The arrest last week of Charles McGonigal, former head of counterintelligence for the FBI, may or may not prove to be a watershed moment in our understanding of the Trump-Putin conspiracy. It’s still early, and the depths of the story have yet to be plumbed.
So I’m not going to weigh in on that (you can read about it here), except to note that people who’ve been watching the Trump-Russia show for over a decade are now going back to their notes and timelines, looking at old events in light of new information.
And the more we all look, the more the miasma of Russian subterfuge stinks up every narrative. If a murderous oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, could actually recruit the FBI agent who’d investigated him — which the McGonigal affair will apparently show — who knows what else was going on?
There is, I think, the need for some sort of “unified field theory” of the Trump-Putin relationship. There is much that we’re missing on at least three separate tracks of that bizarre bromance: Trump-Russia, Trump-Ukraine, and Russia-Ukraine.
First, there’s the Trump-Russia track, centered around the election of 2016, in which Paul Manafort, deeply in debt to Deripaska, signs on as Trump’s campaign manager, then pays back Deripaska with campaign demographic data that is subsequently fed into Putin’s propaganda machine, then weaponized as fake social media memes, which are used to take down the Clinton campaign. It’s all in the Mueller Report.
This track continued forward, of course, throughout the Trump presidency — Kislyak in the Oval Office, Putin at Helsinki, the undermining of NATO, etc. — and has strong echoes in the Mar-a-Lago documents scandal. But it also goes backward in time, to Trump’s carefree days of money laundering and real estate scams in Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey, and elsewhere, starting in the nineties. It’s all worth another look, given new information.
Second, there’s the Trump-Ukraine track, circa 2019, in which Trump has his “perfect call” with the newly-elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. Trump holds $400 million in military aid for ransom, telling Zelensky, in front of umpteen witnesses, “I would like you to do us a favor.”
The favor, of course, was to announce a bogus investigation into Joe Biden’s once-upon-a-time duties in Ukraine, and into “reports” that the hacking of the 2016 Clinton campaign was the work of Ukrainians, as opposed to Russians (who would never do such a thing).
These transparent fabrications were all supposed to add up to a major scandal for Joe Biden. None of it worked. A CIA whistle-blower intervened, Zelensky never had to announce the phony investigation, and Trump got impeached. But there’s still a ton we don’t know.
The third and murkiest track is Putin-Ukraine, which caught our attention so dramatically last February, but which has a timeline that goes back much further, at least to Putin’s vicious takeover of Crimea in 2014. We now know that the subjugation of Ukraine has been a top priority for Putin since the earliest days of his regime. He has vilified, threatened, hacked, bombed, stolen from, and systematically subverted Ukraine by any means available, and that was before he actually invaded.
But in light of that invasion, all three of our tracks now beg to be examined more closely. There are myriad questions that need answering, including things that never made much sense, at least to me, and still don’t.
For one thing, why on earth would Trump and Giuliani go to such insane lengths just to get dirt on Joe Biden?
As past masters in the art of the smear, they, of all people, should have understood the dubiousness of such a play. It was far too much risk, for little or no reward.
Remember, Biden wasn’t even the nominee at that point. The election was a year away. Even if Trump really did fear Biden more than any other potential opponent, their actions were way out of proportion to that fear. Even if the scheme had worked, even if they’d produced a scandal, so what? Trump was himself producing roughly a scandal a week by then — did they think a half-assed Biden smear would erase that?
And why Ukraine, of all places? Why come halfway around the world for bad opposition research? We’ve written this off as their own innate buffoonery coming back to bite them. But was it?
Then there’s the other, equally improbable, piece of the “investigation” that Zelensky was supposed to announce: the supposed hacking of Democratic party computers by (wink, wink) Ukraine. Everyone, including Giuliani, knew this was bullshit, but somehow they decided it was the perfect answer to the Mueller investigation. We accepted that as the most likely explanation for their actions, but did we ever think about how bonkers the whole idea really was?
Once again, why would they put so much stock in such a low-percentage play? And why go to Ukraine for it?
Let’s go back to the famous quid pro quo from that famously perfect call: Zelensky announces an investigation, Trump releases the military aid.
What if it was the other way around? What if the real aim was to withhold the military aid? What if the seemingly foolish pursuit of Biden dirt was instead a shrewd diversion?
What if Putin wanted to take $400 million in Javelin missiles off the table? What if he asked his buddy Donald for a little favor? Could Trump refuse him? It isn't easy to throw a U.S. president off a building, but Trump would surely understand the compulsory nature of the request.
The denial of those Javelins could have dealt a fatal blow to the new and extremely vulnerable Zelensky government. Which Putin would have loved.
And it almost happened. The congressional authorization for that $400 million would have expired a few weeks later, if it hadn’t been released to Ukraine. Trump might have delayed that release long enough to kill the funding, but the whistle-blower got there just in time. The funding went through. Sorry Vlad.
Even so, Putin got a lovely consolation prize, the malicious removal of Marie Yovanovitch as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
But the behavior of Trump and Giuliani was strange, even for them. They exposed themselves to unreasonably high risk, and for reasons that still don’t add up. Unless it was a favor to Putin.
And the risk was clearly more real than the reward. Trump ended up impeached, Giuliani disbarred, and they’ve both dug themselves into legal holes that can put them in prison for decades.
We’re left wondering what leverage Putin might have applied. Was it carrots or sticks? Money or kompromat? I doubt it had anything to do with Joe Biden.
The people, events, and timelines of the Trump-Putin conspiracy are intricately interwoven, with dozens of dots begging to be connected. The same names come up too many times, and in too many contexts, for us to believe in either coincidence or easy explanations.
We may never see every piece of the puzzle. But as the McGonigal story develops — and it will — pieces will continue to fall into place. And it won't be pretty.