It Is Pretty Clear the Trump Team & Russia ‘Flirted’. But Did They Actually ‘Hook Up’?
During my recent podcast interview with Russian Roulette co-author Michael Isikoff — which President Donald Trump would later manipulate for his own purposes — I suggested an analogy which might explain how to view the relationship between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election. In many ways, this was like a budding romance between two married people, one in which there was a lot of flirting, and some clearly inappropriate contact, but which may not have resulted in an actual “hook up.”
Isikoff seemed to like this comparison, especially since, at least at the time, he was starting to doubt that full-on “collusion” between the two parties will ever be proven. That was before two major stories broke yesterday, but this “affair” metaphor is still very relevant, perhaps now even more so.
Yesterday we learned that the Russian lawyer who offered Donald Trump Jr. dirt on Hillary Clinton at the infamous Trump Tower meeting has been charged by the U.S. government in a case that is not directly related, but still potentially germane. There was also the bizarre filing by the lawyers of Paul Manafort, which included an apparently botched attempt to redact information that, among other things, revealed Robert Mueller has evidence that Trump’s former campaign chairman lied to the special counsel’s office about having given private polling data to people with ties to Russia.
The Manafort story, which is potentially very significant, was the top trending item on Twitter for most of the day. At least one Democratic congressman even declared that the debate over whether there was Trump/Russia collusion is now officially over. However, The New York Times has already been forced to make a major correction with regard to whom the polling data was intended, meaning that yet another Trump/Russia “bombshell” has turned out to something of a dud.
While I agree that the evidence appears to be now overwhelming that the Trump Team and Russia were interested in “hooking up,” and that at different stages seemingly came very close to doing so, I am still unconvinced that there is proof that the deed was actually ever done. Frankly, there is a sound argument to be made that the Russians, while intrigued by a possible romance, and obviously interested in causing Clinton as much trouble as possible, may not have seen Trump as hot enough to ever warrant taking their relationship to the next level.
Seeing the Manafort story within the context of my analogy, this feels like him texting sexy pictures — through an intermediary — to someone with whom he was flirting. Though in this case he apparently didn’t even send his “poll” directly to the object of his desire. While this is surely a sign of interest, and something you would definitely want to hide from your wife (thus a potential motive for lying about it later), it hardly proves an actual affair.
It is possible that Manafort, who had close and apparently corrupt ties to the Russian world, may have just been showing off to people he owed money to so that he could, as his own emails have indicated, leverage his position to help pay off his debts to them. This would obviously be extremely inappropriate activity for the chairman of a presidential campaign (who, it should be noted, was let go after many of these ties became public), but it is not necessarily proof of collusion, nor that Trump himself was involved in it.
There is no doubt that all of this is a giant puzzle that must be seen through a larger prism and not just in isolation. There are certainly many other data points indicating possible collusion, but what is most interesting, and possibly telling, is that almost all of them come from the Trump side of this equation, indicating that they were a lot more attracted to having an affair than the Russians were.
Among other things, it was Trump who desperately and dishonestly pursued a Trump Tower in Moscow, even after securing the GOP nomination, a deal the Russians never seemed all that interested in. It was the Trump Team’s top brass that hosted some fairly low-level Russians in Trump Tower. It was the Trump campaign that discussed setting up a meeting with Trump and Vladimir Putin, which never came to fruition. It was Trump who “joked” on the campaign trail that he wished the Russians would hack into Hillary’s emails.
It cannot be lost in evaluating the evidence in this case that neither the Trump Team nor the Russians had any reason to believe that Trump would win. This meant that his value to the Russians would be very short-lived and rather limited. It also meant that they had to be careful not to be too overt about their support for Trump because the most likely scenario was that Hillary would be president and would then find out about their attempts to defeat her (hell hath no fury like a woman scorned!).
In short, to the Russians, this proposed affair was more dangerous for them than for Trump, who had very little to lose and potentially a new Trump Tower in Moscow to gain. It is quite possible that Russia engaged in the flirtation, realized (after being exposed to morons like Carter Page) that the Trump Team simply didn’t know what they were doing, and decided that a direct “hook up” wouldn’t be worth the risk of picking up an STD.
In theory, this narrative should not remotely absolve Trump. After all, attempted “collusion” with an adversarial foreign government — and then acting as president like you are beholden to them — should be seen as just as horrific as if it had been overtly successful. However, when there is no actual sex—and therefore no blue dress — it becomes far more difficult to conclusively prove what almost happened, especially when the wife (GOP voters) are totally invested in not believing that it did.
John Ziegler is a senior columnist for Mediaite. He hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.