Many of President Trump’s critics (myself included) have portrayed him as a fantastically successful con artist, a man who has swindled customers, vendors and voters alike.

We were all wrong. Trump isn’t history’s biggest scam artist; he’s history’s biggest dupe.

At least, that’s the narrative Trump and his defenders are spinning as they portray the president as the victim of an elaborate, long-running political sting, perpetrated by his own devious underlings.

Trump claimed once upon a time that he was recruiting the “best people” to the White House and senior ranks of the executive branch. He now claims he got conned into hiring a cabal of covert Never Trumpers.

The list of people who allegedly hustled the master hustler is long, an “Ocean’s Eleven”-like dream team carefully cultivated to undermine their guileless boss. But rather than ninjas, pickpockets or pyromaniacs, this political heist has been perpetrated by diplomats, donors, lawyers, economists and generals who earned and then abused the trust of their mark.

Four of the five sitting Federal Reserve governors, for instance, were Republicans handpicked for their current positions by Trump, and yet Trump now says they represent the “biggest threat” to his presidency and are an “enemy” to America. He has similarly accused his own Cabinet membersWhite House counselFBI director and other senior officials of allegedly plotting against him.

These connivers have been astoundingly effective. Somehow they’ve tricked Trump into saying and doing racist and corrupt things, in public and on camera. They hoodwinked him into passing economic policies that punish his working-class base while rewarding wealthy donors. And, worst of all — in the case of Ukraine — these schemers suckered Trump into subordinating U.S. national security to his own selfish political interests.

Either that or they cleverly framed him.

Consider Trump’s own top diplomat to Ukraine, William B. Taylor Jr., who testified to House lawmakers that Trump was extorting a desperate Ukrainian government into smearing Trump’s domestic political opponent. Taylor must secretly be a Never Trumper, the president claimed multiple times, without evidence. The decorated career diplomat had somehow hornswoggled Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo into giving him this senior diplomatic position — which Taylor knew would come in handy on the off-chance he’d someday be subpoenaed to testify against the president.

Trump leveled the same Never Trumper charge against Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a war hero serving as the National Security Council’s director of European affairs. Vindman testified that the rough transcript of Trump’s “perfect call” with the Ukrainian president left out some damning details and was secreted away onto a special server against standard procedure.

Sure, Vindman might seem like a credible, honorable witness — particularly given his subject-matter expertise and his impressive biography. But really this was all part of a (very) long con. He fled persecution in the Soviet Union as a child and was wounded while serving the U.S. Army in Iraq as an adult — all so that someday he could set up a future president by . . . accurately testifying about what that president said and did.

The longest con of all, though, involves Trump’s European Union ambassador, Gordon Sondland.

Sondland is a loyal Republican donor and was a bundler for Trump in 2016. He also gave more than $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee through four different LLCs. Now you might think this donation history, coupled with Trump’s decision to award him an ambassadorship, would inoculate him against accusations of anti-Trump bias.

Nope.

After Sondland amended his testimony last week to confirm that there were indeed conditions placed on Ukraine before Trump would release military aid, Trump surrogates began impugning Sondland’s loyalties, too. This longtime GOP donor, it turns out, must secretly be a “deep-stater” in cahoots with Democrats! 

“Why did Sondland change his testimony?” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally, asked on Fox News. “Was there a connection between Sondland and Democratic operatives on the committee?”

Indeed, what other possible explanation could there be for a Republican offering incriminating testimony about the president?

Of course, there is a simpler way to interpret these accounts, and one that doesn’t require colorful conspiracy theories and secret double lives: that Trump did all the incriminating stuff in question.

But as we head into the first public impeachment inquiry hearings this week, that straightforward Occam’s razor-esque explanation is the very last thing Trumpkins want voters to consider. They prefer confusion and discord. And so they invent improbable motives and complicated conspiracy theories involving cunning double agents.

If voters hear hoofbeats, Team Trump wants them to think not of horses or even zebras, but stampedes of unicorns. 

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