Why the intricacies and expanse of Putin’s plot—and Team Trump’s role in it—need a far different, deeper approach in public discussion
Author’s note: I sat on this piece for over five months, pitching to many outlets, hoping each new revelation that obviously backs up my framing of these issues would increase its chances of publication, but it seems editors at major media outlets are not terribly interested in self-reflection and discussions about how media coverage of Trump-Russia could and should be far better for the American people. Well, now I have my own website not subject to the capricious corporate whims of LinkedIn or the myopia of the mainstream media’s editorial class. I proudly present my first Real Context News exclusive publication!
AMMAN — Once again, more pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Besides the latest circus around a particular arrest and ensuing indictment, recently, there is also the revelation that U.S. President Donald Trump “concealed” from his own “senior officials” the “details of his face-to-face encounters” with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Another set of pieces tells us that early in Trump’s presidency, the FBI investigated whether or not he was knowingly and treasonously working for Russia. Other apparent accidental (or “accidental”?) reveals show that two senior Trump campaign aides—including Donald Trump’s then Campaign Chairman—were passing on sensitive internal information at the height of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign season to a Kremlin-connected figure (one with deep, longstanding Russian intelligence ties that are almost certainly still active) all while Russia was engaged in cyberwarfare and election interference. On top of all of this, Senate Republicans acted to help relieve sanctions on a major Putin oligarch ally mired in questions of 2016 collusion and ties to the Russian mafia, despite bipartisan outrage.
And these big pieces are all from just the past few days and weeks.
But even in just the waning days of 2018, we had learned about lies peddled by members of Team Trump designed to deny or minimize relationships between themselves and Team Putin, including and concerning the notorious WikiLeaks and relevant meetings from London to Quito to Prague, additional parts of a growing volcanic mountain of evidence that something nefarious is afoot and that there is little distinction between the web of Team Trump’s political ties with Russia and Team Trump’s business ties with Russia and, at times, between the aims and playbook of the Kremlin and the White House (and before that, Trump’s presidential campaign).
The names even only recently involved—Trump and his older children (Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric), Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Julian Assange, Rick Gates, Konstantin Kilimnik, Boris Birshtein, Felix Sater, Carter Page, Oleg Deripaska, Natalia Veselnitskaya, Denis and Petr Katsyv, Yevgeny Prigozhin and others—are not new, and have generally been popping up in media reports related to the Trump-Russia saga for the past few years.
But, as usual, the bigger puzzle picture of that erupting mountain tying them all together remains elusive to so many Americans, including most major news outlets: the word “collusion” is constantly bandied about, usually followed by an existential question mark, presented as an uncertain possibility that can, as of yet, have no answer.
Missing the point
This is because the discussion about Team Trump, Team Putin, the 2016 election, what I called the (First) Russo-American Cyberwar, and “collusion”—within both the political and media establishments—is woefully inadequate and misses the big-picture by a mile. It would be a little like standing inside the Sistine Chapel, looking at the ceiling, and trying to describe the actions of a few figures in one corner of Michelangelo’s masterpiece and thinking that that substitutes for a comprehensive examination of the entire ceiling: the overall meaning, the different layers, and the larger picture are all simply missed even if insight is achieved on those specific figures discussed.
Few have attempted to present this larger picture, and even fewer have done this well.
Journalists Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti, Craig Unger (with support from researcher Olga Lautman), David Corn, Michael Isikoff, and James Henry, along with the filmmakers behind the documentary of Jack Bryan, Marley Clements, and Laura DuBois titles Active Measures and the analyst Malcolm Nance, seem to be the only mainstream or wider-reach folks to have succeeded. Also worthy of mention is Mark MacKinnon’s recent exploration of Boris Birshtein, which does a lot to reinforce the clarity of deep incrimination around important figures in this drama who have inexcusably escaped media scrutiny of MacKinnon’s intensity as the Trump-Russia story has unfolded. Along with Nance, James, and Unger, I, too, was one of the earliest to present this bigger picture to a wider audience in deep-dive, context-rich pieces, many months (some even well over a year) before the Shane-Mazzetti The New York Times breakthrough piece from this last September that in many important ways (though hardly all) was a retread of our earlier work and that often came to very similar conclusions.
As usual, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s actions and filings can assure us that he is far ahead of the more narrow larger mainstream public discussion. Unfortunately, going all the way back to July, 2016, myopia has reigned and the big-picture narrative has not received the attention it deserves, let alone penetrated the day-to-day conversation.
