When last we checked in on Donald Trump’s Russia scandal a couple of weeks ago, it was bubbling away nicely and threatened to come to a boil. It hasn’t yet. Not quite, but we now know enough about the relationship between the president and a smorgasbord of Russian interests to reach certain conclusions. This is because while presidential scandals — be they Watergate, Iran-Contra or the Teapot Dome — follow their own individual arcs, they all have certain things in common, notably that the cover-up can be worse than the crime and that at some point there inevitably is a standoff as the scandal teeters on the cusp between going super nova or becoming a mere historic footnote.

We have now reached the proverbial standoff — specifically between the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has perhaps the best opportunity to get to the truth without a special prosecutor, and a beleaguered White House, whose efforts to cover up the welter of past and present ties between Trump, his surrogates and those Russian interests have failed so completely that the administration has now shifted gears and is engaging in a full-court-press attempt to minimize the damage, or switch the narrative as it is known in the trade.

All of the players know that this is a scandal of great breadth and depth.

This explains Representative Daryl Issa’s extraordinary break with his Republican colleagues on Saturday in calling for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself and an independent special prosecutor be named to dig into Trump’s Russia ties. It also explains White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’s efforts, in violation of White House and FBI policies, to prod the FBI — first through Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and then Director James Comey — into publicly disputing damaging if accurate media reports on those ties. Priebus’s ham-handed efforts have had unintended and damaging consequences for Trump.

The scandal also happens to be fermenting a mere month into the tenure of a mentally unbalanced president that the Republican Congress needs to sign its agenda into law before it considers whether to discard him because it faces the prospect of itself possibly being discarded in the 2018 mid-term elections because of an electorate growing more restive by the week. Besides which, Veep Mike Pence is far preferable to party loyalists. This is something that Issa, who typically is hyper partisan and was unrelenting in his attacks on Barack Obama, may understand.

These circumstances have resulted in the hero of the scandal to date improbably being the CIA.

The intelligence agency, which for decades has been extraordinarily inept (my favorite being it finding out on CNN that the Soviet Union had collapsed and the Berlin Wall was coming down), has been unwilling to abide the collusion between Trump and the most hostile of all hostile foreign powers. Working with a foreign power, let alone an enemy power, to interfere in American democracy also happens to constitute treason, but that’s another matter.

The most important thing for the moment is that the CIA has pretty much kept the scandal alive through leaks, although it was a leak from the FBI that resulted in outting Preibus’s unsuccessful efforts to get it to side with his boss. That failure in turn has prompted the White House to orchestrate a campaign to enlist senior members of the intelligence community and senior Republican lawmakers to try to counter the avalanche of damaging news stories about Trump’s ties to Russia and undercut congressional investigations.

The decision to try to involve senior intelligence officials is yet another effort to compromise the independence of spy agencies that by law must remain insulated from partisan politics. A bit of context is helpful here: Trump has yet to be critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin and encouraged him to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, yet he has repeatedly disparaged those intelligence agencies, and they resent it. Hence the leaks, as well as a now-established pattern: Trump’s attacks on the media invariably follow a new report on the scandal.

All of this brings us to Felix Henry Sater.

There are several key players at the Trumpian end of the scandal, including former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign aides Paul Manafort and Carter Page and Michael Cohen, the president’s personal attorney. But Sater is special because of his extraordinary sleaziness and longtime ties to Trump, including his recent efforts at “diplomacy” on Trump’s behalf to give Russia a fig leaf for its invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea by ginning up a “peace plan” under which the Kremlin would have a 50- to 100-year lease on the Crimea region of the Ukraine.

This is just one of a number of incredibly Gothic aspect of the scandal that should leave any sentient person gasping for air.

Sater is a Russian immigrant with extensive mob ties who did prison time for stabbing a man in the face with the broken stem of a margarita glass, became a federal informant to avoid a 20-year mandatory sentence for a scheme to defraud elderly victims of $40 million, most of them Holocaust survivors, and has had extensive business dealings with the now president of the United States beginning in 2003 that include the Trump SoHo New York hotels and condos.

Wait! There’s more.

Sater has stayed out of prison ostensibly because of what he has done for the U.S. as opposed to against it. This includes ratting out mobsters for the FBI in two big Mafia cases, a failed effort to buy Stinger missiles in Afghanistan on the black market for the CIA, as well as supposedly trying to obtain Osama bin Laden’s cellphone number.

Okay, time for another gasp of air.

Trump, as we now well know, automatically defaults to lying when the truth does not suit his purposes. When confronted with Sater’s rancid past, he said in court papers stemming from a 2013 lawsuit involving the SoHo projects that “If he [Sater] were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn’t know what he looked like.”

Michael Cohen said pretty much the same thing when contacted by The New York Times earlier this month after he was seen having coffee with Sater in a Manhattan hotel as they worked on their Crimea scheme, which The Times revealed included forcing nominally pro-Western Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko from office.

Meanwhile, there was a third person at that sitdown.

He is Andrii Artemenko, a wealthy oligarch and member of the Ukraine Parliament who has claimed to have compelling evidence of Poroshenko’s corruption. Artemenko told Cohen and Sater that he had the approval of Putin’s senior aides in pushing the Crimea “peace plan,” according to The Times, which reported that Cohen delivered the plan to (drum roll, please) none other than then-National Security Adviser Flynn at the White House shortly before Flynn’s unceremonious ouster.

Wait! There’s still more.

Artemenko is not the only Ukrainian parliamentarian tangled up in the scandal.

According to Politico, Serhiy Leshchenko is alleged to have been behind a cyberhack of Paul Manaford in an attempt to blackmail Trump’s then-campaign manager over damaging dirt he had on Trump when Manafort stood accused of accepting millions of dollars in cash for representing Russian interests in Ukraine and the U.S.

The brazenness of Trump and his surrogates simply astounds, witness Cohen’s very public meeting with Sater and Artemenko. The feeling persists and grows that in the world of Trump, there is a belief that you can get away with anything.

The scandal, while very much on that cusp between exploding and fading away, is at the point where the White House has twisted itself into such contortions that the unintended consequences are coming fast and furious. This includes Priebus’s back channel pleas to FBI bigs having had the effect of verifying that there is, in fact, an FBI counter-intelligence investigation involving Trump’s associates, something that had only been reported through anonymous sources.

All of this has the potential to be the greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War, and in retrospect something of its gravity was bound to threaten to implode Trump’s presidency. Watergate pales in comparison, and we can only hope that the Russia scandal will take Trump down.


Shaun Mullen
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