American intelligence agencies have definitively concluded that Russia interfered with our 2016 election to assist Donald Trump. The president’s response is disloyal to his office and his country.
He defends Vladimir Putin’s pusillanimous denials. He rejects any suggestion that Russia sought to help him. He calls the leaders of our intelligence community “political hacks.” He insists that the intelligence assessment is a “Democratic hit job” fabricated to place “an artificial barrier” between America and Russia. He bridles at Congressional sanctions imposed on Russia for its comprehensive efforts to undermine our election. Only when his own intelligence directors affirm Russian interference does he temporize at all, before reverting to his pro–Putin talking points. Time and again, he is unable or unwilling to defend American democracy – the most basic obligation of a president.
These repeated behaviors transcend the bizarre. That Russia attacked our election process is beyond doubt – no responsible officer of our government questions this. The intelligence reports are authoritative, and Trump himself has read them.
So what explains Trump’s angry repudiation of fact and blatant dereliction of duty? Some toxic compound of narcissism, nastiness, naïveté, Putin-worship and sheer stupidity? Or did America’s president become Putin’s knowing pawn?
Start with two critical questions of character: Would Donald Trump welcome Russia’s assistance against Hillary Clinton? And would Vladimir Putin want Trump to know that he was in Russia’s debt?
The logical answers? Of course – and absolutely. The remaining question is how such a collaboration evolved.
In itself, the pattern of entwinement is striking. During the campaign Trump’s son, son-in-law, campaign manager, future National Security Advisor, future Attorney General, and two foreign policy advisors met repeatedly with Russians connected to the Kremlin – then lied about or “forgot” these contacts. Little wonder. What we already know about this web of communication and concealment is damning – including to Trump himself.
In March 2016, campaign advisor George Papadopoulos told Trump and others that his Russian contacts could arrange a meeting with Putin. In April, a Kremlin – connected professor told Papadopoulos that Moscow had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, including “thousands of emails.” At the least, a Trump advisor knew that Russia was dangling hacked emails; Trump that his advisor was enmeshed with Russia. Yet Trump continuously denied any connection between his operatives and Russia; subsequently, Papadopoulos lied about these conversations to the FBI.
The hidden contacts deepened. In early June, a British publicist connected to Trump and figures close to Putin emailed Donald Jr., proposing that he meet with highly-placed Russians offering documents damaging to Clinton ― part of their “government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Junior replied: “If it’s what you say I love it...” He then arranged a meeting which included himself; campaign manager Paul Manafort; the director of campaign digital operations, son-in-law Jared Kushner; a Kremlin – connected Russian lawyer, a Russian- born lobbyist and former intelligence agent; and a Russian “financier” steeped in money laundering.
This, experts believe, was a classic Russian intelligence operation. If leaders of Trump’s campaign welcomed ― then concealed ― such a meeting, that would establish the campaign’s willingness to collude against Clinton, and its susceptibility to manipulation and even blackmail, giving Russia leverage over a potential president.
In the event, that is precisely what happened. The three Americans became the Kremlin’s partners in subterfuge: after the meeting, Manafort and Donald Junior indignantly denied any connection between the campaign and Russia; Kushner omitted the meeting from a disclosure form detailing foreign contacts. Particularly inculpating are Junior’s serial deceptions in 2017, after Russia’s efforts to elect Trump became public knowledge.
The first lie ― that the meeting concerned Russian adoption ― was crafted by President Trump himself on Air Force One. Unless Junior was lying to his father, Trump knowingly put falsehoods in his son’s mouth. Only the latter is in character.
When this fabrication evanesced, Trump went silent. Instead, Junior admitted to some vague notion that the Russians might be helpful information. Confronted at last by his unsavory emails, Junior conceded that the meeting concerned sanctions against Russian human rights violators ― some close to Putin ― but insisted that it was so inconsequential that he never told his father.
To start, it defies belief that Trump, who demands obeisance from all, would not know of a meeting which included his son, son-in-law and campaign manager ― let alone with Russians angling to barter Russia’s help in defeating Clinton. When the meeting occurred Trump was in his office, one floor above. And only Trump, if elected, could give Russia what it wanted ― including relief from other sanctions for its aggression in Ukraine.
Equally implausible is Junior’s claim that nothing came of the meeting. Subsequent events suggest otherwise.
On June 15, a Russian hacker posted documents stolen from DNC ― which, a sophisticated observer could conclude, was a signal from Russia to Trump. On July 18, the Trump campaign inexplicably amended the Republican platform to remove support for arming Ukraine against Russian domination. On July 22, WikiLeaks published 20,000 more emails stolen hacked from the DNC, providing Trump with further ammunition against Clinton.
The seeming pas de deux between Russia and Trump’s campaign continued. In July, Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page informed members of the campaign that a Russian Deputy Prime Minister had “expressed strong support for Mr. Trump and a desire to work together towards devising better solutions...to a vast range of current international problems.” Throughout the campaign, Trump’s principal national security advisor, Michael Flynn ― whose unusually close ties to Russia included Putin himself ― maintained continuing contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, a principal advocate of sanctions relief. Kislyak also met twice with a principal Trump surrogate, Jeff Sessions, now Trump’s Attorney General ― including at the convention which amended the platform in Russia’s favor.
