Last week, the New York Times published a sprawling piece on the inception and evolution of the FBI’s investigation into the connection between the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. After outlining a series of damning connections between members of Trump’s campaign and Russia’s efforts to install Trump as the American President, the article wraps up with this: “A year and a half later, no public evidence has surfaced connecting Mr. Trump’s advisers to the hacking or linking Mr. Trump himself to the Russian government’s disruptive efforts.”
That’s just wrong. And, not just a little wrong like the distance between your thumb and forefinger, but really wrong like the distance between your two arms outstretched from each side of your shoulders. As a point of disclosure, I was a state prosecutor for 3 years and federal prosecutor for 25 years. So, I have a bit of experience putting together pieces of investigative evidence in a way that allows me to see the larger picture. But, to see the collaborative efforts between team Trump and team Russia does not require three years of law school and almost three decades of prosecution experience. It only requires a basic grasp of logic and a medium helping of common sense.
Let’s begin at the beginning. It has been widely reported by all legitimate news organizations, including the New York Times, that the FBI’s Russia investigation began with the disclosure, by Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, that the Russian government had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Papadopoulos’s disclosure came long before the actual release of emails stolen from the Clinton campaign. The fact that a Trump campaign aide knew of the stolen emails well in advance of the public disclosure is evidence that members of the Trump campaign had connections to the Russians who were illicitly working to help Trump get elected. If I told you on Sunday night that Bank of America on Lexington and 34th had its vault robbed of millions of dollars, but the bank did not discover the robbery until they opened the bank on Monday morning, you’d be justified in thinking I had something to do with the robbery. At a minimum, you’d legitimately conclude that I was a trusted confidante of the robbers.
After Papadopoulos revealed that the Trump campaign had inside information about Russia’s successful efforts at obtaining hacked emails from Clinton, the evidence of cooperation between Trump’s campaign and Russia took off like a trail of gasoline meeting a spark:
--Trump’s campaign manager, his son, and his son-in-law, met with a Russian government operative at Trump tower to collect damaging political material on Clinton, and then released a public statement lying about the purpose of the meeting;
--On the heels of the Trump Tower meeting with the Russian operative, Trump publicly promised a news conference in which he would disclose damning information against Clinton;
--Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, worked for Russia, owed money to a government-connected Russian oligarch, and offered to give private briefings on the presidential campaign to the Russian oligarch in an apparent effort to “get whole” by reducing his debt of millions of dollars owed to the Russian oligarch;
--Trump campaign advisor Roger Stone disclosed in an email that he met with WikiLeaks owner Julian Assange and predicted that DNC Chairman, John Podesta, would soon “be in the barrel,” before Podesta’s emails were even leaked. Stone also admitted communicating with Guccifer 2.0, an undercover Russian Intelligence Officer who stole the Clinton emails and provided them to WikiLeaks for public distribution;
--Trump Jr. received written instructions from WikiLeaks to have Trump publicly tweet a link to the hacked emails disclosed by WikiLeaks. Fifteen minutes after the communication to Trump Jr., Donald Trump tweeted about the WikiLeaks hacked emails and, two days later, tweeted the link to the stolen emails;
--Russian operatives released stolen DNC emails, planted fake news stories, and created social media bots to undermine Clinton and help Trump (according to findings of the republican-led senate intelligence committee);
--Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, held secret conversations with Russian officials, promising to undo sanctions against Russia for interfering in the 2016 election. Flynn then lied to the FBI about his communications with Russia and was criminally charged and convicted of lying to a federal agent;
--After he was elected, Trump fired the FBI Director who was leading the investigation into his campaign’s cooperation with Russia and commented on national television that his decision to fire the FBI Director was all about “the Russia thing;”
--Before Trump was elected he demanded that the RNC change its platform to soften the hardline sanctions approach to Russia. After Trump was elected, with Russia’s assistance, Trump refused to implement bi-partisan Congressionally-mandated sanctions against Russia;
And, how can the Times say that there is no public evidence linking Trump to Russia’s “disruptive efforts” at affecting the campaign? Did the writers at the Times forget Trump’s public plea for Russia to locate, steal, and release the Clinton emails? If you call on a foreign adversary to steal emails from your political opponent, your effort is, at a very minimum, disruptive to a free and fair democratic election.
While I stay in touch with some of my former colleagues at the FBI, none of the evidence I just listed comes from them; it all comes from impressive and thorough reporting by news organizations. This is not all the evidence demonstrating coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, but it’s enough. It’s actually more than enough for the press to bury, once and for all, the stilted narrative that we have smoke but no fire.
The press has blindly accepted the GOP spin that we can’t call coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia until we find a signed contract between the Trump campaign and Russia. That’s just wrong and it ignores the reality of how criminal agreements work. Cocaine traffickers do not make their buyers sign a bill of lading when they negotiate a 10 kilogram cocaine deal. A criminal agreement can be legally established by a series of actions on both sides of the deal that does not require Russia to say to Trump: “We will help you win the election and you help us by lifting U.S. sanctions and ignoring our annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine. Sign on the dotted line of this contract we drafted.”
In the same vein, the press needs to retire the notion that a crime can only be proven by direct evidence. It’s just not true. And, while I applaud journalists’ dogged search for a smoking gun, it’s likely to prove elusive because, again, people rarely reduce their criminal efforts to blueprint clarity. Although, much of the evidence exposed to date is, in fact, direct evidence of coordination, like Trump’s public appeal to Russia to steal Clinton’s emails and high-ranking members of Trump’s campaign staff meeting with a Russian operative to get “dirt” on Clinton. Still, much of the other evidence is circumstantial. But, crimes are routinely proven by circumstantial evidence. A set of fingerprints on the inside of a house where a murder took place is purely circumstantial evidence that the person matching the prints committed the murder, but it’s enough to send the person to prison for life.
Journalists need to quit hedging their bets and trying to appear cautiously professional by laying all the dots of evidence in a row and then refusing to acknowledge the line. It is as though the press believes that the suspense of creeping closer and closer to the razor’s edge is what keeps viewers tuning in night after night. It’s not. Most of us hit the button on the TV remote or log into our favorite news website to be informed. And, while I cannot speak for the news audience at large, I prefer my information without the dose of calculated manipulation that has become more frequent as of late. Last week, legitimate news organizations created faux outrage by accusing the president of calling all immigrants “animals.” It took two days before they were shamed into acknowledging that Trump’s comment was reported out of context and he was really referring to MS-13 gang members.
The irony is that there is no need to create faux outrage. The facts of current events justify real outrage. As the ranking democrat of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, stated recently, there is “ample evidence” Trump and members of his campaign coordinated with Russia to ensure that Trump won the 2016 presidential election. Waffling about how high the stack of evidence is undermines the very solid reporting the press has already done. Note to the press: You’ve got the chips. Cash them in.