|KIRILL KALLINIKOV / SPUTNIK VIA AP|
Despite its many twists and turns, the Russia scandal that has engulfed the White House and isn't letting go -- certainly not now that the Senate Intelligence Committee has joined the FBI in launching a full-scale investigation -- always has been all about the money. This is because Donald Trump always has been all about the money, and the outcome of investigators' labors will be determined by how far they are able to follow the money.
Trump's infatuation with Russia has had much less to do with his admiration for Vladimir Putin's autocratic ways, although that is a factor, than the art of the deal and Trump's lifelong addiction to greed. That is, making, losing and then making more money in the service of gratifying an insatiable narcissism. Post-Soviet Union Russia is merely a big crack house for Trump where he has been able to feed his addiction without the cops looking over his shoulder. Until now.
Even without the benefit of Trump's jealously guarded federal income tax returns, there is no doubt that while the pathological liar-in-chief continues to claim that he has done no business with Russia -- oh, and Kenyan-born Barack Obama ordered his Trump Tower phones to be tapped -- he and his associates have cut deals worth many millions, if not billions, of dollars and rubles with officials, oligarchs and other businesspeople from Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet satellite republics. USA Today reported this week at at least 10 of those business partners are out and out mobsters.
Helping Putin manipulate the outcome of the 2016 presidential election by sabotaging Hillary Clinton was never Trump's primary motivation, and that likely will become glaringly obvious as the Senate and FBI investigations spool out.
The Kremlin's sabotage of the foundation stone of America democracy was a bonus, if you will, of Trump's years-long business dealings behind the former Iron Curtain, while the willing participation of his surrogates with his acquiescence, if not direct involvement, was a consequence of the darkest of the dark side of his Russian dealmaking: While Trump has always believed himself to be the smartest guy in the room, Putin has played this ignoramus from Queens for a fool in cultivating, supporting and assisting him for so long that he has personal and financial kompromat (compromising information) on the now leader of his global arch enemy that can be leveraged. Like helping to undermine the election.
This is the nut of the Steele dossier and Sergei Millian (photo above) is the . . . uh, nut.
Christopher Steele is the former British spy whose report on Putin's sock puppetry of Trump was believed to be so accurate that the FBI was prepared to pay him to keep digging, an arrangement that was interrupted when the dossier became the subject of news stories and vehement White House denials, and Steele had to go to ground.
Millian was identified as "Source D" in Steele's dossier by the Wall Street Journal and later confirmed by the Washington Post. He told an associate that some of the Russian officials with whom Trump had long-standing relationships were feeding him damaging and "very helpful" information about Hillary Clinton they had gleaned from the Kremlin's multi-pronged effort to influence the outcome of the election. Unbeknownst to Millian, the associate passed on what he had heard to Steele.
It is not definitely known who that message bearer was, but the smart money would go with Oleg Erovinkin, who was found dead in the back seat of his Lexus in Moscow last December 26 in what almost certainly was one of 10 or so suspicious deaths linked to the scandal but was claimed to be a heart attack by officials, which is the default cause of death in political murders.
The problem with Millian, like so many other characters in this soap opera of a scandal is that he is credible in some respects and uncredible in others.
The Belarusan-American businessman is undeniably shrewd. He founded the Russian American Chamber of Commerce trade group and is well connected. Among those connections are George Padaopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser. But Millian likes to shoot off his mouth, and among the dirt he is said to have given Steele via the mystery messenger is the explosive allegation that Trump hired prostitutes at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton for some kinky sex during a 2013 visit and the Kremlin has evidence of the encounter that it is holding over his head.
When Trump first announced his candidacy, Millian said he knew Trump and had had multiple contracts with the Trump Organization in the past, including several with Michael Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer. Millian traveled to Moscow over the summer and was seen with many Russian officials and businessmen, including aluminum oligarch and mobster Oleg Deripaska, who has become ensnared in the scandal.
But Millian has portrayed himself more recently as an innocent bystander unwittingly caught up in an international intrigue.
He went on Russian television in late January to deny having damaging information on Trump and responded to a list of questions from the WaPo with a rambling defense of Trump's election as "God's will" and now complains that inquiries about his role are evidence of a "witch hunt."
Among Millian's other assertions are that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort managed the relationship between the campaign and Russian leadership, which has the ring of truth.
Manafort denies that, and he has been unable to get out from under an investigation by bank officials in Cyprus regarding money laundering allegations based on his ties to Deripaska. This fits hand and glove with Manafort's well-documented $10 million a year deal with Deripaska to rehabilitate Putin's battered image outside of Russia.
Cohen also denies that he knows Millian, but numerous Facebook interactions between the two indicate otherwise.
Cohen was seen having coffee in a Manhattan hotel in February with Felix Sater, a Russian immigrant and FBI snitch with extensive Russian mob ties, and Andrii Artemenko, a wealthy oligarch and member of the Ukraine Parliament, on a Crimea "peace plan" that Cohen later delivered to then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn at the White House shortly before Flynn's unceremonious ouster.
Flynn, a career intelligence officer, has now offered to be interviewed by scandal investigators, but only in return for a grant of immunity.
"General Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should circumstances permit," Robert Kelner, his lawyer, said of an overture that betrays desperation on Flynn's part and should strike fear in Trump's heart because of the likelihood that Flynn knows a great deal about contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials. The offer, however, probably is a non-starter this early in the Senate investigation, the full scope of which has yet to be determined, and if he eventually is granted immunity it is because Flynn can implicate a higher-up.
In Flynn's case, there is only one higher-up -- the president of the United States.
For what it may be worth, Kelner is a #NeverTrump Republican who voted for independent candidate Evan McMullin, but it is too early to know whether his offer is a big deal, just a deal, or even a smokescreen.
Millian gets credbility points, even if by default, because the Trump administration's denials -- whether concerning Jeff Sessions, Flynn, Cohen, Manafort, Millian and a host of other characters -- are so glaringly false, while its pushbacks like the cloak-and-dagger intrigue involving hapless House Intel Committee Chairman Devin Nunes on the White House grounds in an effort to bolster Trump's obsession that Obama wiretapped him seem comically amateurish.
Trump cannot escape the scandal simply because there is something -- if not an awful lot of something -- to it.
The Republican Party is at the peak of its political fortunes but finds itself paralyzed because its leader is a narcissistic nut case. A government shutdown that only those mean Democrats can avert is less than a month away. And now Michael Flynn apparently has defected as the White House leaking and backstabbing continues apace and the drip-drip-drip of damaging scandal revelations threaten to become a downpour.
We have become so chary of politicians in this era of hyper-partisanship and reliably unkept promises that the Senate Intelligence Committee's fast start on the Russia scandal must be viewed with caution even if these guys are acting like grown-ups.
That was a big takeaway from the panel's first public hearing on Thursday where we learned that Russian cyber-mischief continues unabated and that two Republicans -- Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan -- were targeted as recently as last week in the Kremlin's strategy of spreading propaganda in the U.S. and undermining its democratic institutions.
The stakes could not be higher for America and Republican Party.
We are talking about an investigation that is the most explosive since Soviet spies stole American atomic bomb secrets over 70 years ago. We are taking about repeated and egregious security breaches by the White House staff as it scrambles to gin up increasingly preposterous ways to defend the boss's tweets. We are talking about a president's deep ties with a criminal underworld. And we are talking about an enormous credibility test for members of a political party who for decades portrayed Moscow as the great global Satan but have gone all mushy as their president kisses Putin's ass.
Will Senate Intel Committee Republicans stay the course if the outcome of their inquiries could further weaken if not cripple Trump?