Today brings yet another shocking revelation in the ever-widening Trump-Russia scandal, and Democrats are growing increasingly frustrated that this controversy isn’t an even bigger deal than it is. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wants a delay in the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court while the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is ongoing, but no one seems to take the idea seriously.
So why is it that this scandal hasn’t yet risen to the level occupied by Watergate, Iran-contra and Monica Lewinsky? I have an explanation, but first let’s look at what we learned today, from Jeff Horwitz and Chad Day of the Associated Press:
President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, secretly worked for a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago and proposed an ambitious political strategy to undermine anti-Russian opposition across former Soviet republics, The Associated Press has learned. The work appears to contradict assertions by the Trump administration and Manafort himself that he never worked for Russian interests.
Manafort proposed in a confidential strategy plan as early as June 2005 that he would influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government, even as U.S.-Russia relations under Republican President George W. Bush grew worse. Manafort pitched the plans to Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally with whom Manafort eventually signed a $10 million annual contract beginning in 2006, according to interviews with several people familiar with payments to Manafort and business records obtained by the AP. Manafort and Deripaska maintained a business relationship until at least 2009, according to one person familiar with the work.
This raises far more questions than I have space to ask at the moment, but among them are: Did Manafort’s $10-million-a-year contract to advance Russian interests ever end, and if so, when? He took no salary to run the Trump campaign, so who was paying him at that time? What was his role in removing tough language on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine from the Republican platform? How did Trump come to hire Manafort in the first place?
Manafort confirmed that he worked for Oleg Deripaska but says it involved only “business and personal matters in countries where he had investments.” But if AP’s reporting is true in its entirety, the man who ran Donald Trump’s presidential campaign had worked secretly to advance the interests of Vladimir Putin’s regime.
And Manafort is only one piece of the Trump-Russia puzzle. Why is it that so many Trump advisers have connections to Russia, often financial ones? Why has Trump gotten so much money from Russian oligarchs and mob-connected individuals? What’s the full extent of the measures the Russian government took to help Trump get elected, and was there any coordination with any Americans, including those connected to Trump?
In order to answer those questions we need an independent commission with subpoena power, because Republicans in Congress have made it clear they have no intention of conducting anything resembling an investigation. If we ever get that commission, this could turn out to be the biggest scandal in the history of American politics.
So why aren’t more people thinking about it that way yet? The primary reason may be the fact that it’s so complicated and involves so many people, yet it lacks a single understandable explanation for what it’s really all about.
If you had to summarize the previous major scandals in a sentence or two, you could do it easily. “Bill Clinton had an affair with a young White House staffer.” “The Reagan administration sold arms to terrorists, then used the profits to fund an illegal war in Central America.” “Richard Nixon ran a criminal enterprise meant to destroy his political enemies.” That last one may not capture the complexity of Watergate, but it gets to the heart of it. They’re all reasonably understandable.
But what’s beneath the Russia scandal (for which we don’t even have a name)? No one can figure it out, and that’s what makes it easy to push to the side, especially when there’s so much else going on. There has been a suggestion that Putin was blackmailing Trump into doing his bidding, but that was hard to believe. The best summary I can offer right now may be “Putin is trying to subvert American democracy and diminish American power, and Trump and his cronies might be helping him do it.”
But even if that were true, it wouldn’t explain the motive behind Trump’s actions — and Manafort’s, and Michael Flynn’s, and Roger Stone’s, and everyone else’s. And why is it that the president himself goes to such comical lengths to defend Putin? I’ll admit that I don’t know the answer.
The AP’s new reporting on Manafort is a reminder both that extraordinary revelations continue to come out about this story and that we know so little about its full scope and reach. One thing that does seem obvious is that there is a lot more to be learned, and the Manafort revelations are not going to be the last.
Still, scandals sometimes take a long time to unfold. The Watergate break-in happened in June 1972; it would be two more years before Nixon finally resigned. George McGovern spent much of the 1972 campaign trying to convince people that it was a big deal, without much success.
What separates truly monumental scandals from the more mundane ones that most administrations experience is the personal involvement of the president. We don’t yet know exactly what the extent of Trump’s involvement in this scandal is, or what his motivations were. All of this might end up amounting to very little, or it could prove to be enormously consequential. Whatever it is, hopefully we’ll be able to figure it all out.