Opinion

Opinion

The Russia poison that's paralyzing the Trump presidency

Posted July 11

Consider the Komodo dragon. A hairless creature with thin lips, beady eyes and the hint of a smirk on its face, it stalks animals many times its size. A dragon attack often ends with the prey dashing away with barely a scratch. The tiniest nip, however, is enough to deposit a few drops of dragon saliva and start an infection. After a slow death, the dragon feasts.

The example of the Komodo lizard suggests a compelling political metaphor for our time. The dragon is a calculating Vladimir Putin. The nip may well have been delivered more than a year ago by Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with Kremlin connections. The victim is the Trump presidency, which is in the grips of a festering and potentially fatal scandal.

In the latest twist in the Trump/Putin crisis, The New York Times has revealed that the President's son, Donald Jr., his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort met with Veselnitskaya in June 2016, after being told she had Russian government information that could be damaging to their opponent in the 2016 election.

And on Tuesday the younger Trump released, via Twitter, the chain of emails he apparently received prior to the encounter, in which an intermediary told him the Trump team would receive "documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia" and proffered "very high level and sensitive information" described as "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."

These revelations could point to the day and the location -- Trump Tower -- where Team Trump was poisoned by the Russian campaign to destabilize American politics and destroy Democrat Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Putin bears a well-established animus toward Clinton and has been engaged in a longterm effort to restore Russia, with an economy one-tenth the size of America's, to superpower status.

Accomplished with computer hackers and a deluge of propaganda, Russia's meddling in the US election was cheap and effective and has burdened the Trump presidency with a scandal that has diminished the United States' standing in the world and made Team Trump appear at best inept and at worst corrupt.

Ineptitude would be the most innocent explanation for Donald Trump Jr.'s decision to meet with Veselnitskaya on the recommendation of an acquaintance who represents a Russian pop star, whose own father co-sponsored Donald Trump's 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. (You can't make this stuff up.)

A seasoned political pro would have recognized the danger, but Trump Jr., who belongs to a clan that considers self-confidence to be the same as competence, not only welcomed Veselnitskaya but brought Kushner and Manafort into the meeting.

During and after the election campaign, President Trump and his aides have repeatedly denied working with Russia to win the presidency. Instead of thoroughly investigating the Russian cyberattack on behalf of the United States, they have feverishly denied any collusion, lambasted those who revealed hidden facts, and reminded the world over and over that they won the election.

The President himself denied any wrongdoing, attacked the integrity of the journalists who reported on the burgeoning scandal, and attempted to quell the "pressure" by suddenly firing FBI Director James Comey.

With each turn in this crisis, Team Trump has stumbled and writhed. Trump Jr. first claimed that he was led astray by "an acquaintance" who didn't even tell him the name of the Russian he would meet. He said nothing of hoping to gather some Russian dirt about Clinton, explaining instead that the discussion was about restoring a process that let couples in the United States adopt Russian orphans.

Less than a day later came a second statement that confirmed that Trump Jr. had been intrigued by a promise of Russian help in defeating Clinton, and that the encounter included discussion of American sanctions against Russian individuals and entities suspected of corruption and human rights abuses. The law enabling these sanctions, the Magnitsky Act, is named for a Russian whistleblower who died in custody after he claimed Kremlin cronies had cheated the government.

The Veselnitskaya chapter in the Trump/Russia controversy could have been avoided completely if someone at Trump Tower, perhaps even Donald Trump Jr., had put her name into an internet search engine and glanced at the results that show her work against the Magnitsky Act sanctions -- her passion mirroring Putin's anger over the sanctions, which he has called "outrageous." Instead, men who were among Donald Trump's most trusted advisers, piled into a room hoping for the delivery of some juicy information.

To believe that Trump Jr. welcomed a mystery guest from a hostile nation to meet in a room not far from where the GOP candidate for President was at work, we would have to believe he is dangerously lacking in intelligence and common sense.

Considering Donald Jr.'s own claims to superior abilities, which he has made to me personally, I have to think that he knew who was coming to see him, and his excitement at what she might reveal moved him to draw in Kushner and Manafort. According to the second statement issued by Trump Jr., "It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information."

In another context, the Veselnitskaya episode would be relegated to the barrel of oddities where one would find Billy Carter and Roger Clinton. Instead, however, it appears to be a serious piece of evidence pointing to the kind of possible Russia/Trump collusion that has been consistently denied by the President, his aides, and his supporters.

It comes after national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to quit after it was shown that he had failed to declare payments from Russian entities. And it follows Jared Kushner's backward-looking correction of an application for a security clearance, which had initially omitted his contacts with Russia. Add Attorney General Jeff Sessions' failure to disclose his meetings with Russians, and President Trump yukking it up in the Oval Office with Russian officials whom he told about his decision to dismiss the "nut job" Comey, and the implications of the latest episode come into focus.

In nature, the Komodo dragon's bite spells the end for its prey because it causes an infection; injury is followed by raging illness and fever before its target succumbs. In the case of Russia and the Trump campaign and presidency, the danger posed by the dragon was ignored by a group that, like its candidate, was aggressive to the point of seeming, at times, unhinged.

Metaphorically, like the dragon's prey, they lacked the elements of a proper immune system defense -- humility, caution, and ethical limits -- required to preserve themselves. Nearly paralyzed, the administration now labors under a cloud of scandal that casts a shadow over the nation and the world, both of which have been deprived of proper leadership by the White House.

If the dragon prevails, June 9, 2016 may be identified as the day the fatal wound was inflicted.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Donald Trump's 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow as the Miss America pageant.

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