The Plot Against the President

The Plot Against the President

Lee Smith’s new book exposes the biggest political scandal in American history.

Daniel Greenfield

Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.

The Five W’s are the essential infrastructure of good journalism. It’s important to be able to tell a good story. But if the story doesn’t contain answers to who, what, where, when, and why, it’s meaningless.

Fortunately, Lee Smith’s The Plot Against the President digs into the origin of the coup against President Trump in the old-fashioned Five W’s sense. While the book still leaves plenty of questions buried in reams of classified documents, it’s an excellent resource for organizing and making sense of the mess.

Rarely has a government investigation been clouded in this much secrecy or required so many investigations of the investigation. The points of the spiderweb between private contractors, the media, and government figures still vanish into darkness. But Smith follows the work of Rep. Devin Nunes and his team (the subtitle for the tome is The True Story of How Congressman Devin Nunes Uncovered the Biggest Political Scandal in U.S. History) and that comes with its own infrastructure of the Five W’s.

The ‘why’ isn’t hard to grasp, but the ‘when’ remains elusive. Smith makes a good case for the smear campaign associated with the Steele Dossier predating the former British operative whose continental credentials and FBI connections were used to sell a political assault ordered by the Clinton campaign.

Instead, Smith describes a series of ‘protodossiers’ which were used to eventually shape the Steele Dossier. These protodossiers were works in progress, bits of opposition research focusing on Trump’s international business connections, put together and fed to the media in a conventional fashion. There’s nothing especially controversial (or palatable) about this type of opposition research. But, even from the very beginning, these work products were not merely opposition research intended for the public.

Their real audience can be assessed from the linkages to Nellie Ohr, the wife of senior Department of Justice official Bruce Ohr, and a friend of Steele’s, who would act as a conduit for the Steele dossier, and the warnings that Trump was a national security threat. Accusing Trump of Russian ties was not a strategy meant to win an election. It was a justification for an unlimited investigation of Trump and his associates using methods and degrees of secrecy that would otherwise be off limits against Americans.

This is what Smith describes as a “paper coup” or “a bureaucratic insurgency waged almost entirely through the printed word”. Trump’s international business affairs wouldn’t have interested voters. Opposition research focusing on those ties had only one true vector and purpose. The protodossiers were also a protocoup. The Steele dossier, sloppy and incompetent as it might have been, was the final product. A piece of work that could be used to bring the full weight of FISA warrants, informants, and unmaskings down on the political opposition, even while the media manufactured a parallel reality.

Smith also traces how the protodossiers evolved into Russiagate. As he notes, "a key difference between the protodossiers and Steele's seventeen memos is that the former discuss Trump's supposed connections to Russian and Eastern Bloc figures alleged to have ties to organized crime and also possibly to Russian state interests. Steele's documents by contrast deal almost exclusively with alleged ties connecting Trump and his associates to Russian government officials and figures publicly known to be close to Kremlin leadership." The narrowing of the focus on Russia from the protodossiers into the dossier, winnowed down and focused the regional opposition research into the most useful narrative.

The usefulness of a narrative that moved past organized crime figures to the Kremlin lay not in its public appeal, where allegations of organized crime might have been more damaging, but its surveillance uses. The Steele dossier had emerged as the product of a political campaign, but had never been intended for public use. Instead it was a piece of opposition research that had been aimed directly at the FBI.

The uniqueness of such a thing also testifies to the uniqueness of the conspiracy against Trump.

The media echo chamber fed by the dossier and the protodossiers had not come into being to merely pursue a negative, smear Trump, but to uphold a positive, the investigation of Trump. Their stories were used internally, as in the FISA warrant, to support the tactics and the purpose of targeting Trump.

The evolution of the ‘Paper Coup’, its stages, and the roles of a variety of familiar figures from James Comey to Glenn Simpson, from Peter Strzok to Rod Rosenstein, are at the center of Smith’s Five W’s book. Even as it remains mired in paper, the reams of documents have real consequences, leading to arrests, interrogations, legal bills, surveillance and, eventually a pushback by, among others, Rep. Devin Nunes.

Smith pays careful attention to the interplay of personalities, the timing of bureaucratic maneuvers, and the evolution of narratives to produce a carefully studied and documented reading of his original research and the work of the Nunes investigation. The plot that is the book’s subject takes place in a world governed by these rules, by motives telegraphed through maneuvers, by an intimate knowledge of procedures, and by a formidable array of contacts, and that is world that Smith and Nunes know.

As the book progresses, Smith and Nunes and his team dig into not just the lines of the documents, but the story between the lines, explaining not just why the players did what they did, but why they did it when they did it, and what the various moments that drove the disparate news cycles underlying this story really meant. 

As the political dominoes keep falling, the lies that brought us from the murky origins of the Russia smear to the Ukraine impeachment are being exposed. And Smith’s book is an important resource for understanding where those lies came from, how they were employed, and what they were meant to accomplish. We already know, as its title testifies, the plot against President Trump was the biggest political scandal in American history. But The Plot Against the President explains how it was exposed.

The Plot Against the President: The True Story of How Congressman Devin Nunes Uncovered the Biggest Political Scandal in U.S. History is ultimately a study of a war fought with paper, in which both sides warred with investigations, one to seize power under the guise of a lie and the other to protect the power of the people with the truth.