Polman: Moscow on the Potomac
The White House says that Donald Trump won't throw out the first ball at the Washington Nationals' home opener. He supposedly has a "scheduling conflict" (translation: he doesn't want to be booed), and I'm sure going AWOL is fine with the fans. Because they'd undoubtedly prefer to see the American pastime relaunched by someone whose regime is not suspected of engaging in criminal foreign espionage.
Much like Watergate,the current scandal is sprouting more coiling vines than a kudzu plant. Seriously, who can keep up? Let's at least give it a try:
1. We learned that Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign manager, has been investigated by bank officials in Cyprus for possibly money-laundering ties to Putin-connected, mob-suspected oligarch Oleg Deripaska. The bank probe targeted 15 bank accounts. After the probe was launched, Manafort closed the accounts. Manafort now says that he "has no specific personal recollection" about closing the accounts.
This new story, broken by NBC News, dovetails with last week's revelation, broken by the Associated Press, that Manafort in 2005 signed a $10-million-a-year deal with Deripaska to "influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe, and former Soviet republics to benefit Putin's government." AP saw the documents. Trump propaganda minister Sean Spicer rushed to distance his boss, insisting that Manafort played only "a very limited role for a very limited time" — a fascinating description for a campaign manager who ran Trump's Republican convention.
2. Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner is being questioned by Senate intelligence investigators about his newly unearthed sitdown with a Russian banker who has strong intelligence ties to the Putin regime — at a time, last December, when Kushner was seeking new investors for the Trump family's real estate empire. The bank is currently under sanctions ordered by the Obama team in retaliation for Putin's power grab in Crimea. A Trump flak insists that when Kushner met with the banker, Sergey Gorkov, "It really wasn't much of a conversation."
3. These ties to Russia, and so many others, are rendered even more suspicious thanks to the story broken by CNN: "The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton's campaign."
4. Devin Nunes. Wow. The Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee is so in the tank that his next act will be licking Trump's limousine clean as a whistle. He couldn't do a better job sabotaging the House probe if he dynamited the hearing room.
He makes Inspector Clouseau look like James Bond. In an apparent bid to buttress Trump's claim that he was wiretapped, or surveilled, or something, Nunes secretly met a "source" at the White House to review some documents, then announced at a press conference that Trump had indeed been monitored in some fashion, then briefed Trump — without ever sharing what he'd supposedly learned with fellow members of the House panel.
David French, an attorney and conservative activist, gives us the best analysis of Nunes' lickspittle behavior. Writing in the conservative National Review, French says that "the White House appeared to be using Nunes to brief itself. Rather than state its own case with its own evidence, it used Nunes to make it appear as if [an] external investigation had at least partially validated Trump's tweets ... Nunes unnecessarily poured gasoline on an already-raging fire ... Nunes isn't [supposed to be] Donald Trump's lawyer. He's not Trump's spokesperson. It's not his job to clean up Trump's Twitter mess."
All told, said French, "It's time for Nunes to go."
5. Remember Sally Yates? The acting attorney general who was fired by Trump after she refused to defend his constitutionally indefensible travel ban? She was slated to testify — in part to discuss what she knew about Michael Flynn, the ex-national security adviser — at a House intel hearing. Nunes summarily canceled the hearing.
Basically, Trump's legal eagles sent her a series of letters insisting that her info on Flynn should remain confidential. Yates' lawyers fought back, contending that Flynn's Russia ties are publicly known, so therefore she fully intended to testify. That's when Nunes pulled the plug. Nunes also nixed a scheduled closed-door hearing with James Comey, the FBI chief who publicly confirmed last week that his G-people are probing for criminal espionage.
Meanwhile, Sean Spicer said that Trump didn't try to derail Yates' testimony: "To suggest in any way, shape or form that we stood in the way of that is 100 percent false." Actually, they did. It's right there in the letters. I hate to deface this column with Spicerlies, but I did want to give you a taste.
Amid all this, let's not forget it was a Trump campaign ad that warned voters a president "cannot lead a nation while crippled by a criminal investigation."
The ad was about Hillary's emails, but I buy the message.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Pennsylvania.