Day 6

A former NSA analyst says the Russia investigations could end Donald Trump's presidency

This week, speculation about Donald Trump's ties to Russia reached a new level, as FBI Director James Comey confirmed that U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating Trump campaign ties to Russia. John Schindler is a former analyst with the National Security Agency. He has long expressed concerns about Trump's ties to Moscow, and says the issue could be Trump's undoing.
U.S. President Donald Trump holds a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the East Room of the White House on March 17, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

by Brent Bambury

As FBI Director James Comey spoke before the House Intelligence Committee on Monday, making his jaw-dropping revelation that the agency is investigating alleged "coordination" between Russian agents trying to influence the U.S. election and the Trump campaign, documents released in Ukraine cast a shadow over an already embattled former member of the Trump team.

Paul Manafort was dumped as Trump's campaign chair in August when he was implicated in an alleged scheme to loot the Ukrainian government of millions of dollars while he was working for former president Viktor Yanukovych. The documents released Monday appear to show cover-up payments from shell companies. Manafort says the evidence is forged and that he is innocent.

But on Tuesday, White House spokesperson Sean Spicer was eager to wash his hands of Manafort. Spicer downplayed Manafort's connection to the campaign team, saying he "played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time."

The next day, news broke that Manafort had worked for several years for a Russian billionaire lobbying for Vladimir Putin, and Spicer edged further away from the former campaign chair.

"(Manafort) was not — he is not a government employee," Spicer said. "He didn't fill out any paperwork attesting to something."

"To suggest that the president knew who (Manafort's) clients were from a decade ago is a bit insane."

Paul Manafort looks down on Donald Trump celebrating after giving his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Ohio, July 2016. (REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)


Manafort under the bus

John Schindler says he understands why Trump's team wants to ice his long-time colleague.

"If I was Trump, I'd want to distance myself as far away as possible from Paul Manafort," Schindler told me on Day 6.

Schindler is a former analyst at the National Security Agency and a former professor at the Naval War College. He regularly shares chatter he hears from the intelligence community on social media, and writes regularly for The Observer.

Discussing Manafort, Schindler quickly got on a roll.

Former Trump Campaign Chair Paul Manafort checking out the podium before Trump takes the stage in New York City, June 2016. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

"(Manafort) has been exposed as a Putin propagandist who was making $10-million-a-year to shill for Putin in the west."

"And certainly, it appears that Trump knew, in general, about Paul Manafort 's reputation for working for seedy Russians and Ukrainians linked to the Kremlin."

Schindler thinks Manafort may be looking for protection. We spoke moments after Devin Nunes, the House intelligence chairman unexpectedly announced Manafort has volunteered to testify before the committee.

"Paul Manafort is afraid of getting some polonium tea," Schindler says, referring to the poisoning of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko by Russian agents.

Paul Manafort listens during a round table discussion on security at Trump Tower in New York. August, 2016. (REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)

"It's been a bad week for Paul Manafort," Schindler says. "He wants to do a deal, which is probably wise."


But still no hard evidence

Thus far, nearly all of the reporting on the Russian hacking story and possible links to the Trump campaign has relied on leaks and insinuation. This week, CNN reported the FBI has evidence that may link the campaign to Russian dirty tricks. But that evidence was not produced.

Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, also hinted at damaging intel in a conversation with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press Daily. Schiff denied his committee was merely working with circumstantial evidence.

"I can tell you that the case is more than that," Schiff said. "And I can't go into the particulars, but there is more than circumstantial evidence now. … I will say that there is evidence that is not circumstantial, and is very much worthy of investigation."

I asked Schindler what he has heard about the evidence Schiff is teasing out.

"I've heard about it for a long time, as a former NSA official," he said.

"There is very damning evidence, but it's top secret evidence. That's the whole problem, which is why the public discussion of this is sort of a shadow dance."

So why has the evidence not been leaked to the public?

"Information of the kind that we're talking about, which is intelligence information from U.S. and partner agencies about, not just Americans, but extraordinarily prominent Americans — the president's inner circle — is extraordinarily 'compartmented' as we say in the spy world."

"The number of people who actually are seeing the information is really quite small, which means the number of people who could leak it is quite small. Of course those people are not normally going to leak it."

"I will tell you that I have friends very close to the investigation and what they've told me is there is a considerable amount of signals intelligence — that is, phone intercepts, travel tracking, that sort of thing — some human intelligence about meetings that have happened between Team Trump principals and prominent Russians."

"None of this information, by itself, is, as we say, a smoking gun or a slam dunk. But collectively they create an indelible impression of collusion last year between Team Trump and the Kremlin."

Paul Manafort (then campaign manager) stands with Donald Trump and his daughter, Ivanka, on stage at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, July, 2016. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)


Does the public want to know?

Paul Manafort's story is full of allegations of slush funds, kickbacks, contracts with Russian oligarchs and ties to pro-Russian leaders in Ukraine. There's serious money at stake, but it's hard to follow. If he testifies, as he offered to on Friday, Manafort may help make the story more concrete.

Schindler says with the FBI investigation, actions by Congress and a possible independent inquiry, Trump and his team's ties to Russia will inevitably become public knowledge.

"The administration isn't getting away from this story," he says.

"Even Fox News, which can't be accused of being anti-Trump, recently had a poll showing that basically two thirds of Americans definitely want a real investigation of whatever the Trump-Russia story is."

But whatever comes out, it's hard to imagine Trump backing down.

So does Schindler think the Russia story may ultimately lead nowhere?

"It's always possible of course," he says.

"Trump, by inclination, doubles down, triples down, quintuples down at every opportunity. "

"If, however, not just people around him, but the president himself is facing possible indictment down the road, that could be a game changer. He could be removed from office for that, whether he wants to be or not."

"But Paul Manafort wanting to testify indicates he knows that he's facing some very serious federal charges and wants to clear the air. It tells me that Trump's whole defense is one member of his inner circle away from turning state's evidence and spilling some beans and it starts to be all over."

"We're not there yet," Schindler says. "But I think that day's coming."