreed to respect its One China policy; the Trump Organization recently told Congress that its earlier promise to donate all of its profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury would be “impractical” to keep. Similarly, the recent revelation that Trump diverted donations to a pediatric cancer hospital into his own companies was just the latest reminder that Trump would not want aggressive investigators poking around his foundation or other forays into the charity world—not to mention the fraud judgments against Trump University, or the various women who have accused him of sexual misconduct.
These kinds of sordid allegations about Trump’s behavior spilled out just about every week during the campaign, but they all seemed to blur together and crowd each other out. They certainly didn’t dissuade his base from voting for him. And the media haven’t really dwelled on them; he produces fresher he-did-what? content every day. In that sense they’re reminiscent of Dupin’s observation about the purloined letter: “To conceal this letter, the Minister had resorted to the comprehensive and sagacious expedient of not attempting to conceal it at all.”
But there’s nothing too sagacious about Trump’s ill-concealed scandals. He just thinks he can muddy the waters by denouncing the coverage as fake news and Democratic conspiracies. That’s worked wonders with his base. It’s worked with partisans in Congress, too. It might not work with a special prosecutor.
Today, though, senators will hear Comey testify under oath about Trump’s efforts to scuttle his investigation. Many Republican partisans will dismiss his testimony as old news, and by now it may be; others will argue it isn’t smoking-gun evidence of presidential collusion with Russia, and they’ll have a point, too. But the country has already seen a larger pile of smoking-gun evidence of egregiously inappropriate behavior that most investigators every lay eyes on. It just feels too self-evident to be real.
“The affair is so simple, and yet baffles us altogether,” Poe’s prefect complains.
“Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which puts you at fault,” the detective replies.