My Favorite Footnote of 2018

To keep up on our daily news we have to keep track of more Russian names than one of the big Dostoevsky novels. And those Russians are far less subtle and, dare I say it, civilized, than those who inhabit Le Carré stories. Deripaska, for instance, is far more sinister than Karla and the Russians’ mastery of trolling, hacking, infiltrating social media and making patsies of the right wing of this country is far more clever than anything in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Perhaps not more clever. After all, in Le Carré’s book, the Russians are dealing with sophisticated British intelligence agents. In our story they are only dealing with Trump and his hangers-on and Republican operatives generally. Yes, British intelligence has a history of being riddled with moles; but the Trump acolytes are afflicted with dumb. And dumb is no match for intelligence. By definition.

The Russians didn’t even have to use basic spy techniques to recruit Trumpsters. They were throwing themselves at the feet of anyone who claimed to have the ear of Vladimir Putin. All of them. Their unabashed enthusiasm almost makes the story look like a farce. But the story has unfolded more literary than spy-novel or spy-novel spoof. The underlying theme is how darkness becomes light. Thus, one month into the Administration, Trump held a press conference in which he was asked five times if his campaign had contacts with the Russians. Eventually, he answers, “nobody I know of …” Then over the course of the next 21 months 14 Trump officials are found to have had contacts with Russians: Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump, Jr., Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Felix Sater, George Popadopoulos, Carter Page, J.D. Gordon, Michael Flinn, Michael Cohen, Roger Stone, Michael Caputo and Rick Gates. And let’s not forget those who were in it just for the Tubmans, like Erik Prince, brother to our Education Secretary. And despite the inevitability of the disclosures, many of them, following the lead of their perjurer-in-chief, lied (and coordinated their lies with each other) about their conduct, earning them felonies for their trouble.

But this story is not simply a spy story any more than Crime and Punishment was simply a detective story. Thankfully there is a dose of salaciousness. Maria Butina plays the role that Natasha Fatale played in the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Her US “boyfriend,” however, was no Boris Badenov; in fact, he was dumber than Bullwinkle (and, of course, more malicious). Visiting the Russian agent in prison, the smitten conman (according to those who knew him in South Dakota) GOP worm Paul Erickson showed nothing of his GOP toughness (which goes the back to the time he committed election fraud for Republicans in college in 1980). But that subplot will lead us too far afield.

What is remarkable about these encounters is that when the Russians offered their assistance to the Trump campaign, organization, none of them declined, none of them even acted reluctant. Of course we want it! We are Trumpster! We have no scruples! And if we lose, likely no one will go after us, because we are too insignificant!

All jumped at the opportunity to be at best useful fools for Russian intelligence and at worst Russian assets. All except one. And here is where my favorite footnote comes in. It’s from the Mueller sentencing memo for Michael Cohen. In it the Special counsel avers (and Cohen does not deny) that in November 2015 (before even the Iowa caucus), that “a Russian national who claimed to be a ‘trusted person’ in the Russian Federation who  could offer the [Trump presidential campaign] ‘political synergy’ and ‘synergy on a government level'” wished to set up a meeting between Trump and “the President of Russia.” Unlike all the other patriots who Trump surrounded himself with, Cohen turned down the offer. But here’s the rub. Footnote 3 of the memo explains the reason:

“The defendant [Michael Cohen] explained that he did not pursue the proposed meeting, which did not take place, in part because he was working on the Moscow Project with a different individual who Cohen understood to have his own connection to the Russian government.”

In other words, Cohen was already being served! There were more than enough Russian influence-peddlers to go around at the end of 2015. 2016 would bring more demand as the Trump campaign staffed up.

Still you have to wonder: with so many Russian intelligence operatives looking for Republicans to collude with that they didn’t even know that certain marks were already taken, were they running this operation like a multi-level marketing scheme? (Perhaps that’s more literary irony: the perpetrators of Trump University and other scams meet their Slavic matches.) And how with this much manpower committed to such a simple target as the Trump organization were they able to afford to run operations in Ukraine, France, Eastern Europe, the UK, and other places? Have they learned to monetize foreign government meddling? No wonder Trump is fascinated by the Russians.

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