Once in a while, I like to use this space to indulge in some idle speculation, taking a few what-ifs and seeing where they lead. I tend to do this in response to some stimulus, some ping to my brain. Which is just what Keith Olbermann provided in one of his podcasts last week.
He was talking about Jeff Bezos’ upcoming wedding to Lauren Sanchez, the woman with whom Bezos had been having the affair that ultimately ended his marriage. You'll recall that in 2019, Trump operators had a heavy hand in that breakup, having attempted to blackmail Bezos into coercing The Washington Post, which he owns, into covering Trump more obsequiously.
It's rare to see such an instance of high-level blackmail surface in public, and we only know about it because Bezos didn't bite. He outed himself, he went public about the whole affair, thereby ending his marriage, which was apparently on the ropes anyway.
An unusually happy postscript to this otherwise routine multi-billionaire divorce is what has since emerged as one of the most impressive philanthropic operations in the country. Mackenzie Scott, Bezos' ex-wife, took her half of Amazon and started giving it away, generously and methodically. She has already surprised dozens of worthy organizations with unheard-of injections of capital, and she's just getting started.
But I digress. Olbermann was talking about a botched blackmail attempt, at which, at the time, we all rolled our eyes, Trump being Trump. But then he tossed out an idea so startling, I've been thinking about it ever since. To paraphrase:
If Bezos told Trump's blackmailers to buzz off, how many others were there who didn't?
I'd never thought of the incident as anything more than a one-off, but since he asked, subsequent questions have practically asked themselves. Who else, among those in positions of power, was susceptible to blackmail? Who has caved to it? What have they done in return? Are they still on the hook? How many people have the kind of fuck-you money Bezos has?
There's a lot of revisionist thinking around Trump these days, in light of all the criminality that keeps surfacing. Part of it starts with the recognition that Trump has been deeply enmeshed in various organized crime syndicates for the better part of four decades. Seen in that light, the idea of an industrial-strength blackmail operation, complete with honey traps, dick-pics, and peeping-Tom videos is not much of a stretch.
So let's take a step back to review a few basics of Trump history.
First, Trump's crime spree in the White House was the culmination of a forty-year career in organized crime. This is profusely documented and not in dispute, though the mainstream press has either refused to follow its abundant threads or is deliberately not telling us about it. Either way, I urge you to see for yourself, starting with the trail of reputable journalism I followed back in February.
Second, there is abundant evidence — which may never be investigated, let alone punished — that Trump has been a Russian intelligence asset going back to the days of the old KGB. If it seems like he's been doing Putin's bidding all this time, it's only because he has.
Think about that when you consider the possible espionage charges against him. What does Jack Smith have, and how incriminating is it? How important were the documents Trump so badly wanted to keep? How were they used? With whom has he shared them? How many countries have the same information? What did Trump get in return?
The possibilities are mind-blowing, and we'll never know a tenth of it, even if Trump is convicted of a hundred felonies.
But with that in mind, let's hypothesize that while Trump was president, he had access to all sorts of dark resources and skill sets, both Russian and American. Do we doubt that he accessed them?
People in power are natural blackmail targets, and Republican politicians are especially vulnerable. Between their public rectitude and their private degeneracy, there's plenty for a blackmailer to work with.
And ever since Trump got our attention in 2015, the behavior of certain Republicans has been far out of character, and some of their turnarounds have been notably dramatic. I'm not the first to wonder what dirt Trump might have on them.
Rand Paul and Ron Johnson have both made trips to Russia, where every hotel room is bugged, and where blackmail is an art form. They came home with pro-Russia positions that were out of sync, not just with their party, but also with their own past behavior.
Mitch McConnell still has yet to explain either his wife's Chinese financial interests, or why he lifted sanctions on Oleg Deripaska in 2017, an apparent quid pro quo for an aluminum plant in Kentucky that, alas, never got built.
As for Lindsay Graham, rumors about his personal life suggest the sorts of weaknesses tailor-made for Russian-style sting operations.
As we think about this stuff, remember that blackmail is just one of many dark arts being used to undermine the institutions of democracy, and that Russia is deeply implicated in many of them.
Is there a connection between Russia and the wingnut loons in the House now playing chicken with the global economy? Putin is known to get aroused at the thought of a debt-ceiling collapse, and how it would weaken both the U.S. and NATO. Is the Freedom Caucus under Kremlin influence? What about the red-state legislatures currently remaking their states in Putin's image?
There is ample evidence that Russia is actively tampering with American politics, and it's surely in Russia's interest to have invested in Republicans at every level of government over the years. And when we speak of investment, it's not just about money. It's also about leveraging the whole kompromat bag of tricks, tried and tested in the world's largest kleptocracy.
As I said up top, this is speculation on my part. The Bezos sting might really have been a one-off, but I don't believe it. I'm also quite sure we'll never know for sure. Which is a shame, but that's what speculation is for.
Republicans and Russians have been pulling in the same direction for some time now, and it's hard to overstate what a jarring and abrupt about-face this is. For most of my lifetime, fierce animosity towards all things Russia was Republican dogma, practically a religion. And now it isn't.
Why? What changed them? True ideological conversion seems unlikely — these people don't believe in anything. So was it bribery? Extortion? Blackmail?
Ultimately, it doesn't matter how they got to where they are, or who has dirt on them. What matters is that they've been doing Trump's — and therefore Putin's — bidding, whether they know it or not.
Blackmail is as old as civilization itself. Just because it didn't work on Bezos doesn't mean it doesn't work.