Was Trump Putin's Fool Or His Partner In Crime?

03/23/2017 01:39 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2017
Sputnik Photo Agency / Reuters

The FBI is investigating whether an American president colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election.

Seventeen American intelligence agencies confirm that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair to accomplish that. The remaining — and historically remarkable — question is whether the web of contacts between Donald Trump’s operatives and Russian officials means that they criminally conspired to attack American democracy.

As yet unexplained are numerous contacts between Trump officials and Russian intelligence, some taking place in Europe and detected by the British and Dutch. Those we know about are disturbing.

Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, took money from entities affiliated with the Kremlin. He spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak numerous times during the campaign. After the election, they had several conversations concerning sanctions, about which Flynn lied, both in public and, privately, to Mike Pence. Trump knew about these lies for weeks before media reports compelled him to sever ties with Flynn.

Jeff Sessions met twice with Kislyak, then denied such meetings during his confirmation hearing, a lapse requiring the attorney general’s recusal from the current investigation. Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page met with the omnipresent envoy at the GOP convention, just before Trump operatives stripped the party platform of a pledge to aid Ukraine against Russian aggression.

Then there’s Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser of dubious reputation. Stone acknowledges contacts with Julian Assange, Russia’s intermediary in leaking e-mails, and with the online persona Guccifer 2.0, likely a front for Russian intelligence. More curious yet, after the Russians leaked DNC e-mails through WikiLeaks, Stone tweeted that “it will soon be [Clinton campaign chair John] Podesta’s time in the barrel.” Shortly thereafter, WikiLeaks released Podesta’s e-mails.

Paul Manafort, for five months Trump’s campaign chair, stands accused of laundering millions of dollars received from the pro-Russian former president of Ukraine. Recent reporting reveals that, as early as 2006, Manafort was engaged by a Russian billionaire to advance Vladimir Putin’s political strategy in Eastern Europe and, potentially, across Europe and the United States.

Clearly, Trump’s real estate enterprise depends on Russian money — a fact acknowledged in 2008 by Donald Trump Jr. — though the extent of this reliance is unclear. There are unexplained communications between a Trump computer server and a bank connected to Putin. And Trump still withholds tax returns, which could illuminate his financial connections to Russia.

All this demands a serious investigation by the FBI — and Congress — and there is likely more to discover. Already, these threads mirror Russian efforts to undermine European governments. Perhaps Trump and his campaign knew nothing about Russia’s plans to help elect him. But his frenzied efforts to squelch inquiry make Richard Nixon look like a model of transparency — and sanity.

Trump’s lies grow more grotesque. His claim that Barack Obama wiretapped him also slanders the FBI. But long before that, he claimed that no one in his campaign had spoken to the Russians; more recently, he lied contemporaneously about testimony by James Comey.

In his hysteria, Trump makes liars of his lackeys, who torture truth to excuse his falsehoods. Sean Spicer rationalized Trump’s slur about Obama until words lost all meaning. He falsely claimed that British intelligence helped Obama wiretap Trump. He said former campaign director Manafort “played a very limited role.” He called Flynn – a principal adviser who traveled with Trump throughout the campaign, who spoke at the GOP convention, and who became Trump’s national security adviser – “a volunteer.” For Spicer, all that remains is ritual harikari.

Trump reinforces mendacity with threats and distractions. He threatens to hunt down the “lowlife leakers” who revealed the FBI investigation — “fake news” that Comey revealed to be true. He threatened to deputize a friend to review US intelligence agencies. He tried to compel those agencies to support his lie about Obama.

Which raises a logical question: If you try to concoct evidence of a lie, have you destroyed evidence of the truth? And another: Do congressional Republicans want to know the truth?

With the exception of Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, it seems not. Take Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He minimizes contacts between Russia and Trump’s campaign, claiming there is no evidence of collusion and, therefore, no need for the investigation that could uncover it. Instead, he focuses on punishing those who revealed the contacts.

On Wednesday Nunes visited the White House, without informing his committee, to defend Trump by saying that legal surveillance of Russians captured conversations with Trump’s campaign. His purpose? To justify Trump’s lies about Obama. In the process he confirmed the contacts, and provoked Adam Schiff, the committee’s ranking Democratic member, to counter that the evidence of collusion was now “more than circumstantial.”

Americans must know whether Trump is merely Putin’s useful fool or his partner in betraying our democracy. To avoid the truth would be a betrayal all its own.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Boston Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.

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