The National Enquirer presented Trump watchers with a mystery last week. Why did it print an attack on Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort? A headline screamed: ‘Trump advisor sex scandal — Paul Manafort’s sick affair.’ A 68-year-old man’s alleged dalliance with a ‘hottie half his age’ might seem a trivial subject to discuss as the US convulses over the issue of race once again, this time after a white supremacist killed a woman protester in Charlottesville, Virginia. President Trump has electrified supporters and opponents alike by siding with those who want to keep the town’s statue of the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee.
And sex, politics and celebrity are the Enquirer’s usual stock-in-trade. Recent ‘bombshell world exclusives’ include ‘Supreme court justice Scalia — murdered by a hooker’ (she was ‘hired by the CIA to inject poison into his buttocks’) and ‘Clinton sex romp caught on video!’about Bill being filmed ‘having steamy sex in a pickup truck with a department store clerk’.
But the Enquirer is a Trump ally, owned by a rich friend. It was one of the few national publications to predict his victory in last year’s presidential election. Why now a hit piece on the one man he must surely need to keep onside in the Russia investigation? One answer: Manafort has been ‘flipped’.
Reports in US publications say it was Manafort who told the FBI about a meeting between Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr, and a Russian lawyer linked to the Kremlin. That would be terrible news for the President if true: the FBI’s investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia now being assisted by the manager of that campaign.
Manafort’s spokesman denies it, and the evidence as to whether he is trying to save his own skin at Trump’s expense remains ambiguous. The FBI carried out a dawn raid at Manafort’s home in Virginia; why was that necessary if he is a cooperating witness? Perhaps he has given up some information, but not all. The Enquirer story could be interpreted as a dead fish left on his doorstep (the traditional Sicilian warning that things could get very bad if you sing).
‘If’, ‘could’, ‘perhaps’, ‘reports’, ‘alleged’ — most stories about the US President and Russia are nailed together with such words. The specifics of the ‘collusion’ allegation are claims that the Trump campaign told Russian intelligence which Democrats to hack, and then worked together with them to make sure that WikiLeaks, Fox, Breitbart and Russia Today all left the resulting dirty laundry flapping in the wind. In fairness to President Trump, it must be pointed out that so far no evidence has emerged to prove such a treasonous conspiracy. The few things we do know are open to wildly different interpretations.
Take Donald Jr’s meeting with the Russian lawyer. He admits its purpose was to get dirt on Hillary from the Russian government. This undid months of denials during which the White House often sounded like a shocked and offended maiden aunt accused of debauchery with the pool boy. (‘Trump denies sick affair with barechested Russian stud!) Other details of the meeting seem to help the White House. A jaunty, vulgar British PR man named Rob Goldstone was the unlikely intermediary. You might think that his help would hardly have been needed if there really were a backchannel to the Kremlin in June last year. On the other hand, such baroque arrangements might be the kind of thing that intelligence services go in for. For years, the intermediary between MI6 and the IRA was the owner of a Londonderry chip shop, Brendan Duddy.
It is the same with the intercepts of Trump’s people talking to the Russians, the subject of so much feverish speculation in Washington. There is no single conversation revealing a grand conspiracy — at least according to two members of the ‘intelligence community’ who have seen the top-secret material. However, a third source told me: ‘There is a conspiracy in the SIGINT [signals intelligence] — just not in one or two intercepts. Hence no literal “smoking gun”. But cumulatively…’ This SIGINT is mostly said to be what is termed ‘reflections’; that is others talking about the relationship between Team Trump and Moscow. Some of the calls are said to involve senior Kremlin officials: ‘By itself, not enough for indictments but a disturbing picture.’ Other sources have told me there have still been a suspiciously large number of direct contacts between Trump’s people and various Russians: ‘Dozens.’
A vague outline of the truth is starting to emerge from the fog. It is that the Russians made continual attempts to get close to Trump and his associates, part of what the US intelligence agencies all agree was a Kremlin plot to subvert the election. Trump’s supporters believe that any such approaches never went anywhere (as Jr says happened with his meeting) or that the tough New York property developer from The Apprentice was playing the Russians without being played himself. Trump’s enemies, believing him to be a man with no moral compass, imagine he was only too eager to take whatever was being offered: information; weird sex in a Moscow hotel room; money, lots of it, for his businesses.
This is why it is so important that the FBI investigation, led by a special counsel, Robert Mueller, now appears to be reaching back into Trump’s business past. Mueller’s team of prosecutors includes a number of experts in money-laundering and New York real estate. The US media is speculating that he is trying to build an old-fashioned wire fraud, tax evasion and racketeering case against Trump. This is a neuralgic issue for the President. In a New York Times interview he agreed that any investigation of his finances was a ‘red line’ Mueller should not cross. ‘I would say yeah. I would say yes. By the way, I would say, I don’t — I don’t — I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows?’ Trump’s most recent partner in ‘selling a lot of condos’ was a man called Felix Sater. Sater was once jailed for stabbing a man in the face with the broken stem of a martini glass. He was convicted of a massive stock fraud — a partnership between the Russian and Italian-American mafias — but stayed out of jail by becoming an FBI informant.
For several weeks there have been rumours that Sater is ready to rat again, agreeing to help Mueller. ‘He has told family and friends he knows he and POTUS are going to prison,’ someone talking to Mueller’s investigators informed me. Sater himself added fuel to this fire when he told New York magazine: ‘In about the next 30 to 35 days, I will be the most colourful character you have ever talked about. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about it now, before it happens. And believe me, it ain’t anything as small as whether or not they’re gonna call me to the Senate committee.’
Sater and Manafort together would pose a deadly threat to Trump’s presidency if they testify that Russian money in his businesses led to information being exchanged with Russian intelligence. This is exactly the relationship — an ‘exchange running between them for at least eight years’ — that the former MI6 officer Christopher Steele described in his ‘dossier’. At a news conference this week at his New Jersey golf club, the President bizarrely asserted that the Steele dossier had been paid for by Russia in order to damage him. This is the latest twist in Trump’s response to the dossier, which began with flat denials in January that he had been filmed by Russian intelligence with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room.
That remains unproven. Nevertheless, Steele is not the only source. I heard of Russian kompromat — compromising material — on Trump from two sources months before the Steele dossier came to light. That might be evidence for Trump’s statement that Russian intelligence, as well as the US agencies, are out to get him. There are, though, reports of witnesses in the hotel who corroborate Steele’s reporting. These include an American who’s said to have seen a row with hotel security over whether the (alleged) hookers would be allowed up to Trump’s suite. The dossier’s account of hookers in a Moscow hotel room was the subject of gossip among a select group of journalists, politicians, and intelligence people for months before it was published. Now, claims are circulating of more tapes showing even more extreme behaviour. Expect these allegations to emerge in due course.
Some Republicans in Congress are tiring of the Trump reality show, a mix of The Sopranos and the Kardashians. The Mueller inquiry plods along relentlessly but prosecuting a president is a political decision. Reckless as ever, the President has tweeted criticism of the Senate’s Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, whose help he will need if Mueller finds anything damning. The President’s ordinary supporters don’t care. They fear that they are losing their country — this was an election above all about race; all else is trivia to them, an Enquirer headline.
Even if all the allegations are shown to be true, Trump will simply emerge as the person they supposed him to be when they voted for him.
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent and fellow of the New America Foundation.