In the bizarre double helix that is the Russia investigation, one of the recurring themes is the role of would-be influencers. They start off as connectors and facilitators, but gradually (and implausibly) they move to the center of the story.
That’s true with Stefan Halper, the retired American professor at Britain’s Cambridge University who has become the object of President Trump’s counter- witch-hunt to expose a supposed FBI mole who infiltrated his campaign. The FBI is guarding Halper’s identity, as it should any trusted informant, but he was named a week ago by conservative news sites and then by other publications.
It’s outrageous that Trump has encouraged “outing” this putative intelligence source. And this latest attempt to deflect special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation only adds to suspicion that Trump has something very big to hide.
But it’s laughable to imagine Halper as a superspy, infiltrating the heart of the Trump campaign. Those who know Halper describe someone closer to a gregarious busybody and academic eccentric — an intellectual who jostles for first billing on a book cover — than a mole burrowing toward Trump’s inner circle. Like many underemployed ex-professors, he likes to gossip, and perhaps that made him a good intelligence source. But this is not James Bond.
A former British intelligence officer who knows Halper well describes him as “an intensely loyal and trusted U.S. citizen [who was] asked by the Bureau to look into some disconcerting contacts” between Russians and Americans. Isn’t that what the FBI and its sources are supposed to do?
The professor is just one of the unlikely figures who populate the edges of the Trump-Russia investigation. These Zelig-like characters at the periphery have been so enticing for journalists, left and right, that they’ve become part of the central narrative. They’re the mice that roared.
Another such middleman who has become a central character is George Nader, a Lebanese-born operative who worked for the United Arab Emirates. According to news reports, Nader tried to channel UAE money to people close to the Trump campaign to mobilize support for Emirati efforts against Iran and Qatar.
Nader is a familiar gadfly to people who follow the Middle East. Since the mid-1980s, he has been a professional intermediary, trying to freelance connections between the United States and the Arab world. It’s a mystery why the UAE, a sophisticated country that can buy the best expertise in the intelligence business, would turn to a character such as Nader. But on such oddities and lapses in judgment, the world turns.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman who was indicted last year by Mueller, is another influence peddler who now looms larger than life. Through more than 40 years in politics, Manafort has been hustling his connections to try to make his way to the big show. Mueller’s allegations of fraud and money laundering make Manafort sound like a master player, but a close reading of Manafort’s life describes a series of missed opportunities and squandered money.
Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska is another odd character who hovers on the fringes of this story. Manafort tried to impress Deripaska with his Trump credentials, presumably hoping that they would prove lucrative. Weirdly, leaked text messages show that Deripaska’s American lawyer tried to make a connection between Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), ranking member of the intelligence committee, and Christopher Steele, the former MI6 officer who compiled the famous “dossier” alleging back in mid-2016 that Russia was secretly colluding with the Trump campaign.
Steele may be the ultimate Zelig in this story, a character who keeps reappearing at each turn. From what his former colleagues say, he was too good an intelligence operative to be described as a peddler. But his role as a freelance investigator, hired by Trump’s opponents, has become a black hole in this story, into which other facts disappear.
Large events sometimes turn on small characters who place themselves at center stage. Think of Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian fixer who launched the Iran-contra scandal that shrouded President Ronald Reagan’s second term. Or Ahmad Chalabi, the charmingly manipulative Iraqi banker who helped lobby President George W. Bush into invading Iraq.
The Russia investigation, like these other moments in history, is becoming a version of the butterfly effect, where seemingly random, distant events have large consequences — thanks to the pro-Trump echo chamber. It’s Mueller’s job to keep the strands of the central narrative in his hands so that they can be understood and, where necessary, prosecuted.
Trump is running a circus of distraction. But at the center of the ring remains Mueller, silent and unblinking.