Magazine | June 26, 2017, Issue

His Own Worst Enemy

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Someone should remind Trump there is no evidence he colluded with Russia

‘We have no smoking gun at this point.” So conceded Senator Mark Warner (D., Va.), ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating the suspected — it would be more accurate to say “wishfully imagined” — collusion of the Trump presidential campaign in Russia’s suspected interference in the 2016 election.

“No smoking gun” was an extravagant way for Senator Warner to put it in a CNN interview last Sunday. For all the talk about “smoke,” they’ve got nothing.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been investigating Russian “cyber-espionage” for well over a year. Indeed, it was in September 2015 that the bureau first notified the Democratic National Committee that a DNC computer system appeared to have been infiltrated by a hacking team that American intelligence agencies believe is tied to the regime of Vladimir Putin. There are at least three ongoing congressional investigations; an FBI counterterrorism investigation is now being overseen by a newly appointed special counsel; and a major post-election report was issued jointly by the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency — all three security agencies, along with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (which was also in the investigative loop), headed by Obama-administration appointees.

To date, despite thus moving heaven and earth, they have not a shred of evidence that Trump-campaign officials were complicit in what they say with confidence was a Kremlin influence operation aimed at undermining the anticipated Hillary Clinton administration or facilitating the unlikely election of Donald Trump.

Of course, you wouldn’t know that from recent headlines, which scream that the FBI’s investigation now reaches all the way into the White House, to the office of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and reputed Rasputin. In its wisdom, in December 2016, the Trump transition team dispatched the 36-year-old real-estate scion, bereft of foreign-policy or intelligence experience, to meet at Trump Tower with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, a 40-year veteran of Soviet and Putin-regime machinations. The pair (along with Michael Flynn, then slated to become Trump’s national-security adviser) discussed establishing a communication back channel. Nothing necessarily wrong with that; such arrangements are common and can be useful. Kushner, however, reportedly suggested using Russian diplomatic facilities to insulate the incoming administration’s communications with Russia from U.S. intelligence monitoring — the Trump team being convinced (and not without reason) that American spy agencies are rife with Obama plants bent on undermining the new president.

The communication line was never established, and the White House later claimed the proposal was made by Kislyak, not Kushner. Still, it was an amateur-hour move. Trump’s naïveté notwithstanding, Putin’s regime is not an alliance waiting to happen; it seeks a fractured U.S. political system. By freelancing on Russia without alerting the Obama administration or U.S. intelligence agencies, the Trump team exposed itself to the tender mercies of Russian intelligence, which naturally leaked details of the Kushner–Kislyak meeting at the first opportunity to embarrass the new president and stoke the collusion narrative.

Nevertheless, in its giddiness over the leak, the media-Democratic complex missed an inconvenient fact: If the Trump campaign had actually colluded with Russia to steal the election, there would have been no need for Kushner to discuss a back channel with a Kremlin operative in December — weeks after the election. The secret communication lines would already have been established during the campaign.

The incident was yet another demonstration of Trump’s penchant for the self-inflicted wound. The all-smoke-no-fire collusion narrative has been sustained less by the Left’s craftiness than by the president’s strange determination to act as if he were guilty.

There would have been nothing on which to build the narrative had not Candidate Trump’s rhetoric about Putin ranged from pie-in-the-sky foolishness (envisioning Russia as a key anti-terrorism partner despite its alliance with Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism) to repugnant moral equivalence (putting the Kremlin’s ruthless political assassinations on a par with American covert operations in furtherance of national security).

It was perfectly appropriate for Flynn to have transition conversations with foreign counterparts so that the new administration could hit the ground running. Yet because the day Flynn picked to speak with Kislyak was also the day on which Obama announced sanctions against Russia, it was a certainty that the Russian ambassador would raise the subject of sanctions. Even though Flynn gave Kislyak no satisfaction on this point, just the fact that the topic was discussed guaranteed that their conversation, once leaked, would be spun as suggestive of a quid pro quo: Trump would drop the sanctions to reward Russia’s purported election help.

Of course, no sanctions have been dropped, but Flynn failed — inadvertently or otherwise — to make clear to Vice President Mike Pence that he had discussed them with Kislyak. This resulted in Flynn’s sacking after Pence was embarrassed upon publicly insisting there had been no talk of sanctions. The media thus continue disingenuously to report that Flynn’s firing involved secret negotiations with Russia about sanctions — collusion! — when, in reality, he was fired for incompetence.

