The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Russia scandal was a bumbling conspiracy. But it was still a conspiracy.

Roger Stone at the Capitol in September 2017. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
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You’ll be shocked when I tell you that movies and television have given us a distorted view of how conspiracies work. The Hollywood version of a conspiracy involves careful planning, skilled operatives, multiple moving parts coming together with uncanny efficiency and usually a scene in which everyone involved gets together so the leader can say, “Okay, here’s the plan,” which he then runs through so everyone understands how the whole thing will go down.

In the real world, conspiracies are more likely to involve the lack of any coherent plan, a bunch of bumbling fools only partially understanding what the other fools are up to and then frantic attempts by all concerned to avoid responsibility when the whole thing unravels or gets revealed.

That appears to be what the conspiracy to get Donald Trump elected president was like.

Even calling it a conspiracy implies a level of organization that it lacked. But the picture that’s coming into focus as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation approaches its conclusion is one in which a collection of charlatans and cranks, connected both directly and indirectly to the future president, joined in an effort to use the Russian government’s help to bring Trump to victory.

Making sense of the most recent developments in the story is made substantially more difficult by the fact that most of the players involved in the current phase of the scandal are completely untrustworthy, whether it’s longtime political dirty trickster Roger Stone, wacky conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi or of course the president himself, so it’s hard to determine what to believe in the things they say. But let’s give it a try.

Jerome Corsi may help special counsel Robert S. Mueller III determine whether Roger Stone coordinated with WikiLeaks. Here is what you need to know about him. (Video: The Washington Post)

For the third morning in a row, President Trump rage-tweeted about the Mueller investigation, making it clear that he’s increasingly worried about what might happen next. He should be.

Let me summarize this part of the scandal as simply as I can. From a document prepared by Mueller as he negotiates a guilty plea from Corsi for lying to investigators, we can surmise that he intends to show the following:

  1. Stone, a longtime associate of Trump who was in regular contact with the candidate during 2016, instructed Corsi in the summer of 2016 to contact WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to learn about what damaging information on Democrats, stolen by Russian intelligence, WikiLeaks would later release to the public.
  2. Corsi did indeed contact Assange through a London-based consultant named Ted Malloch, and learned specific details about those releases.
  3. Corsi then passed on to Stone details about what WikiLeaks got from the Russians; whether Stone in turn told Trump about those details, we aren’t sure.

To be clear, these are allegations. For his part, Corsi insists that he didn’t communicate with Assange and only knew that Clinton campaign chair John Podesta would later be the subject of WikiLeaks releases (the Russians gained access to Podesta’s email through a phishing scam) because he brilliantly deduced it from other documents. Corsi says he did not intentionally lie to Mueller; he blames his false assertions on a faulty memory. There’s also the tantalizing report yesterday from the Guardian saying that Paul Manafort met with Assange in London not long before becoming Trump’s campaign chairman. (Manafort denies this.)

Speaking of faulty memory, according to The Post’s latest reporting: “Rudolph W. Giuliani, an attorney for Trump, said the president does not recall ever speaking to either Stone or Corsi about WikiLeaks.”

For Trump, that’s unusually hedged. Which means the most damaging version of events is at least possible. It would be this: Russia gave the emails it stole from Podesta to WikiLeaks; Assange gave Corsi a preview of them before they were released; Corsi passed that information on to Stone; Stone passed that information on to Trump. That would be a direct if multipointed line from Russian intelligence to Trump, and the only part of it that Mueller has not yet shown evidence for is the last step, Stone telling Trump of what was to come.

But we should note that Stone said in an interview on Aug. 4, 2016, that the previous day he had spoken to Trump. The day before that, Aug. 2, was when Corsi sent him an email saying Podesta would be a target up the upcoming WikiLeaks dump. If the conversation between Stone and Trump took place, it’s hard to believe Stone wouldn’t have shared the juicy nugget he had just received.

On Feb. 20, 2020, Roger Stone was sentenced to three years and four months in prison. President Trump commuted Stone’s sentence on July 10, 2020. (Video: Monica Akhtar, Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Then on Sunday, Oct. 2, Stone said on Alex Jones’s radio show, “An intermediary met with [Assange] in London recently who is a friend of mine and a friend of his, a believer in freedom. I am assured that the mother lode is coming Wednesday.” That Thursday, WikiLeaks released Podesta’s emails.

Now let’s step back from these details. The story coming from Trump and his defenders all along has been that there was no collusion, nobody did anything wrong, and any actions that might look questionable were in fact perfectly ordinary. But if that were true, why did so many people involved lie about what they did when it first came to light, whether it was to investigators or to the public? President Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort, Corsi — all have been caught lying about what they did with regard to some part of this scandal. That’s not how innocent people act.

Of course, if it was a conspiracy, it worked — after all, Trump is president. The Russian government can be rightly proud of what it accomplished: For a modest investment of resources in gaming Facebook and hacking Democratic emails, they helped nudge the election in Trump’s direction and throw the American political system into the kind of chaos we could expect when the president of the United States is the kind of clown who replaces the head of the Federal Reserve because he thinks she’s not tall enough for the job.

One thing that has become clear is that the people around Trump are not master criminals carrying out a brilliant conspiracy. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t guilty.