Washington — If you were writing a pitch for a Hollywood series about the roiling investigation of the Trump campaign’s possible dealings with Russian operatives, you might describe it as “Billions” meets “The Americans.”
This plot has already had some weird twists and turns, and we aren’t even at the end of Season One. It’s must-see television, for sure, but disheartening, like the O.J. Simpson trial. You know it’s not going to end happily for most of the characters (or, indeed, for the country), but you can’t stop watching.
Let’s look at the two protagonists in our presidential potboiler. First, our billionaire president. He’d be lucky to have as much hair (or money) as Damian Lewis, who stars as the fictional hedge-fund trader Bobby Axelrod in Showtime’s “Billions.” But Trump has a similar scorched-earth approach to dealing with his adversaries, which is part of why he’s in growing difficulty in the Russia investigation.
Trump’s behavior over the past year, as allegations deepened of Russian covert action to help his campaign, has been comparable to his business life. As chief executive of the Trump Organization, he bargained hard. When he was sued, he often countersued, creating a costly jumble of litigation that intimidated many adversaries. And he disliked settling cases, on the theory that such compromise only invited more attacks.
This hyper-adversarial style has been on display with the Russia story. Trump has denied having business contacts with Russian oligarchs (he tweeted: “NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA,”), a claim that’s contradicted by the public record. When the allegations continued, he counter-attacked — first accusing the intelligence agencies of leaking information in the style of “Nazi Germany” and then alleging that President Obama had wiretapped his offices at Trump Tower. Both charges were false, but useful distractions.
Trump from the beginning has refused any hint of compromise on the Russia issue. It would have been easy, early on, to have affirmed the easily documented facts, said he favored a better relationship with Moscow because it was good policy, and ordered his associates to explain their past dealings. But he didn’t do that.
Trump’s defiance has put his presidency on a collision course with Congress and the FBI. Some supporters claim he’s facing a secret coup from an intelligence and foreign policy establishment that comprises a despotic “deep state.” But really, Trump is confronting the orderly process we call the “rule of law.”
Why is Trump so resistant to compromise? Does he fear the revelations that might eventually emerge? Or is this simply his perennial negotiating style — never bend, lest you diminish the tough-guy, “always-a-winner” image? We don’t know, but Trump is taking us to a dark place where we may find out.
Now, what about the Russian players in our drama? First, they are masters of the intelligence game. The characters in the FX series “The Americans” offer a hint of the subtle and implacable tradecraft the Russians have brought to espionage since the tsar’s time. They are a relentless adversary. But that doesn’t mean they’re perfect, or that we are doomed to perpetual Cold War.
As Trump’s associates are learning, Russian diplomats and top business leaders often perform an intelligence function, too. So a discussion with an ambassador, say, or a prominent oligarch is likely to be monitored by U.S. intelligence. And when these Kremlin insiders brag among themselves about their access to the Trump entourage (hypothetically speaking), these conversations may well be intercepted, too. And sometimes leaked to the press.
But we should remember, when we read stories about Russian intelligence contacts with the Trump team (or anyone else), this is raw information — and often unreliable. Russian diplomats, intelligence operatives and business executives routinely boast about their contacts — inflating their access and information.
State Department officials have been unfairly tarred by such surveillance, as when the FBI pursued false claims that a U.S. diplomat in Pakistan had been recruited as a spy. We need to understand the possibility that Trump and his associates could be unfairly maligned by raw intelligence, too — gossip that’s dressed up as “top secret.” That’s why we need quiet, careful investigations to establish the truth.
Russians aren’t “10 feet tall,” as an earlier generation of CIA officers sometimes imagined. They aren’t monsters who are America’s permanent enemies. They spy on us, as we spy on them. But they are very good at it, as our real-life espionage blockbuster has demonstrated over the past few months.
This one is going to Season Two. Spoiler alert: The Russians have already won.
— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.