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The Whole Russia Thing

If you’re trying to cover something up, the general idea is to make suspicious events seem benign, not the other way around

I know what the title says, but I'm not going to float theories about "the whole Russia thing." Let me explain why by way of an example.

Last week, USA Today reported that former Trump campaign official Carter Page spoke with Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Not only did this revelation seem to fly in the face of the Trump administration's repeated claims to have had no contact with Russian officials during the campaign, it also contradicted Page's claim that he personally hadn't spoken with Russian officials during the campaign, either.

When asked by MSNBC's Chris Hayes whether the reports were true, Page said first that he couldn't say whether he'd met Kislyak due to "confidentiality rules" that he'd learned about while in the U.S. Navy, then said, "I may have met him — possibly. It might have been in Cleveland," and finally, "I'm not going to deny that I talked to him. Although I will say that I never met him anywhere outside of Cleveland."

When Hayes asked Page what exactly his role had been with the campaign, Page answered "You know, similarly, I don't like talking about internal discussions. It's the old first rule of Fight Club, don't talk about Fight Club."

Yes, he really did invoke the slogan of a fictional underground fascist group to explain why he couldn't say what he did in the Trump campaign.

The next day, Page went on CNN, where Anderson Cooper also asked him about the alleged meeting, which happened in Cleveland if it happened at all — who can say whether a thing can be said to have "happened" in such crudely concrete terms? After a lot of prodding from Cooper, Page said that he had attended a meeting that Kislyak had also attended, but that their interaction had only been in passing and lasted about 10 seconds.

When the conversation turned to what exactly Page's role had been with the campaign (Trump had named Page part of the campaign's six-man foreign-policy advisory team), Page said that he was a low-level staffer who had never met or briefed the president, and that his role had been an "informal and unpaid" one.

OK. So all of that raises some obvious questions.

If Page had been in meetings with Kislyak, why did he originally deny that he had? If the interaction had been a trivial one, why didn't he just say so in the first place? If Page's work for the Trump campaign was so minor, then why doesn't he want to say what exactly that work was? If Page was an informal and unpaid staffer, what was he doing in meetings that are that so confidential that he's reluctant to admit they happened in the first place? What is the Russian ambassador doing in meetings like that? And if Page didn't want to answer questions about the meeting or the nature of his work for the Trump campaign, why did he volunteer to be interviewed about it on television?

The problem for someone attempting to make sense of these events is that any explanation that could possibly unify all of these facts requires an enormous amount of incompetence on the part of the Trump administration — so much incompetence, in fact, that any underlying motive, whatever it might have been, is totally obscured. For instance, let's take Page at his word — he shook the Russian ambassador's hand briefly at a meeting that a bunch of other people attended. Page is a businessman who has had dealings in Russia; it's entirely possible for them to have had a completely aboveboard, innocuous meeting. The level of sloppiness that it takes to accidentally make a benign event like this seem shady and conspiratorial is nigh unbelievable.

On the other hand, it seems equally impossible that people who are this bad at appearing unsuspicious are actually pulling off a vast global conspiracy. There's no way to hypothesize an explanation about "what's really going on" — where "what's really going on" could run the whole gradient from "this Russia stuff is xenophobic innuendo" to "Trump is a Russian-intelligence asset" — that doesn't sound either thickheaded and incurious or wild-eyed and paranoid.

And the Page affair mirrors what happened with former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, both of whom botched perfectly manageable situations by getting caught either lying or stretching the truth about interactions with Russian officials for which they could have had reasonable explanations.

During Sessions's confirmation hearing, Senator Al Franken asked Sessions what he would do if there were evidence that "anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign," presumably in order to establish whether Sessions would investigate such claims if confirmed as attorney general. Given the context — the atmosphere of suspicion about Trump's connections to the Russian government, the emerging consensus both inside and outside the intelligence community that Russia was responsible for the DNC and Podesta leaks, and the (subsequently revealed) fact that Sessions himself had spoken to the Russian ambassador during the campaign — there are a number of reasonable ways to answer the question.

Sessions could have simply said he'd investigate the claims. He could have pointed out that there are innocuous reasons — a congressperson might be in a state that does lots of business with Russia, or a businessperson may have dealings in Russia — for a Trump surrogate to communicate with the Russian government, so it would depend on the context. He could have even volunteered that he himself had met with the Russian ambassador in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee as an example of a non-nefarious reason to meet with "the Russians."

Instead, he chose to say: "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn't have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it." Franken did not ask whether Sessions himself had communications with the Russians in the first place, and even if he had, Sessions had an obvious and reasonable response to the question available. It's of course possible that Sessions didn't remember that he had met with Russian officials, in which case, why voluntarily hazard a guess in answer to an unasked question, under oath? The wild part of this is that whether or not Sessions was involved in nefarious dealings with Russian agents, his actions make no sense. If you're trying to cover something up, the general idea is to make suspicious events seem benign, not the other way around.

The Flynn case, too, contains a series of strange unforced errors, as Jaime Fuller and I wrote about a month ago. It's honestly baffling, even without the rest of the odd history of connections between Trump and Russia. (The most recent of these is that Trump associate Roger Stone, who seemed to know the Podesta emails would leak in advance and who admitted to having back-channel communications with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, contacted the group who is believed to have hacked the DNC.)

It's also certainly the case that many of these contradictions could have skated by unnoticed if someone hadn't leaked them to the press — and in that way, it's perfectly appropriate that "the whole Russia thing" is the scandal that has clung to Trump's presidency in a similar fashion as E-MAILS attached itself to the Clinton campaign, whether it's a "real" scandal or not.

Trump's codependent relationship with the media means that the best way for his own campaign staff to influence him is to manipulate the media he consumes. If you're Trump's advisor Steve Bannon, you can do this by placing stories in Breitbart for Trump to find. If you're part of his communications staff, you can do this by carefully choosing what media he reads. If you don't have the ability to do either of these things, then the best way to influence Trump is by leaking stuff to the media.

Trump is responsible for fostering an environment in which leaking things is routine. His campaign was a sieve — the man couldn't sneeze without it appearing in the New York Times. That's why it's so unconvincing to blame the constant drip of leaks on the diabolical subversions of the "deep state" — unless, I guess, you believe that Obama operatives were also embedded within the Trump campaign. Certainly, it seems that there are elements within the intelligence community that are trying to damage Trump's presidency, but they wouldn't be able to succeed without Trump's complicity.

In fact, the simplest and most convincing argument for those who believe there is nothing nefarious underlying "the whole Russia thing" is that if there were some kind of vast conspiracy, we would know by now because someone would have leaked the details already. There is no such thing as a secret in Trumpworld. It's a minor miracle that Trump's tax returns haven't leaked somehow. (If deep-state operatives are reading this, easeplay eaklay ethay axtay eturnsray, thank you.)

The only thing that seems perfectly clear is that "the whole Russia thing" isn't going to go away, whether there's a dark conspiracy lying underneath it all or not. For the man who entered the political arena on a baseless and racist conspiracy theory and was aided to the presidency by a meme that relied on innuendo, it's a fitting fate.