Jim Angleton would have loved this. Angleton, admired and despised in equal measure, was the legendary (or notorious) CIA director of counterintelligence in the 1960s and 1970s, who spent those years in a Captain Ahab-like search for a Soviet mole in the Agency. He described the universe in which he operated as a “wilderness of mirrors.” Welcome to the crazy, cross-reflecting world of Donald Trump, Russia and Election 2016.
Amid the latest flurry of allegations – ranging from “perverted sexual acts” in the presidential suite of Moscow’s Ritz Carlton hotel to claims that Moscow had been “playing” Trump for five years and that Russia’s intelligence services and Trump operatives were in cahoots throughout the campaign – one thing above all must be remembered: not one whit of it has been confirmed.
It all may sound superficially plausible, given Trump’s record lewd remarks about women, his dogged refusal to accept evidence of Russian cyber-meddling in the campaign, and his slashing attacks on the US intelligence agencies who produced evidence of that cyber-meddling. But nothing in the dossier, as far as we know, has been corroborated, despite the best efforts of the FBI and CIA, and digging by the American media who, it now emerges, have known about this for months.
That of course may change. Something may be corroborated. In which case, all bets are off, and who knows what might happen. This was already the most extraordinary election ever: the new allegations raise it to the level of the utterly incredible. Nothing like this has occurred before.
The nearest parallel is probably the “October Surprise” conspiracy theory that top Reagan campaign officials had secret contacts abroad with America’s sworn enemy Iran during that month in 1980, to delay the release of the Tehran Embassy hostages until after the election. But these claims were never remotely proven. The Trump affair also involves reputed meetings between his staffers and Russians in Prague and Moscow. But it has broader, far more alarming dimensions.
The most worrying claims are not so much salacious goings-on in a Moscow hotel room – even if they were confirmed, Trump has already raised that bar so high – but that his operatives had colluded with Russia throughout the campaign, and that the Kremlin had been cultivating him for years. That would make him the Manchurian Candidate to end all Manchurian Candidates.
Again, to repeat, these allegations are precisely that: all unproven claims that no one has yet managed to substantiate. The Kremlin itself has denied the claims, not that that means anything. Fact or fiction, this entire affair works to Russia’s advantage.
Trump, meanwhile, has dismissed the whole thing as “fake news”. “Russia has never tried to use leverage over me,” he said during a Wednesday morning tweet barrage. “I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA – NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!” Was this Nazi Germany, he wondered.
Remember too that the allegations emanated from the dark world of opposition research, where truth is an infinitely malleable commodity. They are, we are told, the result of work by a former British MI6 officer who had worked in Moscow and now heads a political consultancy. He was first hired by anti-Trump Republicans, then by Democrats.
That the findings were appended to the top-secret dossier distributed to Trump, Obama and a handful of top Congressional officials was apparently because his work, and the sources he used, had proved credible in the past. But then again, nothing is as it seems. His Russian informers had every motivation to exaggerate and lie. The more trouble they could cause in the 2016 election, the better.
True, nothing has been proved, but then again, it can be equally hard to prove a negative, that nothing happened. Such is the wilderness of mirrors in which America finds itself now, just nine days before the inauguration – and that’s why the affair may be so damaging, not just to Trump, but to the country.
Throw a heap of mud, and some inevitably will stick. Opponents of Trump will now find further reason to dislike him. This new firestorm will complicate the confirmation hearings of top appointees like the Secretary of State-in-waiting, the former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, already accused of having too cosy a relationship with the Kremlin. It increases the likelihood of a bipartisan Congressional select committee probe into the imbroglio, a full-scale investigation that so far has been resisted by Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader.
Worst of all, it can only further poison Trump’s relations with the US intelligence community, the same agencies who will be advising him at a moment’s notice on North Korean missile strikes and – yes – malign Russian behaviour in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.
Trump surely has a point when he asks what on earth these agencies were doing by taking seriously a hodge-podge of unsubstantiated smears and committing it to paper, in a town in which everything leaks. “An absolute disgrace,” he called it at his press conference. If Trump believes the intelligence community were part of a last-ditch effort to delegitimise his election by an establishment which still can’t accept him, then who can blame him?
But then again, he also has himself to blame. No one has done more to promote phony news than Donald Trump, starting with his embracing of the birther nonsense about Barack Obama, and continuing through the myriad falsehoods that studded his campaign. And if there’s a factual vacuum around Trump, then that largely reflects his refusal to publish his tax returns, as well as his slowness until now in tackling conflict of interest issues involving his multi-billion-dollar businesses, managed through an opaque private company. This is a story you can read any number of ways. Welcome to the wilderness of mirrors.
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