Politics & Policy

If Working with Moscow Is ‘Collusion,’ It’s a Bipartisan Offense

President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin at the G8 meeting in Naples in 1994. (Peter Jones/Reuters)
D.C. has been delusional about the Kremlin since the 1990s.

When the “collusion” music stopped, was Donald Trump the guy left without a chair?

If the latest reporting is accurate, we’ll find out soon enough. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is said to be wrapping up his probe. His final report could be submitted to Attorney General William Barr in a matter of days.

Did Trump and his presidential campaign “collude with Russia” in the sense of conspiring to commit cyberespionage? That is, were they complicit in Russian intelligence’s hacking attacks on Democratic-party email accounts? There has been no indication that Mueller has such evidence. That is significant because Mueller is a prosecutor. Notwithstanding the irregular counterintelligence framework of the special counsel’s appointment, the principal job of a prosecutor is to determine whether crimes were committed. Espionage conspiracy is the collusion crime that launched the investigation.

Of course, as we’ve repeatedly observed, not all “collusion” is criminally conspiratorial — even if some of it involves dirty politics or is otherwise unsavory. It is easy to evaluate crime: A person is either guilty or not guilty of conduct Congress has criminalized; if the proof is there, he should be convicted. But when behavior is not criminal, yet we are being urged to condemn it because it was undertaken with a particular country, shouldn’t we evaluate how our government has regarded that country?

When it comes to “collusion with Russia,” there was an awful lot of that going on in the Bipartisan Beltway throughout the quarter century before Trump launched his White House bid.

Cro-Magnon blowhards like your humble correspondent have never warmed up to Moscow. So we’ve complained about the New Thinking, regardless of whether it was incumbent Republicans or Democrats delusionally portraying Russia as a perfectly normal country with which to do business, make lots of money, and even ally.

Washington, however, has preferred to stay delusional.

For most of his eight-year tenure, President Bill Clinton flaunted his warm relationship with Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet president. Clinton committed to support Moscow with financial assistance, including subsidies to adjust decommissioned military officers and nuclear scientists to the new order. In 1997, Clinton prevailed upon our G-7 allies to make it the G-8 by admitting Russia, giving it greater influence over global trend-setting by the world’s leading economies, despite the fact that Russia was not one of them. Moreover, given the prominence of Ukraine in the Trump collusion narrative, recall Clinton’s collusion with Russia in the “Trilateral Statement,” which purported to guarantee Ukraine’s security. Why would Kiev need to keep its nuclear arsenal when its neighbor, Moscow, had reformed? After all, the Iron Curtain was history and we were now paying out the “peace dividend,” right?

Then there was President George W. Bush peering into Vladimir Putin’s soul, finding a “trustworthy” ally. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined our new “strategic partner” in an agreement to help Russia amass the technology, material, and equipment needed to improve its nuclear research and power production — for “civilian” purposes only, of course. Bush enthusiastically seconded Clinton’s proposal that Russia be admitted to the World Trade Organization, even though its corrupt economic policies and practices undermine the market-based norms the WTO is meant to fortify.

Meanwhile, an up and coming Democratic senator, Barack Obama, was working bipartisan magic with Senate Republicans, pushing Kiev to think bolder than just giving up its nukes; Ukraine needed to surrender its conventional arsenals, too. But wait, what about protection from possible Russian invasions? Please . . . that was foreign-policy thinking for a bygone time.

Of course, Putin humiliated the Bush administration and Congress’s bipartisan Russia accommodationists by invading Georgia, annexing swathes of its territory in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The White House quietly withdrew the ballyhooed U.S.–Russia Civilian Nuclear Power Agreement from congressional consideration. No matter: Even as Russia continued its Georgian occupation, President Obama revived the agreement in 2010, insisting that the pact promoted U.S. national security. To appease Putin, the president also shelved Bush’s plans for missile-defense installations in Eastern Europe.

