'Extreme Vetting' Needed... For Pro-Putin Trump Players

12/14/2016 06:50 am ET Updated Dec 14, 2016
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson at a signing ceremony in the Black Sea resort o
RIA Novosti / Reuters
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson at a signing ceremony in the Black Sea resort of Sochi August 30, 2011.

The president-elect needs a new “extreme vetting” pledge. Here’s some proposed language: “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Cabinet members or personal advisers with ties to Russia, until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

I probably shouldn’t get my hopes up on hearing this any time soon, judging by Trump’s defiant reaction in recent days, dismissing the bipartisan call to investigate suspected Russian influence in the 2016 election and ridiculing the CIA’s findings. But it is the holiday season, after all.

Last year around this time, when Trump first made that vow to impose “extreme vetting” on Muslim immigrants, I was a Fulbright scholar teaching mostly in Kyiv, Ukraine. I had trained as a social anthropologist in eastern Europe in the waning years of the Soviet Union and in the tumultuous aftermath of its collapse. (The views that I express here are my own and do not represent the Fulbright program.)

Understandably, there was great unease in Ukraine about this tough-guy candidate who seemed so enamored with Vladimir Putin, the authoritarian top dog next door who was threatening the country’s peace, and possibly its very existence as a sovereign state. Indeed, Russia had illegally seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and occupied swaths of eastern Ukraine.

Clearly, this was not paranoia. If it’s true, as they say, that “personnel is policy,” Trump has long been, at best, in Putin’s corner. At worst, he’s in Putin’s pocket. Here’s a short list.

― Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of State. Tillerson immediately raised concern, among Republicans and Democrats, for (among other issues) his long and deep ties to Russia. Tillerson managed Exxon Mobil’s business in Russia before being named CEO in 2006, and greatly expanded that business over the past decade. The Wall Street Journal quotes John Hamre, former deputy secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton, saying this: “He [Tillerson] has had more interactive time with Vladimir Putin than probably any other American with the exception of Henry Kissinger.” In 2013, Putin bestowed upon Tillerson the Order of Friendship, a high state honor. A key question is the fate of U.S. sanctions against Russia. Exxon Mobil lost more than a billion dollars due to those sanctions following the Crimea takeover and aggression in Ukraine. Of course, both Exxon and Russia would stand to gain should U.S. sanctions be eliminated in the coming years. Little surprise that Moscow is celebrating what is shaping up to be a “dream team” for Russian interests.

― Retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, another member of that dream team. Trump’s choice for National Security Adviser, Flynn, like many of his retired military peers, runs his own consulting firm, the Flynn Intel Group. In 2015, he made a paid appearance celebrating the anniversary of the Kremlin “news” outlet Russia Today television (where he has made “semi-regular appearances”), and was conveniently seated next to Putin. He would not disclose his fee to Dana Priest of the Washington Post in quite a head-scratching interview over the summer. Another reported client was a Dutch-based Turkish company, suspected of being a proxy for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (another authoritarian) who sought the extradition of a rival based in the U.S. As the Intercept pointed out, Flynn penned an op-ed last month supporting extradition. Neither of the Russia or the Turkish conflicts kept Flynn out of classified briefings. As is often the case these days, the chief playerFlynn himself—is reportedly not registered as a lobbyist, but his firm is.

― Trump supporter Bob Dole, the only former GOP nominee to endorse candidate Trump. Dole doesn’t have any known role with the new White House, but someone is apparently taking his (or his surrogates’) calls. One Washington Post account said that Dole loyalists, long out of the game, had a revival (at least temporarily for some) in various roles with the Trump campaign. (More below on the most important of them, lobbyist Paul Manafort). The former senator spent months lobbying the president-elect (for a six-figure fee), culminating in a precedent-breaking phone call between Trump and Taiwan’s president. Less discussed is that Dole also has done work for unsavory, and powerful, Russian players. He was reportedly paid more than a half million dollars to secure a visa for Oleg Deripaska, a shady Kremlin-friendly oligarch. Deripaska had been denied a U.S. visa because of his alleged ties to organized crime, accusations he denies.

― Carter Page. Page was described late last year as a foreign policy adviser to the candidate, which came as a complete surprise to long-time Russia pundits who had never heard of him. Page, a former investment banker-turned foreign policy wannabe, has portrayed himself as a key player in the big Russian energy deals of the first decade of the century, but many of those involved in these deals scoffed at this when contacted by Politico. He left the Trump campaign after multiple reports said that U.S. intelligence was looking into whether he was “back-channeling” information to high-level Kremlin officials. But not before remarking, in a strikingly similar way as Michael Flynn, his belief that Putin was a better leader than President Obama. Last week, just a day before the CIA investigation story broke, in which the agency apparently concluded that Russia had indeed engaged in dirty tricks to bolster Trump’s candidacy, Page was traveling in Moscow for a meeting with “business leaders and thought leaders.” Good timing.

― Former campaign manager Paul Manafort. The longtime foreign lobbyist was forced to resign in August after he was accused of taking $12.7 million in illegal, off-the-books money from the pro-Russian political party of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort denied it. (As it happens, his former office in Kyiv is just around the corner from where I lived.) Manafort helped bring Yanukovych to power in 2010. Yanukovych can be accurately described as a Putin puppet, who fled in the face of a people’s uprising in 2014 and is now wanted for high treason. Even before the report of illegal cash, Manafort was suspected of swaying policy to Russia’s liking. Many supposed he was responsible for the last-minute removal of military support for Ukraine in the Republican Party platform, an allegation he also denied.

Finally, it is hard to fathom how voters could get so incensed about foreign donations to Hillary Clinton’s family foundation and not be up in arms over possible Russian influence in the 2016 election, Trump’s nominees’ and associates’ personal conflicts and coziness with Putin, and Trump’s own fawning praise. (If you think I’m a Clinton apologist, I direct you to previous writings.) If Trump is not going to support his own intelligence apparatus to impartially investigate, Congress needs to ratchet up the pressure. As the Russians would say, “Nam nuzhno znat chto chyort vozmi proiskhodit.” Translation: We need to know what the hell is going on.

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