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By Stump Connolly

I’m going to go out on a limb here and surmise that the connection between the Trump campaign and the Russians was Donald Trump himself.

He had the means, the motive and the opportunity to contact the Russians in the last election –– and he’s the only one in the campaign with the chutzpah to do it.

Hollow Denials

I’ve heard his denials. We all have, so many times, in so many ways, the latest CNN poll shows 73 percent of Americans don’t believe anything they hear coming out of the White House. The President has squandered his right to be taken at his word on this subject, so the door is now open for speculation on the various paths collusion between the campaign and Russia might have taken.

Let the House and Senate Intelligence committees flail around in the smoke of odd coincidences looking for fire. What if it’s not all that complicated?

Turn the Questions Around

What if Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor, called Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on the same day President Obama imposed sanctions at the direction of the President-elect?

What if Trump and Aras Agalarov, the Russian oligarch he partnered with to bring the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow, arranged the Trump Tower meeting with his son Donald Jr. to pass along dirt on Hillary Clinton? (And Don Jr. blew the cover by cc-ing Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort.)

What if Trump hired his best friend Roger Stone’s old business partner Paul Manafort as his campaign manager precisely because Manafort gave him a conduit to the Russians with plausible denial?

What if Vladimir Putin wasn’t trying to get to Trump through various intermediaries?

What if Trump was trying to get to Putin to demonstrate his willingness to reset American-Russian relations – if only he could get elected?

Courting Putin

Trump had been courting Putin even before the 2013 pageant opened.

“Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow – if so, will he become my new best friend,” he tweeted when the pageant was announced.

Putin did not attend, but he did send a “beautiful present, with a beautiful note,” Trump told the Conservative Political Action Conference in March 2014. “I spoke to all of his people. And, you know, you look at what he’s doing to President Obama. He’s, like, toying with him.”

That May, Trump again told the National Press Club, “I spoke directly and indirectly with President Putin, who could not have been nicer.” And in November 2015 he re-iterated, “I got to know him very well because we were both on ’60 minutes.” (Not to be contrarian, but Time magazine noted they were interviewed separately in New York and Moscow for the show.)

After gaining the Republican nomination in July 2016, and five days after WikiLeaks released 44,000 emails Russian hackers stole from the Democratic National Committee, he changed his tune.

“I never met Putin. I don’t know who Putin is, ” he told a press conference. But he couldn’t help but add, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

Multi-tasking

It boggles the mind to think that Trump could go sixteen months on a presidential campaign without talking to his Russian friends about business. During the campaign, he had Trump International Hotel deals brewing in Moscow, Istanbul, Manila, and Baku (Azerbaijan), all of which involved foreign investors. (Who they are will be for Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller to discover.)

After the election, he boasted that he could run both the country and the Trump Organization without any problems, and insiders at the White House report he still spends many a night watching TV and calling his old business associates.

Talking Points Memo recently interviewed Felix Sater, Trump’s business partner in the Trump Soho complex who once had offices in Trump Tower, who says he was actively working with Trump on a hotel deal in Moscow as late as December 2015 – six months after Trump announced his candidacy.

Prior to that, Trump had a signed agreement with Agalarov to develop another Moscow hotel property that fell through. Did Trump just let these deals swing in the wind while he indulged his presidential passion?

Listening In

I’ve often wondered about President Trump’s tweet last March claiming President Obama “had my wires tapped” in Trump Tower.

Officials in the intelligence community have explained, in some detail, the many safeguards that are in place to prevent this. And yet Trump somehow convinced himself it must have happened.

How else could the FBI be sure he was colluding with the Russians unless they were tapped his phones? They must have been listening in on his private conversations, or so Trump convinced himself on the morning of that fateful tweet.

But if the taps would show nothing, what was he worried about?

Too Confused to Collude

Jared Kushner was probably more right than wrong when he told Congressional interns last week that the campaign was too confused to collude with the Russians. “They thought we colluded, but we couldn’t even collude with our local offices.”

If the campaign was disorganized, no one was more disorganized than the candidate. He was all over the map in his speeches, his tweets, his facts, and, especially, his memory of what he just said. Who’s to say Trump didn’t call one of his Russian friends — one of Putin’s people, as he calls them — to talk at length about his travails running for president against Crooked Hillary, then forgot about it the next day?

“I Love It”

The June 9th 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and the Russian attorney is a guide to Trump’s selective memory.

Rob Goldstone, a British publicist working for Agalarov, got the ball rolling with a June 3 email to Don Jr. promising he had dirt from the highest levels of the Kremlin on Hillary Clinton misdeeds.

“I’m sending this to you,” Goldstone wrote, “or should I just have my guy call Rhona?” Rhona was Trump’s personal receptionist for 30 years and is known as the person to call if you want to speak with the boss.

“I love it,” Don Jr. replied.

On June 7, Goldstone followed up with an email confirming the June 9 meeting in Trump Tower. That was the same day Trump told a rally after his victories in the California and New Jersey primaries, “I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week, and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting. I wonder if the press will want to attend. Who knows?”

The meeting lasted only 20-30 minutes, according to Don Jr, Kushner and Manafort, but despitee the bombshell potential, none of them bothered to tell the President about it (or so they say) before or after the meeting.

A Selective Memory

A year later, on July 7, 2017, The New York Times was preparing a story about the meeting and contacted Don Jr. for his reaction. This was the same day President Trump was meeting Putin at the G20 summit. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the only American who accompanied Trump, said they discussed Russian election meddling, Syria and a joint cyber-terrorism initiative.

But there was a second conversation that night between Trump and Putin at the G20 dinner that was witnessed only by Putin’s interpreter.

The next day, flying home on Air Force One, the President dictated a response from Don Jr. that ran along with the story on July 8, according to The Washington Post. The timeline suggests Trump may well have heard of the Times story between meetings with Putin, and he used the second conversation to alert Putin to the story and ask his advice on how to handle it.

His dictated response turned out to be so misleading that Don Jr’s lawyers twice had to supplement it, and finally released all the emails leading up to the meeting (after being told The New York Times already had them).

Interviewed by Reuters on July 12, Trump said he only learned of the meeting “a couple days ago” – which would be two days after he doctored his son’s response.

A Tangled Web

Mueller’s investigation is working its way up the evidence chain, following foreign intercepts and financial records to uncover how Russia coordinated its effort to interfere with the 2016 election with the Trump campaign.

But if you pull the string on all Trump’s lies, it’s just as likely Trump was trying to play the Russians through the same intermediaries.

“I never get too attached to one deal or one approach,” he wrote in The Art of The Deal, “I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first. In addition, once I’ve made a deal, I always come up with at least a half dozen approaches to making it work, because anything can happen, even to the best-laid plans.”

This all reminds me of a childhood verse my mother impressed on me in my youth: “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”

What a tangled web, indeed.


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