Those were just two aspects of Obama’s heralded “Russia Reset,” championed with key assistance from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“Trade with Russia Is a Win-Win.” That was the headline of Secretary Clinton’s Wall Street Journal op-ed, in which she applauded Russia’s formal entry into the WTO. It was crucial, she explained, because Russia was just a great place for Americans to do business, and our commerce could now blossom since the Obama administration had made Moscow “a normal trading partner.” Sure, the Putin regime posed many challenges, but Clinton maintained that “it is in our long-term strategic interest to collaborate with Russia in areas where our interests overlap.”

Collaborate? That sounds almost like collu — well, never mind.

Clinton somehow decided that one of these collaborative areas should be technology. Under her guidance, the State Department teamed up with their Kremlin counterparts to help erect Moscow’s version of Silicon Valley — Skolkovo — despite FBI and Defense Department warnings that the project would enhance Russia’s military and cyber capabilities. Indeed, Clinton was sufficiently unconcerned about Russian cyberespionage that she even emailed President Obama while she was visiting Moscow, using her non-secure server system. (See FBI July 2, 2016, interview of Mrs. Clinton, page two.)

In the interim, an administration security panel on which sat Secretary Clinton and Obama Attorney General Eric Holder — the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States — green-lighted the acquisition of major U.S. uranium reserves by Russia’s regime-controlled energy giant, Rosatom. The transaction — specifically, the sale of a company called Uranium One — was approved even though the Justice Department had an active racketeering investigation against Rosatom’s U.S. subsidiary, and even though the U.S. does not produce enough uranium to meet our own energy production needs.

Clinton did not recuse herself from the matter despite her deep self-interest. The Clinton Foundation had reaped tens of millions of dollars in “donations” from Uranium One investors when former President Clinton intervened with Kazakhstan to help them acquire uranium reserves. Secretary Clinton’s State Department intervened on the investors’ behalf when Russia moved in on the Kazakh assets. Former President Clinton traveled to Russia while the Uranium One approval process was pending — first asking the State Department for an okay to meet with a Rosatom board member (Arkady Dvorkovich); then meeting with Putin and his factotum, Dimitry Medvedev; and finally collecting a tidy $500,000 (his biggest speech payday ever) for a brief talk sponsored by a Kremlin-backed bank (Renaissance Capital).

Then there was Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, during which — not realizing his mic was hot — the president, in hushed tones at a March conference in Seoul, asked Medvedev to assure Putin that he’d have “more flexibility” to accommodate Russia on missile defense and other contentious issues once the race was won.

Obama might be flexible with Putin, but he was harsh toward his Republican opponent. The president mocked Mitt Romney for describing Russia as a “geopolitical foe.” “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Obama snarked during the final debate. Hadn’t Romney heard that “the Cold War has been over for 20 years”? He elaborated that Romney’s desire to return to 1980s security thinking was of a piece with the GOP’s purported desire to revive the “social policy of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.” That is, to see Russia as a hostile power that meant America harm was like wanting to revive Jim Crow and the protectionist practices that helped ignite the Great Depression. Makes sense, right?

Putin, naturally, responded to Obama’s blandishments by rolling out the red carpet for Edward Snowden and the mounds of U.S. defense secrets he had stolen; annexing Crimea and fomenting war in Eastern Ukraine; and introducing Russian forces into Syria to prop up the Assad regime. Obama’s response was muted: a few targeted sanctions after the Crimea provocation. After all, the president needed Russia’s cooperation to get his cherished Iran nuclear deal done.

Speaking just for myself — one of those benighted Mitt Romney types — I think Russia’s a menace. We shouldn’t pretend that it is anything else. But let’s be real: The reason we have been talking about “collusion” for over two years is not that the political establishment is finally convinced that Moscow is malevolent; it is that Hillary Clinton lost an election because she was a poor candidate and got outworked.

If Bob Mueller has found no crime but people still want to agitate over “collusion” with Russia, that’s fine by me. But if we’re going to talk about it, we should talk about all of it.

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