To Russia, With Love

Let’s play Connect-the-Dots.

Dot 1. President Trump has long had connections to the Soviet Union and Russia. His first trip was in 1987 to explore the possibility of building Moscow hotels. In the 90s, he went to Russia to explore renovating already existing hotels in Russia. He sought wealthy Russian investors, who had become wealthy after the fall of the Soviet Union by buying up formerly state-owned properties. Also in the 90s Russian investors bought dozens of condominiums in Trump World Tower in midtown Manhattan.*

Dot 2. Trump developed projects internationally in the early 2000s, some involving Russian money.

Dot 3. Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. told Moscow investors in 2008 that the Trump organization had trademarked the Donald Trump name in Russia and observed that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Dot 4. Trump took the Miss Universe Pageant to Moscow in 2013, funded by a Russian billionaire named Aras Agalarov.

Dot 5. Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was an Exxon-Mobil oil executive who made oil deals in Russia and in 2013 was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship award. Tillerson also met with Vladimir Putin.

Dot 6. Trump hired Paul Manafort as his campaign manager in 2016. Manafort had represented the former leader of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin ally. Unrest in Ukraine forced Yanukovych to flee to Moscow, and shortly afterward Putin invaded the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine. Putin continues to support ethnic Russian rebels fighting in Ukraine, who shot down a passenger jet in 2014. Manafort’s association with the Putin ally caused him to resign as Trump campaign chair.

Dot 7. Trump staffers objected to the GOP Platform statement that advocated “providing lethal defensive weapons” to Ukraine in its fight against Russia-backed separatists after Russia’s land grab of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Staffers insisted that the language be changed to “appropriate assistance.”

Dot 8. Michael Flynn, Trump’s newly-fired National Security Adviser, was also fired by President Obama as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. After being fired by Obama, Flynn called Obama a “liar” and led Trump campaign rallies in their chants of “lock her up,” referring to Hillary Clinton. He was also working for Russia Today, the state-owned news and propaganda machine for Russia, and advocated for closer relations with Russia. He travelled to Russia for the 10th anniversary celebration of Russia Today, sitting at the same table with Putin. He was paid for that visit. He has not said how much, nor whether his acceptance of payment was approved by the secretaries of Defense and State, without which the acceptance of payment would be a violation of federal law.

Dot 9. U.S. intelligence agencies monitored a call from Flynn to the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, discussing new sanctions that Obama had imposed on Russia after the Russian interference in the American election. He told Vice-President Mike Pence and, according to The New York Times, the FBI that he did not discuss sanctions. Totally uncharacteristically, Putin did not reply in kind to Obama’s new sanctions and the expulsion of thirty-five Russians, presumed to be Russian spies. The intelligence agencies concluded that not only had the Russians interfered with the election, they did so specifically to help Trump defeat Clinton. Currently it is not known whether Trump or others knew of Flynn’s phone call at the time he made it.

Dot 10. During the campaign, Trump urged the Russians, “if you are listening,” to participate in the election by sharing all of Clinton’s emails. The Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign was apparently shared with Wikileaks. Wikileaks revealed emails indicating that the chair of the Democratic National Convention, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, had clearly favored Clinton over Bernie Sanders for the nomination, and she subsequently resigned. Another Wikileaks leak, again presumably provided by the Russians, exposed an email from John Podesta, chair of the Clinton campaign. Trump declared that “I love Wikileaks!” The Podesta email came almost immediately after the infamous Access Hollywood tape became public, a tape in which Trump bragged of grabbing women’s private parts and other sexual exploits.

Dot 11. Carter Page, who runs an investment company, was named as an early foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. Former Senate minority leader Harry Reid accused Page of being a conduit between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. Page gave a 2016 speech in which he accused the U.S. government of having a “hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change” toward Russia.

Dot 12. Trump continues to excoriate the “dishonest media,” and now the “fake news media,” by which he means virtually all media except Fox News and other conservative news outlets. As the Russia connection scandal swirls, he tweeted on February 16 “The fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred. @MSNBC and @CNN are unwatchable. @foxandfriends is great!” In another tweet he referred to “This Russian connection non-sense.” In the February 16 press conference, he pointed out that “the leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake because so much of the news is fake.”

