A leftover from last night, and an almost perfect political Rorschach test on Russiagate. Anti-Trumpers on Twitter were oohing and ahhing over the story, Trumpers were shrugging at how larded up it is with hedging. (“Possibly” coordinated? It’s also “possibly” true that Obama wiretapped Trump at Trump Tower, I guess.) The claim is worth noting, though, because I believe it’s the first time that a major media outlet has suggested that hard evidence might exist of collusion between Trump allies and the Russians last year. Until now, it’s been nothing but circumstantial blather about Trump staffers having communicated with Russians, with no specifics about what those communications might have involved.
It’s also worth noting because the timing of this story seems awfully coincidental, coming as it did just a few hours after Democrat Adam Schiff claimed for the first time that he’s seen more than mere circumstantial evidence of collusion. Did Schiff or one of his allies leak this to CNN — possibly to retaliate against Republican Devin Nunes for going to bat for Trump yesterday on surveillance?
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, US officials told CNN…
The FBI is now reviewing … information, which includes human intelligence, travel, business and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings, according to those U.S. officials. The information is raising the suspicions of FBI counterintelligence investigators that the coordination may have taken place, though officials cautioned that the information was not conclusive and that the investigation is ongoing…
One law enforcement official said the information in hand suggests “people connected to the campaign were in contact and it appeared they were giving the thumbs up to release information when it was ready.” But other U.S. officials who spoke to CNN say it’s premature to draw that inference from the information gathered so far since it’s largely circumstantial.
That’s a lotta hedging. Any clues out there as to who or what the CNN story might be referring? Well, Schiff himself seemed unusually interested in Roger Stone when questioning Comey at Monday’s hearing on Russiagate, asking him repeatedly if the FBI was investigating Stone and getting stonewalled (no pun intended) by Comey each time. The Times reported this past weekend that Stone just received a letter from the Senate Intelligence Committee instructing him to preserve all evidence he might have related to Russia’s interference in the campaign. A few days ago CNN published a week-by-week timeline of statements made by Stone last year regarding communications with Wikileaks, some of which warned presciently about dirt that had yet to emerge. Not every prediction was accurate — he claimed at one point that Wikileaks would be dumping emails by Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin from Hillary’s long lost server — but he famously tweeted on August 21st, “it will soon the [sic] Podesta’s time in the barrel.” Wikileaks began publishing emails from Podesta’s Gmail account on October 7th. Add to all of that the fact that Stone is notorious as a political dirty trickster and you arrive at the sense that if any Trump associate was going to play with Russia to try to beat Hillary, he’d be the most likely to do so.
All of that fits broadly with CNN’s description of evidence that seems a bit more than circumstantial yet far short of hard proof of collusion. You’ve got a Trump confidante famous for playing hardball claiming contact with Wikileaks, and he seems in some ways to have had an inside track on dirt that later turned up. But there’s no evidence that he actually did, or at least none that’s publicly available; Stone might simply have been shooting his mouth off, falsely claiming to have been huddling with Assange because he relishes his reputation as a master of politics’ dark arts and thought that might enhance it. Even if the feds do have proof that Stone was in contact with Assange and was egging him on to release dirt on the DNC and Podesta, how do they prove that he was somehow doing that at the Trump campaign’s behest rather than freelancing as someone who loves Trump and hates Clinton? If Stone is in fact the target, we’re still a ways away from Trump being implicated in anything. Although it’d be a political nightmare for the White House, needless to say, if Comey pins something on Stone and the media spends the next month revisiting, in scrupulous detail, the long Trump-Stone friendship. Trump might never escape the cloud of suspicion that he put Stone up to it.