Michael Cohen’s testimony dovetailed with the always-more-plausible narrative in which Trump and his circle weren’t collaborators but fools and wannabes, who might have been willing to play games with spies and hackers, but who mostly just bumbled around haplessly on the sidelines.
In the window of calm between Michael Cohen’s testimony and the allegedly almost-at-hand delivery of Robert Mueller’s report, it’s worth returning for a moment to the document that established the darkest interpretation of all the Russian weirdness swirling around President Donald Trump: the intelligence dossier created by Christopher Steele, late of MI6, on behalf of Trump’s political opponents, which brought together the reports and rumors that Steele deemed credible about the then-candidate, now-president’s Russia ties.
The Steele dossier made four big claims — or, since all those claims took the form of rumors and raw intelligence, let’s say that it raised four big possibilities. One of them, soon well corroborated, was that Russian intelligence was behind the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and the release of stolen emails through WikiLeaks.
The next possibility was that a Russian project to cultivate Trump, supported and directed by Vladimir Putin, had been going on for many years, and included both offers of “sweetener real estate business deals” (which Trump supposedly declined) and “a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin” (which he supposedly accepted).
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The third possibility was that this relationship dramatically influenced the 2016 campaign. According to Steele’s sources, there was possibly “a well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” between Trump’s campaign and Russian intelligence, managed by Paul Manafort with Michael Cohen playing go-between in Prague, which encompassed the DNC hacking — a crime carried out “with the full knowledge and support of Trump and senior members of his campaign team.”
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The final possibility, of course, was that Russia had so-called “kompromat” on Trump — above all, the pee tape.
Since its BuzzFeed publication in early 2017, the dossier’s prominence has varied. It’s probably cited more often in the defensive, pro-Trump press, where it’s depicted as discredited gossip that tainted the Russia investigation’s credibility from the start. But Russiagate enthusiasts and would-be honest brokers have also returned to it frequently — and for good reason, since it establishes a bar for Mueller’s investigation that, if cleared, would absolutely deserve to end Trump’s presidency.
If the DNC hack took place with Trump’s cooperation as part of a long-standing exchange of favors, then he would be guiltier than Nixon, having participated in a Watergate with a foreign power as the burglar. If Mueller could prove that something like that happened, impeachment would be inevitable, and resignation or removal reasonably likely.
But will Mueller prove it? While retaining an official agnosticism, my sense after Cohen’s testimony is that the odds are as low as they’ve been since this whole affair started, and the increasing likelihood is that the Steele dossier was, in fact, as Trump’s defenders have long described it — a narrative primarily grounded in Russian disinformation.
That’s because Cohen’s testimony dovetailed with the always-more-plausible narrative in which Trump and his circle weren’t collaborators but fools and wannabes, who might have been willing to play games with spies and hackers, but who mostly just bumbled around haplessly on the sidelines.
This is what you can see happening in the Trump Tower Moscow project, so far as I can tell — instead of Putin offering Trump a sweetheart deal, it seems to have involved his fixers trying to get the Russian government’s attention, to no practical end. And it’s also the sense left by Cohen’s testimony that he witnessed Trump taking a call from Roger Stone in the summer of 2016, in which Stone claimed to have just heard from Julian Assange about “a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”
This happened at a time when WikiLeaks had already been hinting at an email dump, so Stone was not exactly delivering privileged information. Trump, according to Cohen, responded “to the effect of stating ‘wouldn’t that be great.’” This doesn’t seem like how a yearslong collaboration with Russian intelligence would unfold.
Meanwhile on every other Russia-related front, Cohen — with every reason to knife his former boss — offered dossier-discrediting denials. He never went to Prague to meet with Russian intelligence, as the dossier alleged, never heard anything about kompromat, and never had any direct evidence of Trumpian collusion with the Russians.
Is it possible that a real conspiracy was run without the knowledge of the president’s trusted and then-proudly shady fixer? In theory, yes; it could have all happened through figures like Paul Manafort, who we know shared campaign polling data, at least, with a Russian-intelligence-linked figure. But if the dossier’s claim of a years-long Trump-Kremlin entanglement and its claim of Cohen’s direct involvement are both looking implausible or false, then its claims about a sustained Manafort-managed collaboration should be treated extremely skeptically as well.
In which case the most likely l’affaire Russe endgame may be a special prosecutor’s report that doesn’t make Trump look good or decent or moral, but which implicitly exonerates him of conspiring with the Russians, and makes a lot of Mueller watchers extremely unhappy in the process.
On the eve of Muellerdamerung, that’s what this agnostic very cautiously expects.