Once again, another American president seems to have gotten himself cornered in his Oval Office.
But Donald Trump will be the first to tell you he is different — different from Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, or any POTUS who ever felt powerless and trapped in the world’s most powerful office. And here Trump’s telling the truth. Because he knows deep down, he’s the only one who somehow painted himself into a corner of his corner-less office before he’d even set foot in it.
This week, Trump reportedly fumed as he learned from Monday morning’s TV news that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had just indicted his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates, on 12 charges, including conspiracy to launder money and making false statements. So at 10:28 a.m. Trump tweeted, “there is NO COLLUSION!”
Then came far worse news: Unsealed court documents showed someone most of Washington never even remembered, George Papadopoulos, an unpaid Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, had pleaded guilty this summer to making false statements and had apparently been cooperating with Mueller’s probe ever since. Uh-oh.
Team Trump rushed to spread the word that Papadopoulos was just a campaign nobody, a guy who fetched coffee, a wannabe who never really was. But then Washington remembered it once knew who Papadopoulos was — and who first told spread the news. It was Trump, himself. In March 2016, when the Washington Post asked Trump who was advising him on foreign policy, Papadopoulos was the second name he mentioned. “He’s an energy and oil consultant, excellent guy,” Trump boasted then.
At that time, we now know, Papadopoulos was telling Trump and his top campaign advisers he was in contact with Kremlin-connected Russians who want to arrange a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin — yes, the guy Trump wouldn’t publicly condemn despite Moscow’s military interventions in Ukraine and despite the fact that U.S. intelligence said Putin personally launched Russian cyberattacks to sabotage America’s democracy, defeat Hillary Clinton and elect Trump. Papadopoulos was also bragging back then that he knew Russians who want to share dirt about Hillary Clinton. Uh-oh.
Now we also know there’s a backstory to Trump’s Russophile ways: Trump owes a massive debt of gratitude (if nothing more) to Russian oligarchs who invested hugely in Trump real estate when Trump’s empire was widely reported to be troubled in the 1990s and in the Great Recession. We don’t yet know if those oligarchs were investing to make more money or mainly just launder theirs.
But we know they were investing bigly, thanks to our well-placed sources of insider information.
In 2008, Trump’s No. 1 son, Donald Jr., told a real estate conference in New York: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. … We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
In 2014, Trump’s son, Eric, joined his father, golf superstar Greg Norman, and golfing writer James Dodson for a round at Trump’s new North Carolina golf course. Dodson recalled what happened in a broadcast last May on Boston radio station WBUR.
Dodson said when he asked the elder Trump who paid for his golf course purchases, Trump just said he had access to $100 million. “So later, while sharing a golf cart with Eric, Dodson said he asked: ‘Eric, who’s funding? I know no banks — because of the recession, the Great Recession — have touched a golf course…. He said, ‘Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia. … We’ve got some guys that really, really love golf, and they’re really invested in our programs. We just go there all the time.’”
Eric later called Dodson’s account “completely fabricated.” Still, his dad famously boasted that at one of his Miss Universe pageants in Moscow: “Almost all of the oligarchs were in the room.” And last March, Reuters reported 63 persons with Russian passports or addresses invested almost $100 million in Trump’s South Florida properties.
Back in the summer of his 2016 campaign, when Trump was ridiculing as “far-fetched” U.S. intelligence conclusions that Russia was cyber-attacking to help him win, reporters asked why he wouldn’t call on Russia to not interfere in U.S. elections. “I’m not going to tell Putin what to do,” Trump declared. “Why should I tell Putin what to do?”
Team Mueller is now seeking to answer Trump’s excellent question.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.