Politics & Policy

Donald Trump and Russia — What Do We Really Know?

(Reuters photo: Yuri Gripas)
The situation begs for a bipartisan, transparent investigation.

It’s a nightly occurrence in the young Trump administration. Go offline for even a moment — just the time it takes for a Valentine’s Day dinner with your family — and you’ll return to a Twitter firestorm. Last night’s edition focused on two stories — one from the New York Times, the other from CNN. The gist of the stories was the same: According to anonymous government officials, senior members of Trump’s campaign team had “repeated contacts” (according to the Times) or were in “constant communication” (according to CNN) with “senior” Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The stories were as notable for the details they omitted as they were for the facts alleged. For example, here’s a key paragraph from the Times:

The officials would not disclose many details, including what was discussed on the calls, the identity of the Russian intelligence officials who participated, and how many of Mr. Trump’s advisers were talking to the Russians. It is also unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Mr. Trump himself.

And here’s a similar disclaimer from CNN:

Officials emphasized that communications between campaign staff and representatives of foreign governments are not unusual. However, these communications stood out to investigators due to the frequency and the level of the Trump advisers involved. Investigators have not reached a judgment on the intent of those conversations.

With no concrete information on the content of the calls, why were the leaks deemed so explosive? One word — context. And to understand the context, it’s vital to back up and understand where we are in the ongoing, raging controversies over Russia’s efforts to disrupt the 2016 election and over alleged ties between the Trump team and Russian intelligence.

First, we have known since before the election that there was a Russian effort to embarrass Democrats and undermine confidence in the election. The Russians allegedly acted primarily through (a rather simple) hacking of Democratic National Committee e-mails and a slow, steady release of those e-mails through WikiLeaks. Claims of Russian interference were widely discussed at the time and even came up during the presidential debates.

Since the election, the intelligence community reached the conclusion that Russian efforts to disrupt the election gradually morphed into an effort to help Trump beat Hillary Clinton. Critically, there is no evidence that Russian efforts actually swayed a critical mass of voters or that Russia in any way interfered with the election itself.

Second, we have known since before the election that at least one former member of Trump’s senior campaign team was under FBI investigation for his ties to Russia. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and Carter Page, a former Trump foreign-policy adviser resigned from the campaign amidst controversy over their ties to Russia, including a controversy over whether Trump campaign officials intervened to water down the Republican platform in a way that served Russia’s interests. We’ve also known that this investigation was based in part on “intercepted communications and financial transactions.” For example, in August 2016, the New York Times reported that “handwritten ledgers show $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments designated for Mr. Manafort from Mr. Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party from 2007 to 2012.”

Since the election, press reports and leaks have offered precious few additional details. BuzzFeed dumped a salacious dossier into the public domain that purported to describe Russian efforts to compromise Donald Trump, but news organizations have been unable to corroborate its key claims — though there are reports that some conversations “between foreign nationals” (not between foreign nationals and Americans) have been confirmed as taking place on the dates and locations indicated in the dossier.

The Times and CNN reports last night also add few new details — other than to flesh out that contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian nationals were frequent enough to raise a “red flag” — and indeed frequent enough to lead the intelligence community to brief both then-president Obama and president-elect Trump on their existence.

Third, we know that Trump and his team persistently and implausibly deny any allegations of contacts between Trump’s campaign team and Russia. On November 10, January 11, January 15, and February 14, Hope Hicks, Trump himself, Mike Pence, and then Sean Spicer each took their respective turns denying any contact between the campaign team and Russian officials. Yet now anonymous intelligence sources are claiming there exist actual intercepts and records of calls.

Here are a few of the key questions: If Trump was briefed on the existence of contacts between his campaign officials and Russian intelligence operatives, why the repeated denials? Does he disbelieve the intelligence? Or are anonymous officials misleading the press, speaking of briefings that either didn’t occur or were substantially different from how they are being portrayed? Or is Trump simply lying?

It was in the midst of this atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion that last night’s news hit. The Trump team has now lost three key aides (Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Carter Page) because of alleged ties to Russia; the intelligence community believes Russia tried to help Trump win the election; the Trump team can’t seem to tell the truth about its communications with Russia; and Trump himself is oddly persistent in his admiration for Vladimir Putin — even going so far as to slander the U.S. in an effort to defend America’s foremost geopolitical rival.

The leaks can be improper even if the administration’s actions are improper.

The situation begs for a bipartisan, transparent investigation. That means releasing transcripts of calls (or, better yet, tapes of the calls themselves). That means putting witnesses under oath. And, yes, that means investigating the leaks themselves. As I tweeted yesterday, the leaks can be improper even if the administration’s actions are improper. There are appropriate channels for reporting and investigating misconduct, and trial by anonymous (and potentially misleading) leak is destructive, dangerous, and likely illegal.

As things now stand, the smoke billows, but the fire remains hidden. We do not know if Trump officials had unlawful or inappropriate communications or contacts with Russian officials. We don’t yet know for certain that those communications or contacts even related to Trump. We do not know what, if anything, Trump knew about those contacts. Indeed, we do not know if any of the important and disturbing claims about Russian influence over Trump or his team are true. Those are the questions that demand answers.

If you’re a Republican and find yourself more angry about the leaks than the allegations, ask yourself — how would you feel if the president was a Democrat? Would you be similarly apoplectic about the leaks? Or would you also be concerned about the substance of the claims? Or, if you don’t like hypotheticals, what did you find more outrageous during the 2016 election, the Russian hack of the DNC or the contents of the DNC e-mails?

It’s time for the constitutional system to work. It’s time for the legislative branch to investigate the executive. Simply put, it’s time for the truth.


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