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The patsy in the White House

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News
Paul Manafort, President Trump, Vladimir Putin (Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty)

We now live in a bizarre land of dueling realities, as if the entire country were a series on the Syfy channel. So if you’re not one of those people who hears everything from right-wingers on Facebook or talk radio, or one who only follows the leftists on Twitter or MSNBC, you might have a hard time figuring out what to make of the latest turn in our political drama.

According to one narrative, echoed by conspiracist voices on the right, the special prosecutor looking into Russia is on a politically motivated trawling expedition, and what he’s finally reeled in amounts to a couple of scrawny carp: a short-lived campaign manager and his protégé, both of whom are being charged with crimes unconnected to last year’s campaign, along with a know-nothing volunteer who acted on his own pointless delusions when he cultivated Russian emissaries.

The real scandal, according to this version of events, is that Democrats were the ones who funded all this muckraking research into Donald Trump’s Russia ties in the first place, and it was Hillary Clinton who took money from Russians in exchange for giving away a chunk of America’s precious uranium, but of course the liberal media doesn’t want to talk about any of that.

If you buy the other narrative, though, which permeates social media and the op-ed pages of the liberal intelligentsia, we’re now months — even weeks — away from the end of the Trump presidency. Robert Mueller has executed only the first in what will be a steady rain of indictments, each one contributing to rising waters around the president himself, who clearly brokered a deal with a foreign government to help him win.

In truth, neither of these narratives really reflects what we know to this point; the rightist reality is pure illusion, and the leftist reality is well ahead of the facts.

But if you ask me, the week’s events are already confirming a third, important narrative about this president — and one that’s just as damning as any criminal conspiracy.

Let’s first examine what’s real and not real in the parallel narratives around Mueller’s investigation. To you Trump backers who’ve emailed me to say this is all about media duplicity and Clinton cover-ups, I have to break it to you: You’re getting duped.

That’s not to say the media isn’t liberal or anti-Trump; I’ll grant you all that. But in a desperate effort to dismiss what Mueller has unearthed, conservative media has purposely conflated a bunch of things that, taken in context, aren’t terribly relevant at the moment.

Yes, it does appear that Democrats funded some of the sleazy research into Trump and his ties to Russians, along with rival Republicans. Yes, some Democratic lobbyists — including the brother of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman — appear to have done some of the same lobbying for pro-Russian interests that Paul Manafort, Trump’s onetime campaign manager, did.

Yes, there was a pretty arcane deal under the Obama administration to sell some American uranium to a company with Russian investors, and one former investor had given money to the Clinton Foundation.

But we already knew that our politics — on both sides, and always where the Clintons are concerned — is distorted by unseemly greed and influence-mongering, from interests both domestic and foreign.

None of this detracts from the gravity of what Trump’s campaign is accused of doing, which is actively colluding with another government to install an American president.

As for my Trump-hating friends who say the truth is out and justice is at hand, I’d caution against over-extrapolating. The charges against Manafort, to this point, are charges a diligent prosecutor probably could bring against a lot of lobbyists in Washington. They have nothing to do with collusion.

And it really isn’t certain at this point that George Papadopoulos, one of the less-than-impressive names on Trump’s less-than-impressive roster of so-called foreign policy experts during the campaign, had any real impact when it came to fostering cooperation between his Russian contacts and the candidate.

That’s the thing about hastily adding random “advisers” to a campaign, all because you wake up one day and realize that you really have no campaign to speak of and you want to sound more substantive than you are. Those advisers can then run around doing anything they want on your behalf.

The only thing for sure right now is that Mueller has his talons into some Trump associates who would probably throw the president off a plane before they’d spend a single day in jail, so it’s fair to assume that whatever they know will be known to all of us before long.

Is it at least plausible that Manafort and Papadopoulos and others in their orbit could have been acting as de facto Russian agents without Trump or his coterie of little Trumps really being aware of it? Or that the Trumps were vaguely aware of what was happening but didn’t think it was such a big deal?

I actually do think that’s plausible. And it’s a version of events I find just as disconcerting as any other.

Because the picture that emerges here is of a president who turns out to be an easy mark for every spy and con man who walks through the door.

Of course the Russians were trying to work sources in both parties to their own advantage — that’s what the Russians do, everywhere. I’m sure the American electoral system is a door they’ve been pushing on for decades, every four years, in the vaguest hopes of finding a path to influence.

Imagine how surprised they must have been when that door suddenly swung open, with their American recruits sitting at the top levels of the campaign and even delivering them a meeting in Trump Tower with the candidate’s son. It must have felt like Christmas in the Kremlin.

No wonder Vladimir Putin set out to help elect Trump. Wouldn’t you have, too, if you were the strongman of a rival power? He didn’t need some explicit deal.

It must have been clear as Russian crystal that this was a potential first family he could manipulate and outmaneuver, unlike all the more sophisticated political operations over the years that never would have given his agents the time of day.

The same holds true, in a sense, for Manafort. It’s pretty clear now that one of the party’s shadier operatives came out of a long retirement from electoral politics because he saw a rare opening — no one else wanted to help Trump then — and thought he could profit from his proximity to power.

Manafort materialized from nowhere, bent on using the Trumps as a bodybuilding supplement for his off-books lobbying business, so he could buy himself more custom suits. And what did Trump, the streetwise mogul who’s always going on about his fancy degree from Wharton, say?

You seem like a credible guy. You’re hired! Let me introduce you to Jared!

I don’t know right now what Trump did or didn’t do, knowingly, to compromise the democracy, and unless your name is Mueller, you’re probably not qualified to say, either. We’ll find out in time.

What we do know — and it may well be the most charitable interpretation of the facts we have — is that Trump and his entire family were hopelessly out of their depth and dangerously credulous when it came to running for president, and now they’re running the country.

There’s no narrative here in which we don’t have a patsy for a president, in a dangerous and confusing world. If that doesn’t scare you, it should.

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