What Diplomats Really Care About When It Comes To Russia

03/20/2017 08:43 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2017

Donald Trump thought he smelled blood.  

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said she hadn’t met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. But a photo soon emerged of Kislyak sitting at the table in Pelosi’s 2010 meeting with then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.  Predictably, Trump was quickly tweeting about it. “I hear by [sic] demand a second investigation, after Schumer, of Pelosi for her close ties to Russia, and lying about it,” he ranted.  

As a former State Department diplomat, I have participated in many big diplomatic meetings. Take it from me: when you’re facing yet another row of bland men (and yes, it’s usually men) you’ve just met, you won’t remember anyone but the lead official. Pelosi made an innocent and common error of recollection. Far more concerning from a diplomat’s point of view: the repeated pattern of lying about one-on-one interactions between Kislyak and the Trump campaign when there are legitimate questions about Russia’s role in the election and Russia’s impact on Trump’s foreign policy. If President Trump has nothing to hide, he should welcome an investigation instead of misrepresenting Democratic interactions with the Russians.

From the photo of Pelosi’s meeting with Medvedev, it’s clear there are at least six Russians across the table. What many don’t realize about diplomatic meetings is that protocol often dictates a whole slew of officials be represented at the table, but only the lead principal usually speaks. When I joined then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s September 2015 meeting in New York with the Korean and Japanese foreign ministers, for example, the U.S. delegation included Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel, and senior staffers to the Secretary.  Only the Secretary and his foreign counterparts spoke. I don’t recall exactly who was in that meeting or the many meetings I participated in aside from the lead officials. In Pelosi’s case, the absence of name tents at the table makes identifying and remembering bureaucrats that much harder. Pelosi met with Kislyak then in the same sense that the Korean and Japanese foreign ministers “met” with me.  

Yet the President has willfully misrepresented this pro forma meeting between Pelosi in her capacity as Speaker of the House with the visiting Russian president as evidence of “her close ties to Russia, and lying about it.” Once more, this President has deployed a red herring instead of answering serious questions about his team’s ties with Russia.  

It’s no crime to interact with Russian diplomats, nor does any one meeting with a country indicate close ties with that country.  Who cares if Chuck Schumer had a donut with Vladimir Putin?  

But diplomats do view comparatively frequent meetings at high levels with a country’s representative as a strong signal of warm, significant ties with that country.  That’s exactly what we’ve seen in the Trump operation’s interactions with Russia. Any diplomat will see the news that multiple members of the Trump campaign, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, had repeated interactions with Kislyak as a clear indication of closeness between Trump and Russia ― unless the Trump team met at the ambassador level, as frequently, with other countries.

Why does this matter? Would we be up in arms if the Trump team had instead had an unusually high level of interaction with Japan? Sweden? No. This matters because it correlates with both recent bad behavior by Russia and Trump policies that demonstrate a willingness to condone, perhaps even enable, those behaviors.

Most damning, of course, are the allegations that Russia interfered in our democratic process to support Trump through cyber attacks ― a conclusion backed by seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies. Trump also praised Vladimir Putin as “very smart” for not retaliating against Obama administration sanctions against Russia in December. The Treasury Department subsequently lifted some of those sanctions soon after Trump took office. These factors, combined with the unusually frequent meetings with Kislyak during the campaign, raise the dangerous possibility that Russia and the Trump campaign coordinated these actions.

English diplomat Henry Wotton once claimed that an ambassador is someone “sent abroad to lie for the good of [the] country.” In truth, diplomacy is more often about clearly communicating messages that serve our national interests, even if it means stating difficult truths.

If the Trump team’s interactions with Russia did support our country’s interests, or if the interactions are just a few among many routine, high-level diplomatic consultations between the Trump campaign and other countries, why wouldn’t President Trump want to make those facts clear?

If Trump really feels confident that there’s nothing to hide, there’s a policy he should try.  

It’s called honesty.  

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