At this point in what has become known as the Russia scandal, a few things are obvious. Based on what we know, there probably is a lot we don't know, and what we don't know is bound to be mind blowing.
Among the things we know is that Donald Trump's campaign colluded with Vladimir Putin in his successful effort to throw the 2016 presidential election to him, the Russian president's manipulation of Trump is the most astounding example of diplomatic puppetry in the post-Cold War era as was further reinforced by their previously undisclosed second meeting at the G20 summit, and most especially Trump's continuing obsequiousness in the face -- let alone the very physical presence -- of the man who is not merely the embodiment of America's greatest geopolitical foe but has made his life work undercutting the U.S. and returning Russia to its long lost Soviet-era glory.
Among the things we don't know is what Putin has on Trump, and the key to unlocking the scandal's deepest and darkest secret is finding out what that is.
Noting that Trump is a malignant narcissist who believes the earth, moon and stars revolve around him, what other explanation can there be for why a man who routinely faces down and belittles anyone who gets in his way -- be they the leader of an allied nation, a Republican congressional bigshot or the endless primal screaming over Hillary Clinton -- but becomes gelid when the adversary is Putin?
Election interference? Never happened. Sanctions? We don't need them. The diplomatic compounds Obama seized? Sure, we'll give 'em back. Don't like the U.S.'s Syria strategy? We'll retool ours to fit yours.No matter how you unpack Trump's second meeting with Putin, which did not involve a U.S. translator and Trump himself kept secret from his handlers, it stinks on ice. The other leaders present at the banquet at Elbphilarmonie Hall in Hamburg sure thought so, and were "bemused, non-plussed and befuddled," in the words of one observer, by the strange spectacle of an American president sucking up to a Russian leader at a summit meeting while marginalizing America's oldest and closest friends.
Is there a plausible alternative explanation for the second meeting? No. Did they merely discuss Putin's ban on American's adopting Russian waifs, as Trump claims? Of course not. Was the meeting only 15 minutes, as Trump claims, and not an hour? Of course not.
We've become so inured to Trump's behavior -- and his profound ineptness as president and commander and chief can sometimes seem like so much background noise -- that we yet again risk missing the main point.
Why is it that the man who hijacked a presidential election, undermining the very foundation of our democracy and sees Trump as an intelligence asset to be nakedly exploited, even deserves the time of day, let alone three hours of Trump's fawning attention over the course of two meetings?
We fail to seek the answer to that question at America's peril.
When Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May, his trademark impetuousness and inattention to the consequences of his actions quickly led to the appointment of Robert Mueller, who is possibly the only person on the planet with the investigative chops to bring down his presidency.§
Beyond that delicious irony, president and special counsel have been on a collision course since Mueller was appointed by Rod Rosenstein, a deputy attorney general, after AG Jeff Sessions recused himself because of his own Russia scandal problems. Trump's minions are now hard at work exploring what options he has to pardon scandal perps and trying to undermine Mueller and his team, which again begs the question of what these guys could possibly be investigating if Trump's assertion there is no Russia scandal is true.
Trump, in an interview on Wednesday with The New York Times, jumped another shark in revealing for -- well, who's counting the number of times at this point? -- that he not only is above the rule of law, but he's his own worst enemy. Summoning his ever on-call inner demons, he declared he never would have appointed Sessions if he knew he would do the right thing and step aside, said Rosenstein was suspect because there are very few Republicans from Baltimore (seriously!), and claimed Comey's real motivation for briefing him on the sordid Steele dossier two weeks before he took office was part of a plot to blackmail him.
And for good measure, the president threatened Mueller if the special counsel looks into his family's finances. Which was like drawing a line in the sand after the tide had come in but would seem to considerably enhance the possibility that Mueller will be axed, precipitating Trump's version of Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre and the full-blown constitutional crisis with which he has been flirting for some time now.
Trump yet again provided a textbook example of seeking to obstruct justice through threats and intimidation, which under "normal" circumstances would be grounds for impeachment, giving Mueller further impetus to investigate those finances, which he already is doing with an assist from an investigative team with superlative finance-ferreting credentials.
That presumably includes Trump's tax returns, which unlike every president since Jimmy Carter, he has not made public and likely contain a wealth of information about his associations with Russians.
I noted in a post the other day titled "Revealed: Donald Trump's Network of Russian Sleaze & Mob Money Launderers" that Trump's layering of lies upon lies in refusing to even acknowledge his Russia ties -- which include over 30-years of connections with an extensive network of corrupt businessmen, mobsters and money launderers from the former Soviet Union, Russia and their satellite states -- is, in part, a consequence of members of the network being able to leverage his literal and figurative debts, if not blackmail him outright.
At the top of that list is, of course, the object of Trump's bromantic affection -- Putin.
Even Trump's above-ground financial wheelings and dealings are now drawing scrutiny.
When he had worn out his welcome with other lending institutions because of a string of bankruptcies, Trump turned to Deutsche Bank for a $300 million loan in 1998 and in subsequent years some $4 billion in loans and bond offerings.
Coincidentally (or not), the German bank recently paid more than $600 million in penalties to New York and British regulators for being a prominent player in a money laundering scheme known as the "Global Laundromat" run by Russian criminals with ties to the Kremlin.
Coincidentally (or not), former Deutsche Bank chairman Josef Ackerman is now chairman of Bank of Cyprus. Wilbur Ross was the vice chairman of the Cypriot bank until Trump nominated him as his commerce secretary. Coincidentally (or not), the bank is an offshore haven for money laundering by Russian oligarchs and mobsters. Coincidentally (or not), former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was a favored account holder and deposited $2.7 million in what the Ukraine government asserts were illegal payments from the country's former pro-Russian ruling party.
Among the Russia connections Trump adamantly denies having is Dennis Rybolovlev, an oligarch who is a major Bank of Cyprus shareholder and purchased one of Trump's estates. And in May, federal prosecutors settled a case for pennies on the dollar with Prevezon Holdings, a Russian-owned Cyprus investment entity accused of laundering dirty money through Manhattan real estate.
Coincidentally (or not), one of Prevezon's lawyers was Natalia Veselnitskaya, who huddled with Donald Trump Jr. and the Trump campaign brain trust at Trump Tower in June 2016 in the follow-up to Donald Jr.'s infamous "If it's what you say I love it" email response to an offer to share Russian government dirt that could incriminate Hillary Clinton.
Meanwhile, Jared Kushner has had his own relationship with Deutsche Bank. Trump's son-in-law and his mother have an unsecured $25 million line of credit and the family business he ran until Trump became president received a $285 million loan in 2016.
Deutsche Bank says it will cooperate with Mueller's requests for information on Trump's finances.
What would it take to break Trump?§
He is not about to be impeached because of a Republican congressional leadership whose cowardice verges on treason. As batshit crazy as he may be, the 25th Amendment will not be invoked in the foreseeable future. Kushner should lose his security clearance, but won't. Special Counsel Robert Mueller will not be harvesting the bitter fruits of his investigation for weeks if not months if he lasts that long.
How about this as a presidency breaker-upper: Trump being humiliated in the eyes of the only people he cares about other than himself -- his family.
What would it take for that to happen? Maybe if it turns out that the Russia scandal's deepest and darkest secret is so deeply embarrassing that it threatens to destroy his family and marriage to The Mel if he doesn't quit, tuck his forked tail between his legs and scurry back to Trump Tower.
"Daddy, how could you do that?" one imagines Ivanka imploring him as he sits slumped over his Oval Office desk.
Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline on the Russia scandal.