|TING SHEN / EYEVINE / REDUX|
It was early August 2016. Election Day and the final showdown between Hillary Clinton, who was widely expected to become the first woman president, and Donald Trump, the longshot celebrity windbag who improbably had won the Republican nomination, was three months away. Washington was sweltering through a mid-summer heatwave, but it was cool in CIA Director John Brennan's secure situation room at the spy agency's headquarters in suburban Langley, where he had called an emergency meeting of high-ranking representatives from the U.S. intelligence community.
Participants would recall that it soon seemed as if the air had been sucked out of the room as the Brennan announced he was convening a secret task force to keep President Obama and senior government officials informed of a nascent investigation into what appeared to be the greatest assault on American democracy since Soviet spies stole atomic bomb secrets over 70 years ago -- a plot directed by Russian leader Vladimir Putin to elect Trump by sabotaging Clinton's campaign through an army of cyber thieving computer hackers who, according to the then sketchy evidence, were being assisted by Trump's own inner circle.
In the year since that fateful meeting, Brennan's deep concern has been validated many times over as subsequent intelligence, most of it in the form of intercepted communications between Russians stationed in the U.S. and their superiors in Moscow, has unearthed a trove of evidence that Trump became president not by popular mandate (after all, he received three million fewer votes than did Clinton) but the fiendishly successful efforts of Putin's hackers, as well as a measure of luck, that enabled these saboteurs to take the information provided by Trump's advisers and suppress the Clinton vote in enough key districts in enough key states to assure Trump of victory where it mattered, the strange and uniquely American institution known as the Electoral College.
A year after Brennan's meeting -- and perhaps improbably, given all the so-called norms that Trump has shattered, collapse of many constitutional checks and balances and deeply partisan nature of Washington in the new millennium -- the several Russia scandal investigations are lumbering forward.
Robert Mueller is at the head of the lead investigation as a special counsel appointed because of efforts by Trump to obstruct the course of justice, notably firing FBI Director James Comey, that are so brazen that in another time they would have gotten a president impeached.
Mueller has convened a grand jury that has been meeting for several weeks at the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse on Constitution Avenue in Washington. The presence of a grand jury does not mean that Mueller has the goods on collusion between Russia and Trump's inner circle. But neither can there be any doubt that the initial phase of Mueller's accelerating investigation has produced enough evidence of collusion for him to empanel a grand jury to issue subpoenas for documents and compel reluctant witnesses to testify or risk being jailed on contempt of court charges.
The scope of Mueller's investigation is reflected in the expertise of his team of 20 or so criminal attorneys and seasoned investigators who have worked on cases ranging from Watergate to Enron to cyber crime, money laundering and bribery that he has assembled in a suite of commandeered offices at the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building a few blocks from the courthouse.
The investigation has three tracks:
* The original reason for the investigation -- the possibility of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
* Whether Trump himself obstructed justice by firing Comey under false pretenses, among his other actions to sabotage the investigations.
* Whether wrongdoing -- including finance and banking law violations -- is uncovered in the course of investigating the first two tracks.
Unfortunately for Trump, grand juries don't investigate hoaxes -- or "a total fabrication" -- as Trump declared at a campaign-style rally in West Virginia a few hours after the grand jury story broke.
There are an abundance of signs that the heat from Mueller's investigation and an unending stream of damaging leaks to the news media -- which has added significantly to the paralysis that characterizes Trump's presidency in particular and Republicans in general despite their control of all three branches of government -- are forcing him to turn to his only safe harbor.
That is his base.
Trump's message to that base, delivered in hysterical denials by Kellyanne Conway and other sycophants, in his own tweet storms and rallies in friendly climes like West Virginia, is that the very institutions constitutionally obligated to pursue his wrongdoing -- or in the case of the news media constitutionally protected to pursue it -- are evil forces conspiring to undo the election by illegitimate means.
It is by casting the scandal as fiction and trying to undermine the credibility of the intelligence services, Mueller, the news media and more recently certain Republicans who have left the reservation in proposing legislation to discourage him from firing the special prosecutor, that Trump maintains a chokehold on a base that has deep rooted feelings about being mistreated by government institutions.
This has prompted fears that Trump will demagogue his supporters into a riotous frenzy, but I believe that many of them are as exhausted, if not as disillusioned, as the rest of us are.
Trump's greatest fear has to be that the financial track of Mueller's investigation will connect some pretty obvious dots.
That Russians -- the very people Trump continues to swear he did no business with evah -- kept the Trump Organization afloat for years through grossly overinflated condo purchases, secretive deals with shadowy offshore corporations and money laundering through those condos and Atlantic City casinos. It is probable that this rogue's gallery will include Trump's eldest son, son-in-law and perhaps his daughter, as well.
If the thought has not occurred earlier to Trump that he is in very big trouble, he ain't seen anything yet. Be afraid, Donald Trump. Be very afraid.
Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal.