Exactly two years ago, at a time when he had been in office less than four months, Donald Trump invited two Russians into the Oval Office and shared with them how he was going to handle the scandal engulfing his White House. He met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the two most senior foreign officials to have met with the president so far.
Trump had come under increasing fire for contacts between officials of his campaign and Russians in 2016 during the presidential election. At his first official press conference on February 16, one of the first questions he was asked about was Russia. “I can tell you, speaking for myself, I own nothing in Russia. I have no loans in Russia. I don’t have any deals in Russia,” Trump responded. “Russia is fake news. Russia — this is fake news put out by the media.”
Later Trump was asked, “Can you say definitively that nobody on your campaign had any contacts with the Russians during the campaign?”
“Well, I had nothing to do with it,” Trump answered. “I have nothing to do with Russia. I told you, I have no deals there. I have no anything.” Then, without being prompted, Trump brought up WikiLeaks. “Now, when WikiLeaks, which I had nothing to do with, comes out and happens to give — they’re not giving classified information. They’re giving stuff — what was said at an office about Hillary cheating on the debates — which, by the way, nobody mentions. Nobody mentions that Hillary received the questions to the debates. Can you imagine — seriously, can you imagine if I received the questions? It would be the electric chair, okay? ‘He should be put in the electric chair.’ You would even call for the reinstitution of the death penalty, okay?”
See what he was doing? Less than a month after he took office, he was already lying flat out about contacts with the Russians — there were none, and moreover, he had “no deals” in Russia, “no anything.” Then he pulled his double reverse misdirection, bringing up WikiLeaks, which he had not been asked about, and curiously, he absolved them of any crimes by pointing out that they had not released any “classified” information — an obvious, if oblique reference to the infamous Clinton emails, which if you’ll recall were alleged to have included classified information.
And then executed his masterful triple switchback, turning himself from the beneficiary of the WikiLeaks releases of the Democrats’ emails, into the victim of it all. Hillary Clinton, whose campaign had been badly if not fatally damaged by the WikiLeaks releases, was the real criminal because she received answers to debate questions during the primary, and he didn’t. And if he had done what Hillary did . . . well, you get it.
But all of his double reverse triple switchbacks were reserved for us, in his answers to questions at his press conference, carried live on every single cable channel. With the Russians, he got right down to business: “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump told Lavrov and Kislyak, who represented a foreign government currently under sanctions for their interference in the presidential election. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
Let’s take a moment and sit back and marvel at that moment in our history. We had just elected this man, Donald Trump, and we didn’t know very much about how that had happened. All we knew was that Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, had been fired because of his conversations with one of the Russians who met with Trump that day in the Oval Office, Sergey Kislyak. So Flynn, an American former general and director of the defense intelligence agency, had been escorted out of the White House, but Kislyak, the man he had talked to in his fateful telephone conversations, was welcomed in and escorted into a private meeting with the president of the United States in the Oval Office, out of view of the American media, but in the presence of Russian reporters.
We had seen reports that there had been contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians beyond the Flynn phone calls, but we didn’t yet know what they were. We didn’t know about George Papadopoulos and his meetings in London about Russian “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. We didn’t know about Paul Manafort and his contacts with Konstantin Kilimnik and Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who was under U.S. sanctions for extortion and racketeering and money laundering. We didn’t know about Carter Page’s trip to Russia during the campaign, and in fact, Page had denied that he had met with any Russians during the campaign on the day before Trump’s denials of Russian contacts between his campaign at his press conference. White House press secretary Sean Spicer had repeatedly gone before the press and denied there were any contacts at all between Russians and the Trump campaign.
In effect, all we knew were the lies that President Trump and his people were telling us, over and over and over again.
But who was Trump telling the truth to? Lavrov an Kislyak. And the only way we knew this was because The New York Times had been shown a summary document of the Oval Office meeting written by a Russian who had been there.
Here is what we did know, although its importance had not yet dawned on us. Anyone who got within a whisker of the connections between Trump and the Russians was being fired. Three days after she informed the White House that national security adviser Flynn had talked with Kislyak about sanctions, acting attorney general Sally Yates was unceremoniously fired. Weeks after he went before the House Intelligence Committee and told the world that the Trump campaign had been under criminal and counterintelligence investigation by the FBI for its contacts with Russians, FBI Director James Comey was fired.
How did Trump and his administration handle the firing? Another double reverse triple switchback: Comey was fired because of the way he handled the investigation of Hillary Clinton during the campaign! Brilliant! We’ve got them coming and going! The Democrats hate Comey for trashing Hillary, so I’ll get rid of him! How can they object to that?
Trump continued to execute his double reverse triple switchback strategy right in front of our eyes. He decided to own every single position on Russia there was.
He outright denied that there had been any contacts between his campaign and Russians until that became untenable. Then he admitted there had been contacts, but they didn’t amount to anything. Meeting at Trump Tower with Russians? Why, that was about adoption! The adoption scam didn’t work, so the meeting lasted only 30 minutes and they didn’t say anything.
Then Special Counsel Robert Mueller was appointed, and the indictments started coming down — a dozen or so Russians for trolling Facebook and Twitter and Instagram with fake ads, another dozen Russian intelligence agents for stealing Democratic Party emails, various Trump campaign people for lying about their contacts with Russians. Trump started saying, well maybe some of his people met with some Russians, but it was all innocent. There was “no collusion!”
The Mueller report comes out, and Attorney General Bill Barr picks up the Trump triple switchback right on schedule: Lots of Russians, but guess what? No collusion! And if there was no collusion, there was no crime, so all of those firings? No obstruction, either!
If that wasn’t enough, Rudy Giuliani takes to the ice and lands the Trump triple-toe-loop: So what if the Russians interfered in the election? There’s nothing illegal about accepting campaign help from Russians anyway.
I’m thinking I should go back to writing novels. The plot twists walk through the living room every time you turn on the goddamned TV.