Dot 13. Trump learned on January 26 that Flynn had lied to Vice-President Pence about the phone call to Russian ambassador Kislyak. On February 10, The Washington Post reported the phone call and Flynn’s lie to Pence that sanctions were not discussed. Three days later, and eighteen days after apparently first learning about the call and Flynn’s lying to Pence, Trump fired Flynn. Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed that it was an “erosion of trust” that caused the firing, although it came only three days after the Post article. The transcripts of the calls are not yet available, though presumably they will be to House and Senate Intelligence committees. Democrats are calling for an independent investigation (like the 9/11 Commission), but Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell wants to keep it in the Republican-led intelligence committees. Democrats also fear that new Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, the earliest senator to support Trump in the campaign, cannot be a fair arbiter of a Justice department investigation.

Dot 14. A day after Press Secretary Spicer said that it was an erosion of trust that caused the firing (and presumably therefore having nothing to do with the Post article revealing the Flynn-Pence issue), Trump himself praised Flynn, stating that he, Flynn, had been “treated unfairly by the media.” There was no comment about Trump’s eroding trust in Flynn.

Dot 15. Trump has defied four decades of precedent from candidates of both parties in refusing to make public his tax returns, despite calls from various sources that he do so. His claim has been that he cannot do so because he is under audit, though the IRS has made clear that there is no legal prohibition of anyone making public his or her own tax returns. Moreover, he has said that he would release the tax returns when he is no longer under audit. As it is likely that the IRS routinely audits billionaires’ tax returns every year, this is probably a safe promise to make. The tax returns would help clarify where Trump has investments and debts.

Dot 16. Trump has refused to place his assets in a blind trust despite near universal calls to do so from ethicists and neutral observers. Instead he has handed over leadership to relatives and close associates, meaning that he still has ultimate control over his business enterprises.

Dot 17. Trump has had an ongoing hostile attitude toward the intelligence community, beginning with his pushback of the unanimous conclusion of American intelligence agencies that Russians interfered in the election with the goal of helping him get elected. He has sarcastically put the word intelligence in quotation marks in reference to the CIA, FBI, and NSA. The three agencies concluded in a report to President Obama that the Russians not only interfered with the election, they did so at the express orders of Putin and specifically to damage Clinton and help Trump (the CIA and FBI did so with “high confidence” and the NSA with “moderate confidence”). Most recently, Trump blamed intelligence officials for “criminal” leaks concerning the Flynn affair, and the The Wall Street Journal—no particular friend to liberal Democrats—reported on February 15 that intelligence officials are no longer sharing certain sensitive details, such as methods of intelligence gathering, with the President for fear that their methods and personnel could be compromised.

So what picture do all the dots appear to create? Can any or all of these dots be connected? First, and almost certainly, Trump fired Flynn only because of The Washington Post article’s revelations, given the eighteen days between Trump’s hearing of Flynn’s actions and the actual firing. Without the Post article, Flynn would almost certainly still be National Security Adviser, a strange role for an American who just before had been an analyst for a state-owned Russian propaganda arm, Russia Today. Second, and far more ambiguously, what are we to make of the numerous connections between Trump people—Manafort, Page, Trump Jr., Flynn, Tillerson, and Trump himself—and Russian officials, including Putin himself? How is it, and why is it, that Trump has collected such a collection of like-minded Russophiles in his orbit? Add to this Trump’s yearlong defenses of Putin, especially that some other entity could be doing the hacks, possibly China or some fat guy in his bed. Did Trump possibly authorize Flynn’s call to the Russian ambassador, thus making Flynn a scapegoat, albeit a highly unsympathetic one? Trump has publicly stated that he admired the leadership of autocratic and dictatorial Putin, including a recent interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, in which he stated that “we are not so innocent” when O’Reilly pointed out that Putin was a killer. Was Trump’s public invitation to Putin during the campaign to interfere in the election by leaking Clinton emails an ill-thought-out tip of the iceberg acknowledgment of a deeper collusion between Trump and Putin to actually rig the election?

It is certainly premature to suggest that Trump authorized Flynn’s call, though the apparent nature of the call—suggesting that Trump would lift or at least ease sanctions—is in keeping with Trump’s own thinking. The fact that Putin did not retaliate for Obama’s expulsion of thirty-five presumed Russian intelligence agents certainly reinforces the apparent subject of the call, at least in the absence of transcripts not yet made public. Flynn’s call also reminds us that we have one president at a time, and Obama was still president when Flynn made his call.

