Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Play's the Thing

Steve turns to Shakespeare for clues as to “what the President knew, and when he knew it.”

Perhaps now we can focus on how to “repeal and replace” the real problem.

The epic crash you heard on Friday afternoon was the sound of Donald Trump’s two year binge of lying and ignorance about Obamacare suddenly colliding with truth about 21 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. When all was said and done, the only two things that Donald Trump has ever known about the complex world of healthcare was his infantile mantra that “Obamacare is a disaster,” and now, that this assessment was wrong.

But as humiliating as this Republican internecine head-on collision proved to be, it was actually not the worst thing that happened to Donald Trump this week.  Last time I looked, woeful ignorance, boundless arrogance, and colossal mismanagement are not among the items listed in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution as legitimate grounds for impeachment of the President.

And perhaps the silver lining for Donald Trump in bungling one of his most central campaign promises is that it certainly diverted attention from the arguably more devastating news that was delivered earlier in the week. In fact, by Tuesday, a number of pundits had already concluded that this was the worst week of his Presidency, and the healthcare debacle hadn’t really begun yet.

No, what happened on Monday afternoon in the House Intelligence committee may prove to have far more grave implications for Donald Trump than punting on healthcare.

Long ago and in a galaxy far, far away, a Senator from Tennessee name Howard Baker  earned immortality in the “quotable quotes” hall of fame by framing a two-part question: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” Watergate geeks have always understood that the latter question was the more profound. It was chronology that cemented the existence of a cover-up, and it was the cover-up – not the crime – that brought Richard Nixon down.

Monday’s testimony by FBI Director Comey was eye-opening for many reasons, but the most basic shocker was his simple acknowledgement that the FBI was conducting an ongoing investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to influence the outcome of the U.S. Presidential election.

The implications of this investigation are nothing short of existential for the Trump White House. Many people believe that the only constitutional definition of grounds for impeachment is the vague language about “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but the actual language in the United States Constitution also includes the words “treason” and “bribery.” Collusion with a foreign government to undermine the free and fair election process is not some hard-to-define “high crime or misdemeanor.” It is treason.

And if the President is aware that any such collusion took place, then he is currently actively engaged in a cover-up. What did the President know, and when did he know it? If the answer is that it already happened and he knew about it, Donald Trump’s presidency may have already hit the iceberg.

As we unpack what unfolded in the hearing and in the days that followed, there were any number of tantalizing components that suggest the possibility of a gash below the waterline.

But of all the unanswered questions posed, the one that is most intriguing is this: Why did Comey decide to announce the existence of an investigation, and why now?

Let’s begin with reading of the hypothetical charges. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, used a portion of his time to proffer a specific hypothesis into the public record that would constitute collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. It was a simple quid pro quo: the Russians would disclose damaging information they had collected about Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and, in return, the Trump campaign would soften Republican positions to be more beneficial to Russia.

Independently, all three of the facts upon which Schiff’s hypothesis rests are now broadly held to be factual: (1) while the Russians hacked both campaigns, they only released damaging information about Hillary Clinton’s, (2) it has been widely established that Trump campaign officials met with representatives of the Russian government in and around the timeframe of the Republican Convention, and (3), a crucial change was made to the Republican platform regarding policy toward Ukraine, in which language advocating that the United States would provide the Ukraine with "lethal defensive weapons" was changed to the far softer stance of offering "appropriate assistance."

All the dots exist; the issue now is for the FBI to establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that a deal was struck; that the action taken by the Russians was the quid pro quo for the change in the platform language.

Later in the week, Schiff would make a far more remarkable (yet oddly less publicized) assertion about the committee’s investigation. He stated that the committee is already in possession of evidence that is “more than circumstantial,” which is hard to interpret as anything other than hard, direct evidence. Is it an exchange of email? An audio tape of a conversation? A trail of money? Testimony from a known Russian agent?

It is difficult to read what Representative Schiff is saying without concluding that the investigating agencies already have a workable case against some officials in the Trump campaign. And that is what makes a second issue so interesting…

The second reason to believe that the Trump presidency has a huge gash below the waterline is the simple duration of this investigation.  The existence of an FBI investigation surprised no one. The fact that Comey acknowledged it publicly was startling, but the fact that it has been going on since July, 2016 blew minds all over Washington. This meant that there was already enough troubling information as of last July to warrant an investigation, and it has been an ongoing investigation for nine months.

In short, if the Trump campaign hit Schiff’s iceberg, it happened in July. That's when the Republican convention was held in Cleveland. It is when the language changed in the platform, and it is when a variety of Trump campaign officials met with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador. If there was a deal, it was struck in Cleveland.

We also know that the FBI has been diligently checking out the reliability of the information collected by British Agent Christopher Steele, the author of the famous “dossier” that was commissioned for political purpose by Trump’s campaign rivals to investigate Trump’s business dealings with Russia. That famous dossier included allegations that the candidate himself was aware of the contacts and the nature of the discussions between his campaign staff and the Russians. And reports are that so far, Steele’s info has been checking out as reliable.

