Trump's ties to Russia has all the makings of a classic spy novel

Washington - Secret meetings, phone taps, Russian oil money and mysterious intelligence dossiers: the swirling scandal over Donald Trump's ties to Moscow has all the makings of a classic spy novel -- whose ending has yet to be written.

But the maelstrom engulfing Washington over Russia's interference in the US election last year is very real, and the political stakes have never been higher: Trump's presidency itself.

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Increasingly the story is turning to one of deliberate misinformation, leaks to the media, and worries of a high-level cover-up.

The plot appears simple: Moscow, aiming to damage the presidential prospects of Democrat Hillary Clinton, deployed hacked documents and misinformation to boost the campaign of rival Trump.

But underlying that is the explosive question: did Trump's campaign collude with Moscow?

That's where the wiretaps, a former British spy's dossier on contacts between Trump's campaign and Russian intelligence, Trump's business dealings with Russian tycoons, and cryptic statements by US spy chiefs, take hold of the plot.

The Director of National Intelligence and the heads of the FBI, CIA, and National Security Agency announced on January 6 that they were convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin had masterminded the effort to manipulate the November election.

But they held back their evidence. Nor did they comment on the report by Christopher Steele, a former British MI6 agent, that details numerous alleged communications between Trump advisors and Russian officials during 2016.

Read also: Former MI-6 spy known to US agencies is author of reports on Trump in Russia

The Steele report, which has not been substantiated and has been rejected by the White House as "fake news," lies at the heart of suspicions of collusion. It also, provocatively, suggests Putin has possession of a sex video secretly filmed in 2013 while Trump was in Moscow.

Kaleidoscope of characters

Like any good political yarn, the story has unfolded with a kaleidoscopic cast of characters.

A key mystery man throughout is Russia's chummy ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who appears to have met Trump and everyone around him during the campaign.

There is Michael Flynn, a former US military intelligence chief who was generously paid to attend a gala of Russia's RT television in December 2015, where he sat together with Putin. It was Flynn's half-truths about his calls with Kislyak that forced him out of his new job as White House national security advisor in February.

Read also: Former Trump aide Mike Flynn paid over US$55,000 by Russian entities 

Another key person is Paul Manafort, who spent years working for Moscow-backed Ukraine leader Viktor Yanukovych before becoming Trump's campaign chief. Did he also have contact with Russian intelligence, as the New York Times suggests?

Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, met with Russia's ambassador and a top Russian banker in December. Jeff Sessions, the Trump government's attorney general, first said he never met Kislyak during the campaign and then admitted to doing so. Carter Page, a Trump advisor and former Moscow-based banker, also met the omnipresent Moscow envoy and other Russian officials.

Read also: Trump son-in-law Kushner to face Russia investigation panel

Stonewalled investigations?

The question now is whether various investigations will go ahead, without interference. The FBI is conducting a counterintelligence probe, under the lead of a director already under a cloud for his own alleged interference in the election, which hurt Clinton.

The House and Senate intelligence committees, which are privy to classified intelligence, are also investigating.

But the House committee probe appears under threat. Its chief, Republican Devin Nunes, cancelled a planned open hearing this week after he "discovered" secret surveillance documents that he said showed Trump and associates were picked up in "incidental collections" by US intelligence agencies. Nunes later admitted having received the documents during a surreptitious visit to a White House "safe" room last week.

Rather than share the information with his committee, Nunes made a very visible trip to present it to Trump, who said it "somewhat" vindicated his unproven charge that former president Barack Obama had ordered the intelligence agencies to wiretap Trump Tower during the campaign.

Since then Nunes has revealed nothing about the information he received, drawing sharp criticism and calls to step down. Jackie Speier, a Democratic member of the committee, said the moves smack of an effort by the White House and Nunes to shut down the House investigation.

"I don't think the president wants this investigation to go forward," she told MSNBC on Tuesday.

Trump at the centre

All eyes on Trump as he makes maiden speech at Congress

  • US president Donald Trump hailed the emergence of a "new national pride" in his maiden speech to Congress, pushing for tough immigration enforcement as the key to delivering jobs and security at home.
  • During a turbulent first 40 days in office, the new US president has doubled down on his vow to put "America First" - but has yet to translate his populist vision into legislative reality.
  • But he came to Capitol Hill hailing a "new national pride" and daring lawmakers to rally behind his plans to dramatically slash government spending, industrial regulation and tax.
  • "A new chapter of American greatness is now beginning," he declared, after arriving to cheers and wild acclaim from members of the Republican-led House of Representatives and Senate.
  • Ivanka Trump, her husband Jared Kushner and other guests, applaud another guest saluted by President Donald Trump during his speech to Congress.
  • Trump touted tougher immigration enforcement as the keystone of a drive to boost American employment and wages, and slash crime.
  • But he also vowed to introduce a new merit-based immigration system to regulate new arrivals in the United States and reduce the flow of unskilled workers.
  • Pressing his domestic agenda, Trump promised to provide "massive" tax relief for the American middle class and to repeal his predecessor's landmark Obamacare health reform, which expanded coverage to 20 million people.
  • Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, and Associate Justices, Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan watch as as US President Donald Trump speaks
  • Marie Owens, the widow of a Navy SEAL killed in a mission in Yemen, is applauded during Trump's address
  • Jamiel Shaw, Sr., the father of the late Jamiel Scott Jr., who was shot by an alleged illegal immigrant, is applauded after being mentioned by Trump

At the centre, of course, is Trump, who has animated the story with his off-the-cuff tweets. But he perpetuates suspicions by criticising US intelligence bodies, the media, and Democrats, while praising the Russians.

His focus has been to defend his election victory as legitimate while changing the subject.

"Why isn't the House Intelligence Committee looking into the Bill & Hillary deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia," he tweeted Monday in a reference to the Clintons.

Trump's tweets, Nunes' evasive tactics, and denials by Trump aides of any wrongdoing have failed to kill the plot. Yet the question remains, was there any real collusion with Moscow? Trump's opponents are certain there is; his defenders say it is all smoke.

John McCain, the veteran Republican senator, adapted a classic metaphor to suggest how it will unroll.

"I think there are a lot of shoes to drop from this centipede."

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