Spy fiction? Byzantine Russia tale envelops Washington

Paul HANDLEY
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Protesters march against President Trump outside the Embassy of Russia on March 4, 2017, in Washington, DC

Secret meetings, phone taps, Russian oil money and mysterious intelligence dossiers: the swirling scandal over Donald Trump's ties to Moscow has all the makings of a classic spy novel -- whose ending has yet to be written.

But the maelstrom engulfing Washington over Russia's interference in the US election last year is very real, and the political stakes have never been higher: Trump's presidency itself.

Increasingly the story is turning to one of deliberate misinformation, leaks to the media, and worries of a high-level cover-up.

The plot appears simple: Moscow, aiming to damage the presidential prospects of Democrat Hillary Clinton, deployed hacked documents and misinformation to boost the campaign of rival Trump.

But underlying that is the explosive question: did Trump's campaign collude with Moscow?

That's where the wiretaps, a former British spy's dossier on contacts between Trump's campaign and Russian intelligence, Trump's business dealings with Russian tycoons, and cryptic statements by US spy chiefs, take hold of the plot.

The Director of National Intelligence and the heads of the FBI, CIA, and National Security Agency announced on January 6 that they were convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin had masterminded the effort to manipulate the November election.

But they held back their evidence. Nor did they comment on the report by Christopher Steele, a former British MI6 agent, that details numerous alleged communications between Trump advisors and Russian officials during 2016.

The Steele report, which has not been substantiated and has been rejected by the White House as "fake news," lies at the heart of suspicions of collusion. It also, provocatively, suggests Putin has possession of a sex video secretly filmed in 2013 while Trump was in Moscow.

- Kaleidoscope of characters -

Like any good political yarn, the story has unfolded with a kaleidoscopic cast of characters.

A key mystery man throughout is Russia's chummy ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who appears to have met Trump and everyone around him during the campaign.

There is Michael Flynn, a former US military intelligence chief who was generously paid to attend a gala of Russia's RT television in December 2015, where he sat together with Putin. It was Flynn's half-truths about his calls with Kislyak that forced him out of his new job as White House national security advisor in February.

Another key person is Paul Manafort, who spent years working for Moscow-backed Ukraine leader Viktor Yanukovych before becoming Trump's campaign chief. Did he also have contact with Russian intelligence, as the New York Times suggests?

Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, met with Russia's ambassador and a top Russian banker in December. Jeff Sessions, the Trump government's attorney general, first said he never met Kislyak during the campaign and then admitted to doing so. Carter Page, a Trump advisor and former Moscow-based banker, also met the omnipresent Moscow envoy and other Russian officials.

- Stonewalled investigations? -

The question now is whether various investigations will go ahead, without interference. The FBI is conducting a counterintelligence probe, under the lead of a director already under a cloud for his own alleged interference in the election, which hurt Clinton.

The House and Senate intelligence committees, which are privy to classified intelligence, are also investigating.

But the House committee probe appears under threat. Its chief, Republican Devin Nunes, cancelled a planned open hearing this week after he "discovered" secret surveillance documents that he said showed Trump and associates were picked up in "incidental collections" by US intelligence agencies. Nunes later admitted having received the documents during a surreptitious visit to a White House "safe" room last week.

Rather than share the information with his committee, Nunes made a very visible trip to present it to Trump, who said it "somewhat" vindicated his unproven charge that former president Barack Obama had ordered the intelligence agencies to wiretap Trump Tower during the campaign.

Since then Nunes has revealed nothing about the information he received, drawing sharp criticism and calls to step down. Jackie Speier, a Democratic member of the committee, said the moves smack of an effort by the White House and Nunes to shut down the House investigation.

"I don't think the president wants this investigation to go forward," she told MSNBC on Tuesday.

- Trump at the center -

At the center, of course, is Trump, who has animated the story with his off-the-cuff tweets. But he perpetuates suspicions by criticizing US intelligence bodies, the media, and Democrats, while praising the Russians.

His focus has been to defend his election victory as legitimate while changing the subject.

"Why isn't the House Intelligence Committee looking into the Bill & Hillary deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia," he tweeted Monday in a reference to the Clintons.

Trump's tweets, Nunes' evasive tactics, and denials by Trump aides of any wrongdoing have failed to kill the plot. Yet the question remains, was there any real collusion with Moscow? Trump's opponents are certain there is; his defenders say it is all smoke.

John McCain, the veteran Republican senator, adapted a classic metaphor to suggest how it will unroll.

"I think there are a lot of shoes to drop from this centipede."