Moreover, the FBI’s scrutiny of Flynn has turned up potential criminal violations arising out of Flynn’s private security work — alleged failures to disclose speaking fees from a 2015 visit to Russia and to register as a foreign agent for work done for Turkey. These suspicions have nothing to do with Trump, but Democrats and their media note-takers conflate this ancillary criminal investigation of Flynn with the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of Russian election-meddling — framing the matter as if arrests could be made in the “collusion case.”

Ditto for Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager for a scant four months. The longtime political strategist is on the intelligence community’s radar screen for shady dealings with Kremlin-backed politicos in Ukraine between 2005 and 2014. In fact, Trump dumped Manafort when it was reported that he’d been paid millions for this work. It was poor judgment for Trump to take on Manafort’s baggage in the first place, in hope of mending fences with the Republican establishment. Manafort’s problems, though, do not involve collusion with Russia in the campaign, however much they have been exploited to advance that narrative.

Quite apart from the lack of collusion evidence, the purpose of a counterintelligence investigation is not to build a criminal case, but to divine the intentions of foreign powers, to the extent they bear on U.S. interests. Neither Kushner nor Flynn nor Manafort is the “subject” or “target” of a “collusion” investigation. “Collusion” is not a crime unless it involves a conspiracy to commit a specific violation of federal law (none is apparent). “Subject” and “target” are terms of art in criminal investigations, relating to suspects against whom a grand jury may file an indictment. They are inapposite in the context of the counterintelligence investigation, the focus of which is Russia.

Yet this counterintelligence investigation now has a special counsel — even though such investigations typically do not have prosecutors assigned. For that, the president can thank his mishandling of former FBI director James Comey.

Rather than dismiss him en masse with other Obama Justice Department appointees, Trump retained Comey. Then, the day after he fired Flynn, Trump told Comey of his “hope” that the FBI would drop any further investigation of his already humiliated former national-security adviser. Comey did not drop the investigation (which continues), and he later gave congressional testimony that the FBI was continuing to conduct a counterintelligence investigation of Russia’s election interference, including any Trump-campaign involvement — a startling departure from Justice Department protocols, which admonish against public comment on investigations.

Trump then decided to fire Comey and had the Justice Department prepare a memorandum explaining the rationale. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein duly outlined how the director’s controversial public comments on the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails had violated Justice Department protocols and thrust the FBI into a political campaign, tarnishing its reputation for being apolitical. In firing Comey, Trump initially claimed he was merely following the Justice Department’s recommendation (the one he had directed it to give). When this didn’t wash, he announced that he had been planning to cashier Comey anyway because the director was not doing a good job. Then, at a poorly timed meeting with Russian diplomats the next day, Trump bizarrely told them that Comey was “a real nut job” whose firing had “taken off” the “great pressure” he faced “because of Russia.”

It is very likely that Trump was exasperated because he believes the “Russia collusion” narrative is a smear that is paralyzing his administration. But his impetuous missteps and wild statements naturally stoked claims that his intervention on Flynn’s behalf and his firing of Comey smack of obstruction of justice. The claim seems legally baseless: Trump did not need a reason to fire Comey, and the president has the power to direct that an investigation be terminated (which Trump did not, in any event, do). The temperature, however, was raised so high that Rosenstein felt compelled to appoint a special counsel, Robert Mueller, the widely respected former FBI director and Justice Department official. So now, despite the lack of any apparent crime, the “collusion” caper is gleefully reported as an “independent prosecutor” probe.

The sad irony is that there have, in fact, been serious crimes committed: leaks of classified information by which anonymous intelligence officials are gashing the Trump presidency. There are indications, moreover, that this was the objective of a predetermined Obama scheme improperly to (a) use foreign-intelligence-collection powers to monitor the Trump campaign and transition, (b) “unmask” the identities of Trump officials in intelligence reports, and (c) disseminate those reports widely throughout the intelligence community and Congress to facilitate leaks — precisely the kind of leaks that have occurred.

Instead, we are still talking about collusion. It may well turn out to be a contrived controversy, but in responding to it, Donald Trump has been his own worst enemy.

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