Trump’s defenders argue that these meetings were innocent. But no one familiar with politics can remember another instance where a presidential campaign was so intimate with representatives of a hostile foreign power. A further negative indicia is the participants’ obfuscation of these contacts: until confronted with evidence, Page and Flynn concealed key aspects, while Sessions kept “forgetting” them altogether ― even when testifying before Congress.
In parallel to these meetings, Russia’s assistance to Trump’s campaign intensified. By election day, Wikileaks and two Russian-sponsored sites had released over 150,000 emails. Notably, within hours after the salacious Access Hollywood tape surfaced on October 7 ― dealing Trump’s candidacy a potentially lethal blow ― Wikileaks began releasing emails hacked from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. While Julian Assange of Wikileaks denies that Russia was his source, U.S. intelligence affirms that Russia hacked Podesta’s emails.
Concurrently, Russia targeted specific demographic groups with fake news calculated to depress the Clinton vote among women and minorities, or to inflame racial and religious anxieties which could drive white voters toward Trump. The sophistication which informed this targeting has caused the Senate and House Intelligence Committees to investigate whether Trump’s digital operation – run by Kushner – was pointing the Russians toward selected precincts in pivotal states, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where narrow victories made Trump president.
As president-elect, Trump could now grant Russia’s wish list, including sanctions relief ― a principal subject of the early July meeting between Don Junior, Manafort and Kushner and the Russians dangling documents damaging to Hillary Clinton. But by December our intelligence agencies had revealed Russia’s meddling in our election ― for which President Obama imposed yet further sanctions on Russia.
Putin threatened retaliation. A series of secret conversations regarding sanctions followed, in which Kislyak seems to have asked Flynn for the ultimate favor: that, as president, Trump relieve Russia of sanctions for its systematic attack on our election ― a patent act of disloyalty. That Flynn responded favorably may be suggested by the fact that Russia chose not to act.
Here potential collusion ― including the swap of Russia’s electoral help for subsequent concessions in America’s foreign policy ― morphs into obstruction of justice by Trump himself. The apparent motive, as before, was to conceal the true relationship between the parties.
Unbeknownst to Flynn or Trump, during the 2016 campaign the FBI had commenced monitoring Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak. This ongoing surveillance picked up their discussions in December. On January 12, the Washington Post revealed their occurrence and asked Flynn whether they had concerned sanctions.
A cover-up ensued. Repeatedly, Flynn denied discussing sanctions with Kislyak ― to the press, Vice President Pence, Chief of Staff Priebus and press secretary Spicer. When Pence and Spicer repeated those denials, Trump said nothing.
Shortly after Trump’s inauguration on January 20, Flynn lied yet again ― this time to the FBI. On January 26, acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed White House counsel Donald McGahn that Flynn was lying and, therefore, subject to blackmail by the Russians. Immediately, McGahn told Trump.
Again, Trump said nothing to correct Flynn’s lies. Nor, clearly, did he reprimand Flynn. The most logical explanation is that Flynn was lying to conceal Trump’s knowledge of his conversations with Kislyak.
Whatever his motives, as of January 26 Trump began actively concealing Flynn’s mendacity ― from the public, the press, and close advisors. On February 8, when Flynn again denied discussing sanctions with Kislyak, Trump remained silent. On February 10, after the Washington Post suggested that Flynn was lying, Trump ― remarkably ― denied to reporters knowing anything about the Post story, omitting that he already knew of Flynn’s lies through Sally Yates. Effectively, Trump himself had begun to lie.
Three days later, the cover-up unraveled ― the Washington Post reported Yates’ warning, shredding Trump’s pose of innocence. Only then did Trump seek Flynn’s resignation, citing his deception of Pence and others ― deceptions Trump had known about for 18 days.
In the meanwhile, the revelation of Sessions’s own contacts with Kislyak had compelled him, as Attorney General, to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, leaving it in the hands of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Stripped of the ability to act through Sessions, Trump took several direct steps to protect Flynn from prosecution and, obviously, to protect himself.
First, Trump directly solicited then-FBI director James Comey to sideline its investigation of Flynn. Upon failing, Trump importuned Intelligence Director Dan Coats to intercede with Comey. When Comey persisted, Trump fired him in the apparent belief ― shared with Russian officials ― that he had shut down the FBI’s investigation.
Instead, this egregious miscalculation led to Rosenstein’s appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller. Seemingly desperate, in July Trump crafted Donald Junior’s initial lie about the critical meeting between Manafort, Kushner and the Russians. In the months since, like a monarch gone mad, Trump has raged at Sessions, Rosenstein, Mueller, the Democrats, the intelligence community, the “haters and fools” questioning his connections to Russia, the Russia investigation itself, and every witness who implicates his campaign, praising Putin while obsessively denying the reality of Russia’s behavior ― and his own.
The latter is most serious of all. More than arguably, conspiracy to commit election fraud, or obtain information or other things of value from foreign adversary, is a crime. Also criminal, quite possibly, is secretly accepting campaign assistance from Russia in exchange for changing our foreign policy in its favor. Obstruction of justice surely is. And any one of them calls out for impeachment.
Obviously, Trump grasps that all too well.
So does Vladimir Putin and Russian intelligence, steeped in the arts of kompromat: seduction, recruitment, conspiracy, leverage and blackmail. The otherwise inexplicable pattern of Trump’s conduct raises a grave and inescapable question ― whether we unwittingly elected Russia’s “Siberian candidate” as America’s 45th president.