The Trump collection of Russophiles, not just individuals sympathetic to the idea of closer relations with Russia but individuals who have financial interests in that outcome, clearly tilts their (and Trump’s) perspective favorably or at least sympathetically toward Russian behavior, and thus neuters the natural skepticism that high level individuals in an American administration should have toward a long-term adversary. For example, so far the administration has had nothing to say about the Russian deployment of a ground-launched new cruise missile, in direct violation of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with the United States that prohibits the deployment of ground-launched missiles with a range of 300 to 3400 miles.

Trump’s financial ties to Russia, possibly including Trump debt to Russia or specific Russians, would certainly be one of two primary reasons that Trump would not wish to reveal his tax returns. The other, of course, would be that they may well reveal that he has paid no federal income taxes for approximately eighteen years after claiming a large loss in the 90s, which, apparently, he has effectively amortized over nearly two decades. But he certainly does not want his financial ties to Russia on public display.

Given that we know that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and subsequently shared that information with Wikileaks, it is probable that Russia also hacked the Republican National Committee for its own purposes. It is almost a certainty that Russian intelligence has whole file cabinets on Trump, going back to his first business dealings with the Russians in 1987, just as it has files on other presidential candidates and as we have files on numerous Russians. It is also quite probable that in addition to the Trump files containing business dealings and possible debt, some of the material is personally unflattering. Whether on the basis of business dealings or personal behavior, or both, Trump could be in the position of potentially being blackmailed without the threat even being spoken. As of this writing, February 16, Trump claimed in an almost bizarre press conference that he has no dealings with Russia: “I have nothing to do with Russia. I have no loans in Russia, I have no deals with Russia.” If the President had even a modest reputation for honesty, such a statement would have to be credited until proven false. But, even aside from his son’s own statement concerning Trump-Russia business connections, Trump is notorious for misstatements, falsehoods, and lies, and thus it is more reasonable than not to assume that “I have nothing to do with Russia” is not true. Also in the press conference he claimed to have won more electoral votes than anyone since Reagan (demonstrably false: Obama had more in both his elections, Clinton had more in both his elections, and George H. W. Bush had more in 1988). He also claimed, in connection with the Flynn affair, that the leaks were “real” but the news was “fake,” prompting the reasonable question, asked by a reporter, how could the news be fake if the leaks of that information were real? And while praising Wikileaks that helped him during the campaign, he now paints “illegal leaks” as the source of his troubles.

The business ties, the Trump inner circle of Russia supporters, the watering down of the GOP platform supporting Ukraine, Trump’s attacks on American intelligence agencies, Trump’s publicly expressed admiration of Putin, the expression of the moral equivalence of the United States and Russia when O’Reilly called Putin a killer, the silence so far in not condemning the Russian violation of the INF treaty, the likely intent to soften the sanctions on Russia, the refusal to release his tax returns, the Russian interference in the election with the purpose of helping Trump win, the unprecedented Russian decision not to retaliate after Obama’s expulsion of thirty-five Russian spies, all collectively point to, at the very minimum, an extremely un-Republican and worrisome relationship between the Trump administration and the most significant and continuous adversary of the United States since the end of World War II. It could be that Trump’s coziness with Russia is simply about money, with Trump using the bully pulpit to protect his investments and to expand his financial empire. Even given such a banal interpretation, a pro-Russia tilt for personal gain would be indefensible and almost inevitable.

But there is also a more draconian interpretation, clearly speculation at this point, but not unreasonable given what we know about Trump the businessman and the deal-maker, along with his penchant for a lack of candor. Might there have been some sort of collusion between Putin and Trump, in which Russia employs cyber-warfare to help Trump win the election, with a stated or unstated quid pro quo that Trump will take a soft stand vis-à-vis Russia. This could take the form of lifting sanctions, or, more generally, not standing in Putin’s way as he seeks to expand Russia’s international influence, to undermine other democracies’ elections through cyber attacks, to sew discord among American allies and NATO, and possibly to re-construct the Soviet Union. Certainly such a collusion would be a traitorous act and, as a constitutional “high crime,” an impeachable one. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose wife is in Trump’s cabinet, has his eye on the 2018 mid-term congressional elections, especially the tenuous Republican majority in the senate providing him with his senate leadership role, and hence he is reluctant to encourage any outside investigations. Republican senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, though having their own personal reasons for despising Trump, seem to be placing country over party in their willingness to follow the facts—the dots—wherever they may lead. They could lead to a dead end. But maybe not.

*Factual data and quotations have been gleaned primarily from various news stories in USA Today, but also NBC News, MSNBC, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post and politico.com

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