What really happened? What did Trump know? And when did he know it? It’s easy to speculate that Comey has been spending the last nine months trying to definitively establish – without a shadow of doubt – whether Trump was aware or not aware. Comey could not care less whether some low level functionary on Trump’s campaign staff chatted it up with the Russian ambassador in Cleveland last July. All he cares about is whether Trump knew, when he knew, and that his information is 100% accurate.  James Comey has had an uneven run as head of the FBI, and he has already been irretrievable scorched by speaking without full benefit of fact once before. This time, with these stakes, he is not going to say a thing until he is certain. And that will take time.

But the most blatant clue about the nature, actors, and structure of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is being played out in plain sight, never more obviously than in Monday’s press briefing by the long suffering White House spokesperson Sean Spicer.

Sean Spicer is increasingly resembling a dummy under the uneven command of an amateur ventriloquist, and his comportment before the White House press corps is, in a very real sense, theatre. Spicer is marched out by the Trump administration to perform a mixture of badly written fiction and poorly executed improv. He is the thespian tasked with acting out the fantasies and untruths of the Trump administration before a live theatre audience.  

Sean Spicer is a one-act play, and the play’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the king.

It is plain as day from what Sean Spicer parrots from Donald Trump that Donald Trump has an exceedingly guilty conscience.

If Donald Trump believed in his heart and soul that Paul Manafort had never made any deals with the Russians, he would have send Sean Spicer to the podium with this line: “Paul Manafort is a gentleman of the highest integrity and patriotism, a man who would rather die than commit any act that might bring dishonor to his country, and President Trump challenges Director Comey to find the tiniest sliver of impropriety on the part of this great American.” That’s what you say when you deeply believe that your guy is not guilty.

But instead, Trump sent his thespian on stage to read a very different script, one that clearly attempted to distance Trump from Manafort, who was Trump Campaign Chairman from March to July, including the timeframe of the Republican convention under question.  Implausibly, Spicer attempted to create a smoke screen to conceal the very direct and daily connections between Manafort and Trump, by characterizing Manafort as having a small role of short duration.

Saying Paul Manafort had a “small role in the campaign” is like saying that the white whale had a “small role” in Moby Dick.

Or consider Spicer’s take on dismissed National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who served as the campaign’s key advisor on national defense. The Oscar for Best Supporting Actor definitely does not go to Sean Spicer, who attempted to minimize Flynn’s role by characterizing him as a “volunteer,” somehow hoping that we would infer that his campaign role was as marginal as an earnest sophomore from Iowa State who was stuffing envelopes for the primary.

Ah, the play. The play’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the king. But it could be that Spicer’s one act play is actually just the first act in a bigger piece of theatre.

Consider for a moment that if Donald Trump were really all that smart, he’d know just how exceedingly dangerous Spicer’s treatment of Manafort and Flynn really is. Both men can reasonably conclude that they are being hurled under the bus.  Both also know that Trump is aware that they communicated with the Russians, and both suspect that Comey can prove it. But they also know that the only thing that Comey cannot prove at this point (or he already would have!) is that Manafort and/or Flynn were acting under Trump’s direct knowledge and authority.

It’s a funny thing about throwing people under the bus. People with huge tire tread marks over their torso tend to feel abandoned, wronged, and mighty pissed off. So when Comey comes knocking on Manafort’s door with a series of lesser charges, Manafort’s destiny may well be to cop a plea in exchange for fingering the boss.

Which leads to an intriguing theory about why Comey went public with the investigation. He wanted Trump to publicly react to the news that Manafort and Flynn were under the microscope. He wanted to find out whether Trump would defend them, dump them, or just hide. He got his answer in less than an hour.

In other words, Comey was theatre, too. Comey is Act Two.

Comey’s entire performance was orchestrated so that Manafort would come to understand whether the White House would protect him or dump him. Now Comey can go to Manafort and turn over all of his aces. He can suggest that Manafort take a risk on a charge of treason, or he can propose that Manafort tell the FBI what he knows about Trump.

Is there an Act Three?

It just happens that there is a new play on Broadway called “The Present.” It is based on an unpublished script by Russian (of course!) playwright Anton Chekhov. Chekhov, of course, is famous for his theory of the need for concision in writing, summed up succinctly in the phrase, “If there is a gun on the wall in the first act, it better go off in the third act.”

What gun will go off in this Act Three?

The gun on the wall in Act One is a smoking gun. Somewhere in Cleveland, somebody got taped talking to somebody.

The problem is that those tapes are held by Vladimir Putin. Perhaps the most fascinating dimension of this story is the extreme likelihood that every question that the FBI wants answered is already neatly filed and cross-tabbed somewhere in the bowels of the Kremlin. The Russians may have been vaguely interested in changing the language in the platform document of a party that was then on a fast track to an epic electoral defeat, but I doubt it. The suspicion has to be that the deal struck in Cleveland was simply finding out just how willing Trump’s team was to cooperate on rigging schemes. Because the Russians knew that if they had proof of such activity, then they would hold the Republicans where it hurts. Proof in the form of audio and videotape of the quid pro quo in progress. So Comey is working around the clock to understand the scope and content of conversations that exist in full in Russian vaults.

The smoking gun in Act One going to go off in Act Three is when Vladimir Putin decides that having Donald Trump as President as the United States is not as much fun as he thought it would be.

Vladimir giveth, and Vladimir can taketh away.

All in all, a bad week for Donald Trump.

Funny how that seems to equate to a good week for America.

Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds
More relative than this. The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

William Shakespeare
Act 2, Scene 2

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