National Security & Defense

What Exactly Is Scandalous about Trump’s ‘Russia Scandal’?

(Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
So far there’s a lot of smoke, but it’s not clear what the fire is supposed to be.

A recent report in Spain’s El País touts “the Spanish connection with Trump’s Russia scandal”:

On February 1, Alexander Porfirievich Torshin, 63, a Russian politician and banker who is close to Vladimir Putin and whom the Spanish anti-corruption prosecutor and the Civil Guard define in their reports as a godfather from a notorious Russian mafia organization, had in his diary for the next day an appointment to meet in Washington with the world’s most powerful man: Donald Trump.

The meeting never took place, but according to El País, Torshin, who is currently the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia and is suspected by Spanish authorities of being part of a Russian money-laundering operation, has other links to the administration: Last May, he sat beside Donald Trump Jr. during a private dinner in Louisville, Ky.

Links between the new administration and the Kremlin are not hard to come by. There are the legitimate (e.g., Jeff Sessions’s visit with the Russian ambassador), the dubious (e.g., ousted NSA director Michael Flynn’s many communications with the same), and the alarming (e.g., nearly anything involving campaign advisers Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, or Carter Page). But after months of “explosive” revelations, it remains unclear precisely what the charges against the White House are. Has the new president simply been too friendly to Vladimir Putin? In his stupendous ignorance, has he permitted his egotism to reshape American foreign policy? Or — more troubling — has he wooed the Kremlin to advance his overseas business interests? Or — most troubling — did he work with Russian sources to manipulate November’s election? Prominent critics of the president have suggested that Donald Trump is “a Kremlin stooge,” “a pawn of Putin,” and a “collaborator” with Russian intelligence. But what the president is being accused of is always left hanging in a cloud of insinuation.

This is likely because, as of now, there is no concrete charge to make. There is no evidence that the president or his close advisers have broken the law in their communications with Russian officials. There is no reliable evidence that anyone “collaborated” with Russian officials to influence the election, or that Russian influence was more than indirect (i.e., votes may have been swayed by WikiLeaks’s exposure of the DNC e-mails, but Russia did not “hack the election,” in the sense of manipulating voting machines). Even Manafort, Stone, and Page, the three advisers with the closest and most troubling ties to the Kremlin, have not been shown to have done anything prosecutable. All of this is provisional, of course — and must remain so until the congressional intelligence committees complete their investigations — but it’s noteworthy nonetheless, as critics on right and left compare Donald Trump to Richard Nixon and whisper about impeachment.

What, then, is the problem with the administration’s Russia ties? The news from El País is instructive.

Part of Donald Trump’s appeal was that he would keep out of the White House Hillary Clinton and her whole network of should-be felons. The Right’s chief concern about the Clinton Foundation and the Clintons’ “charitable” work was that it provided a veiled way for parties — especially foreign parties — with alarming agendas to purchase White House influence. Right-leaning voters were convinced that the Clintons would not surround themselves with responsible, ethical public servants, but with people happy to sell American policy to the highest bidder.

If the Trump administration is entangled with the Kremlin, it seems — so far, at least — to be in precisely this way. With no interest in upholding any normal standards of public integrity, the White House has been willing to engage any comer with influence, and so time and again put its highly questionable judgment on display. This was Trump’s m.o. during the campaign, recall. There was no carefully plotted endgame in his praising Alex Jones; he was simply happy to help anyone who helped him. The same impulse goes a long way toward explaining not only the administration’s decision to invite a Russian gangster to breakfast, but its enthusiasm for individuals associated with the alt-right and much else. The White House is unconcerned with the dictates of propriety; it is self-interested and reckless.

This hypothesis — that the administration is more reckless than sinister — will displease Trump critics on both sides of the political spectrum, who need the president to be an out-and-out villain, and who have decided that the only appropriate conclusion to this saga is impeachment and a prison cell. That is a fantasy. But the fact that the president’s conduct does not merit a Senate trial does not mean it doesn’t merit vigilance and vigorous criticism. And that criticism is important in helping to keep the administration as much as possible on the straight-and-narrow. It has worked at least once: Under pressure from the media about its unseemly ties to Russia, the White House canceled the meetup with Torshin.

“Trump’s Russia scandal,” if what we know so far is any indication, may turn out to have been more smoke than fire. But this administration’s unflagging bad judgment leaves plenty to worry about.

— Ian Tuttle is the Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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