According to the New York Times, “Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.” This story may have been over-hyped — more about that below — but it and a similar report from CNN are troubling nonetheless. They come on the heels of national-security adviser Michael Flynn’s ouster in the imbroglio over his phone calls with the Russian ambassador. One does not need to believe, with Democrats and Trump’s reflexive critics in the media, that this matter is on the order of Watergate to see that a congressional inquiry is in order.
In November, following an entirely unanticipated loss at the polls, Democrats repaired to declaring that Russia “hacked the election.” Precisely what that meant was never clarified, but elected Democrats were content to insinuate that Moscow was somehow responsible for Trump’s victory, going so far as to hint that Russian intelligence may have manipulated vote totals — a claim for which there is absolutely no evidence but that more than half of self-identified Democrats now believe.
However, this narrative was successful in no small part because of candidate Trump’s extraordinary, at times unseemly, friendliness toward the regime in Moscow. Trump’s staffing choices bolstered that impression: His erstwhile campaign manager, Paul Manafort, worked as a political consultant to Viktor Yanukovych, Putin’s lackey in Ukraine (ousted from the presidency amid violence against anti-government protests in 2014); one of his foreign-policy advisers, Carter Page, was a consultant to and investor in Russia’s state-run gas company, Gazprom, and a vocal supporter of the Kremlin’s thuggish foreign policy; and Roger Stone, who despite being dismissed from Trump’s campaign early remained an everpresent de facto surrogate, admitted to “back-channel communications” with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. It was WikiLeaks that shortly before the election published thousands of private e-mails written by high-level Democratic officials, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and American intelligence immediately suggested that Russian intelligence services were behind the cyberattack on the Democratic National Committee. It’s no secret that WikiLeaks operates at the behest of the Kremlin.
These ties and the hack of the DNC prompted a probe by the FBI, and it was that probe that uncovered the phone records cited by the New York Times. According to officials with knowledge of the investigation, “the F.B.I. has obtained banking and travel records and conducted interviews” as well.
What any of this means, though, is far from clear. The Times does not identify the U.S. officials implicated by the investigation or Russian officials; it does not indicate the content of any of the conversations; and none of the law-enforcement sources are named. The Times probably overplayed the story; consider the following, buried well into the latest account: “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.” That’s a significant asterisk.
Nonetheless, these revelations bolster the impression that the Trump campaign had unseemly connections to Moscow. And, of course, this comes just days after Michael Flynn’s resignation as national-security adviser — a consequence less of his phone calls with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak in late December than of his apparent misleading of other senior Trump administration officials about those conversations. Of course, that situation, too, is mired in uncertainty. Whether Flynn actually discussed rolling back the Obama administration’s recent sanctions against Russia is unclear. Flynn is adamant that he didn’t, and the same officials who freely leaked news of the conversation (obtained during routine surveillance of Russian officials) to media outlets are not willing to release the actual recording of the conversation.
It is suspected that these leaks are coming from the intelligence community. Flynn was unpopular with many career intelligence officers, having made enemies during his time as President Barack Obama’s head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, then having spent his post-DIA years criticizing many of his former colleagues. But Trump himself has also attacked the CIA and others for what he claims are politically motivated crusades. Whatever the collection of motives, it’s clear that officials with knowledge of sensitive material are now waging a war-by-leak, which anti-Trump media are thrilled to lap up.
Following the Times’s story, some on the left are eager to draw up impeachment articles. Meanwhile, some on the right are eager to chalk up any criticisms of the president to ‘fake news.’
Meanwhile, the White House continues to open itself to charges of malfeasance. The administration long maintained that Flynn’s call happened before President Obama’s announcement of sanctions, apparently having failed to recognize that a recording of the call existed. Then, on Wednesday, just hours before the Times’s story, White House spokesman Sean Spicer declared that no campaign officials had been in touch with Russian officials during the election. When it comes to this issue, it’s impossible to know whether the White House is purposely misleading or just bungling.
A steadier hand is in order. It’s time for the appropriate committees to conduct the oversight — of the executive branch, and of the intelligence services — for which they are responsible. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees ought to conduct a thorough, transparent investigation into the allegations being leveled against the Trump White House, and also into the source of the leaks. The parties under investigation should be able to defend themselves in an official setting, instead of being sideswiped by continued divulgences to the press. And the leaking of classified information — news of Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak, for example — ought to be prosecuted as the felony it is. That Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, as well as the leading Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee (North Carolina’s Richard Burr and Virginia’s Mark Warner, respectively), have indicated an openness to a serious probe is encouraging.
Following the Times’s story, some on the left are eager to draw up impeachment articles. Meanwhile, some on the right are eager to chalk up any criticisms of the president to “fake news.” Both are wrong. The questions facing the Trump administration are still just questions, but they warrant sober, fair-minded examination. This is not a job for the media and its anonymous sources; it’s a job for Congress.