Russia only returned as a major issue after the election, often mainly as result of various clumsy personnel moves by the Trump White House and ill-considered statements and tweets by Trump himself. Since then, when coverage focused on Russian-related developments, it presented the latest details provided with minimal context, jumping among various figures from Putin’s Sistine Chapel without describing the painting as a whole.
Throughout, there was plenty of information already publicly available to present a much larger, deeper narrative, but that was deemed “too complex” or unnewsworthy because there is not a shiny new piece of information dangling up front to be an exclusive piece of reporting, as if analysis for its own sake devoid of a new tidbit is worthless. Pieces of the puzzle keep coming out in the news, but the public is denied explanations of how these pieces and especially sections fit together.
Collusion? Or Collusion!
Thus, even now, there is a tremendous focus on the idea of “collusion:” maybe some of the people around the president were working for the Russians in one way or another, but the President’s defenders point out that a.) there is no evidence Trump himself was part of this collusion and b.) collusion itself “is not a crime.” These points have been made repeatedly, often, and for some time, and are wonderfully emblematic of the “missing the whole point” theme.
What is known is that people acting in line with and/or on behalf of Russia’s and Putin’s interests found themselves in important positions around Donald Trump over the past few decades, that these people were payed many millions by the Kremlin and its allies, that these and other people close to Trump often had strong ties to Russian government and/or Russian mafia (those two often being the same thing, as noted earlier), and that these people had many simultaneous cross-cutting relationships that have received far too little attention from the media and politicians.
The natural conclusion from all of this taken together is that attempts by those with deep Russian ties to engage Trump have not been random or haphazard, but, rather, fit into a pattern and a network whose goals were and are rather obvious: to harm Clinton and the Democrats, bolster Trump and the Republicans, and weaken the U.S., the West, and their shared alliances and institutions, all in line with years of publicly stated Russian intentions.
So, yes, of course there was an organized Russia plot.
Also obvious is the fact that the Republican Party—the American political party famous for generations for being so hard on Russia—has, in a manner of just few years, basically been co-opted by the Kremlin to play defense for it against exposing the network and operation from which Republicans, Trump, and Russia benefitted with exceptions in the Republican congressional delegation being few and far between and often retiring. The rest block and obstruct here, whitewash there, refuse to subpoena here, outright distort and misrepresent there. Both the Republican Party (officials and media allies) and the White House exert intense effort to malign and undermine the Russia investigators and investigations, and one is generally at a loss if quotes from most congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration on one side and quotes from Putin, Russian bots/trolls, and/or the Russian Foreign Ministry on the other are mixed up to tell which statements were said by the Russians and which by Republicans.
All this taken together creates a major definitional example of collusion that was obvious and was so long before the latest round of revelations.
Whether any kind of smoking gun ever emerges—some sort of specific crime that can be pinned on Trump—is irrelevant to this larger truth, and this larger truth has been largely ignored. As former FBI counterintelligence agent Asha Rangappa has pointed out repeatedly, Mueller is wearing two hats: one (more formally) of a criminal investigator and one (less formally) of a counterintelligence investigator; the pursuits while wearing the second do not necessarily have to reveal any crimes but are not any less important, yet because of regulations applying to the Special Counsel, we may only hear about Mueller’s criminal (non-)findings, if that. In the end, the public focus on possible criminal aspects has largely ignored the outlines of the broader plot—one of undeniable collusion–that a counterintelligence investigation would certainly include.
There is so much more that should be part of the discussion even now but still is not, and it is long overdue that this failure be rectified to include regular discussion of the entirety of Putin’s Sistine Chapel-like masterpiece.
© 2019 Brian E. Frydenborg, all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome
See my related piece on the Mueller report/Barr memo here: Barr Summary and Mueller Report Do Not Mean Trump Russia Is a Hoax. Far From It.
I’m no Michelangelo, but see my other related article: Think You Know How Deep Trump-Russia Goes? Think Again: This Chart/Info Will Blow Your Mind
Also see Brian’s eBook, A Song of Gas and Politics: How Ukraine Is at the Center of Trump-Russia, or, Ukrainegate: A “New” Phase in the Trump-Russia Saga Made from Recycled Materials, available for Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook (preview here).
Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer and consultant from the New York City area who has been based in Amman, Jordan, since early 2014. He holds an M.S. in Peace Operations and specializes in a wide range of interrelated topics, including international and U.S. policy/politics, security/conflict/(counter)terrorism, humanitarianism, development, social justice, and history. You can follow and contact him on Twitter: @bfry1981
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