Ever since inauguration day just over six months ago, Donald Trump’s White House has been beleaguered by allegations of nefarious—and possibly illegal—ties to Russia during the 2016 campaign. For half a year now, those allegations have gradually grown more specific and more serious, while Team Trump’s inept handling of these weighty accusations has only rendered them politically more cancerous.
Months of denials from the president and his retinue that they had any ties with Moscow were unwise, since we now know of numerous hush-hush meetings in 2016 between core members of Team Trump and Kremlin representatives. Hence present White House efforts to brush off these mysterious rendezvous with protests that it’s all no big deal and “everybody does it” ring hollow—since for months the president and his spokespeople repeatedly denied there had been any such meetings.
The recent appointment of Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director indicates where this scandal is headed. A hedge-funder billionaire and media gadfly, Scaramucci has traits which the president admires, above all his well-honed willingness to lie baldly and loudly—if not always convincingly—on camera.
Trump was dissatisfied with Sean Spicer, his initial spokesman, from day one. While Spicer was willing to lie for the president, his efforts sometimes seemed half-hearted, TV comedy depictions to the contrary. A veteran Republican National Committee staffer, Spicer is a rather normal Washington type and he clearly was never fully at home in the Trump lie factory. Hence his gradual replacement at press briefings by the more ethically malleable Sarah Huckabee Sanders, followed by his recent departure when Scaramucci was appointed to shake up White House messaging.
Based on his initial forays as Trump’s media guru—complete with anticipated bluster about shaking things up and firing leakers—Scaramucci seems to be functioning more as de facto White House chief of staff than the president’s communications director. That said, “The Mooch” is ideally suited to a job which will require ever grander public deceptions of mounting implausibility as multiple investigations into President Trump’s 2016 relations with the Kremlin start to bear fruit.
Scaramucci has already indicated the White House position there with his pronouncement that the president still refuses to accept the united judgement of our Intelligence community that Russian spies interfered in our 2016 election. In a unintentionally comedic twist, Scaramucci further stated on CNN, “You know, somebody said to me yesterday—I won’t tell you who—that if the Russians actually hacked this situation and spilled out those e-mails, you would have never seen it.” A few moments later, Scaramucci admitted that the anonymous source for this bombshell intelligence assertion was in fact the president himself!
Trump’s battle royal with our Intelligence community, which the president initiated in his first days in the Oval Office, continues unabated and promises to deliver his political undoing. The position of America’s most senior and experienced spies on the 2016 election is abundantly clear. Last week, John Brennan, CIA director from 2013 to 2017, declared Trump’s unwillingness to admit the obvious about the Kremlin’s role “disgraceful,” while Jim Clapper, the most experienced American spymaster of his generation and Director of National Intelligence from 2010 to 2017, explained that the president’s actions amount to “making Russia great again.”
For his part, Mike Hayden, a retired Air Force general who headed both NSA and CIA, a veteran spymaster who’s nobody’s idea of liberal, termed Russia’s interference in last year’s election “the most successful covert influence operation in history.” Hayden subsequently explained that the early June 2016 meeting between Don Trump, Jr. and Russian representatives to obtain kompromat on Hillary Clinton was a classic Kremlin intelligence operation. “My God, this is just such traditional tradecraft,” Hayden stated about that controversial meeting. Let me add that every IC veteran I know agrees with Hayden in all his statements about Team Trump in 2016.
This, then, is what the White House is up against. What the IC knows about 2016 has been shared with investigators in Congress and, most importantly, with prosecutors working for Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who’s been appointed special counsel to get to the bottom of Trump’s ties to the Kremlin. It’s obvious, based on his increasingly angry and hysterical tweets, that the president is terrified of what Mueller and his investigators will find.
This explains Trump’s unprecedented public harassment of Jeff Sessions, his own attorney general. Of late, the president has repeatedly castigated Sessions in interviews and on Twitter for the attorney general’s recusal from the Russia investigation—a decision in which Sessions really had no choice. Operating on the novel premise that the attorney general is his personal lawyer, rather than the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Trump has smeared Sessions as “beleaguered” and “VERY weak” for his alleged unwillingness to protect the president from his own decisions.
This outrageous conduct has shocked and dismayed even some of Trump’s staunchest allies, who seem to be slowly realizing that the president will stop at nothing to protect himself and his kin from the unmasking of their ties to Moscow. The case of Jeff Sessions ought to be a warning sign to the entire Republican Party that Trump has no loyalty to anyone but himself, and is perfectly happy to sacrifice anyone at any time to safeguard himself.
The defenestration of Jeff Sessions—who, let it be said, so far shows no signs of stepping down as attorney general—is particularly significant, since the longtime Alabama senator was the first Washington Republican of any stature to join Team Trump, which he did with gusto in the spring of 2016, when the GOP still considered Trump’s candidacy to be a bad joke.
To be clear: Donald Trump ran an insurgent campaign which, to almost everyone’s surprise, garnered the Republican presidential nomination and then, somehow, the White House itself. The GOP establishment was deeply opposed to Trump and everything he stood for, but the reality TV star triumphed, in no small part because he enthusiastically embraced three issues which the Republican Party didn’t want discussed yet which deeply resonated with voters. These were uncontrolled illegal immigration, job losses and wage stagnation, and endless losing wars in the Middle East.
Trump rode these hot-button issues right to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to the horror of establishment Republicans as much as Democrats. And, importantly, Jeff Sessions was the prime mover of the populist nationalism which inspired endless Trumpian rhetoric about shutting our borders and saving American jobs. It’s no exaggeration to state that, without Jeff Sessions, Trumpism would barely be recognizable.
His public humiliation by the White House therefore raises uncomfortable questions. Since it’s now evident that Trump has no intention of actually ending our seemingly eternal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and Syria too), the sincerity of his campaign message there must be in grave doubt. The attempted purging of Jeff Sessions indicates that Trump meant nothing which he said about American sovereignty and economic well-being either.
In that case, Trumpism now stands for nothing more than the president and his coterie and their continuing power. His 2016 campaign must then be judged a fraud on the voters, some of whom continue to display a cult-like devotion to Trump, ignoring his actual policies.
Regardless, the president has now created an utterly self-made political crisis which promises to surpass Watergate in its damage to our democratic system. Unlike President Nixon, who ultimately demurred from a scorched-earth political death-match, Donald Trump plans to fight for his survival, whatever the cost—to himself, to his fans, and to our country.
John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.