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The Trump–Russia connection

Suspicions about Russia’s connections with US President Donald Trump’s campaign and administration escalated on 20 March during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on the Russian ‘active-measures’ operation to impact the 2016 presidential campaign. FBI Director James Comey disclosed that the FBI was not only ‘investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election’ but also ‘the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts’. Leaks have now revealed that at least one campaign associate, Carter Page, was the subject of FBI surveillance under a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) warrant, which meant that the FBI had presented the court with probable cause that Page was acting as a foreign agent.

The ongoing congressional and FBI investigation into Russia’s activities during the 2016 election and its connections to the Trump campaign come as the new administration is attempting to establish its footing on foreign-policy issues, several of which involve Russia. The controversy further clouded Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first visit to Moscow at a time when US–Russia relations had reached a low point in the new administration following US airstrikes on Syrian military targets in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. As the investigations continue, they threaten, at a minimum, to undermine Trump’s policy priorities. If even some of the accusations of coordination prove true, they will create the largest White House scandal since the Iran-Contra affair during Ronald Reagan’s second term (1985–87), in an inexperienced administration already beset by infighting.

Given the extent of the confusion surrounding the Russia investigations and the Trump campaign’s role, it is important to clarify the nature of the investigations and the key personalities involved.

Trump’s behaviour

Several analysts have pointed to growing tensions between the Trump administration and Russia to downplay the degree of alleged coordination between Trump associates and the Kremlin. The logic of their case is that since Russia’s active-measures campaign had not produced a sanctions rollback against Russian institutions and oligarchs or a change of policy on Ukraine or NATO, and had produced an airstrike against the Assad regime, it could not have been effective and the Trump administration was not culpable. According to a declassified US intelligence community (IC) assessment, the primary goal of the active-measures campaign was not to prompt radical policy shifts toward Russia’s national interests but rather to delegitimise America’s democratic system and weaken the next president, regardless of who was elected in 2016. In fact, Moscow may view a critically damaged Trump presidency perpetually enmeshed in scandal as a better result than a potentially hawkish Clinton presidency.

Trump has denied all accusations and employed his familiar tactics of distraction and pivoting to outlandish claims. He has blamed former Obama administration officials for leaking classified material, and accused the former president himself of ‘wiretapping’ Trump Tower in New York – a charge that Comey, Director of the National Security Agency Mike Rogers and former of national intelligence director James Clapper have all denied. Trump diverted the media for days (through his surrogates and on Twitter), charging that former Obama administration officials had ‘unmasked’ US persons cited in intelligence reports. This is intelligence jargon describing the process by which the identity of US persons are obscured in intelligence collection on foreign targets and then revealed upon special request by policymakers when their identities are relevant to national-security decisions. Trump singled out former national-security adviser Susan Rice (an easy and attractive target for the right-wing audience given her prominence in the Benghazi controversy) and alleged that she had illegally uncovered the identities of his associates. Rice was exonerated just hours later.

Russia’s agenda

According to Comey’s testimony, the FBI investigation is focused on two elements: the extent and nature of Russian interference, and the degree to which Trump’s campaign team coordinated its activities with Russia. The IC had already provided some details about the former in a January assessment. The relevant portion reads:

We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.

Russia, along with most of the American political establishment, never expected Trump to win. They set about to weaken Hillary Clinton by calling attention to her greatest vulnerability – her lack of trustworthiness among American voters. The House Select Committee on Benghazi had already revealed that Clinton maintained a private server while at the Department of State. The Russians first hacked the Democratic National Committee (DNC) server to obtain sensitive and embarrassing emails exposing internal fighting within the Democratic primary, then obtained Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails in the weeks before the election. The Russians released the emails via WikiLeaks. Trump himself famously professed his love of WikiLeaks during the campaign. But earlier this month, his CIA director Mike Pompeo labelled the organisation ‘a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia’.

Russia’s aim was to damage Clinton, whom Putin personally blamed for inciting protests in Moscow in 2011 while she was secretary of state, and to weaken her presidency and the American public’s confidence in the democratic process. Along the way, they also exploited the raucous media environment to sow additional anti-Clinton rancour by planting fake stories that were picked up by right-wing media outlets, especially Breitbart News, and by Trump himself. Clint Watts, a former FBI official, described in a Senate testimony how a modernised version of Russian active measures was deployed during the campaign:

Russia’s state sponsored outlets of RT and Sputnik News, characterized as ‘white’ influence efforts in information warfare, churned out manipulated truths, false news stories and conspiracies … From these overt Russian propaganda outlets, a wide range of English language conspiratorial websites (‘gray’ outlets), some of which mysteriously operate from Eastern Europe and are curiously led by pro-Russian editors of unknown financing, sensationalize conspiracies and fake news published by white outlets further amplifying their reach in American audiences. American looking social media accounts, the hecklers, honeypots and hackers described above, working alongside automated bots further amplify and disseminate Russian propaganda amongst unwitting Westerners. These covert, ‘black’ operations influence target audience opinions with regards to Russia and undermine confidence in Western elected leaders, public officials, mainstream media personalities, academic experts and democracy itself.

Trump obsessively and untruthfully seeks to minimise anything that reflects negatively on the legitimacy of his presidency (vastly exaggerating the inauguration-crowd size, overstating the margin of his Electoral College victory, understating his popular-vote loss). An official intelligence product or a congressional report that highlights the effectiveness of Russia’s influence efforts and how Russian products appeared repeatedly in Trump’s campaign material is likely to set off another slew of denials and distractions.

Campaign coordination with Russia

The investigation’s second and even more concerning inquiry focuses on ‘whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts.’ Two of these specific phrases merit emphasis and scrutiny: ‘any coordination’ and ‘the campaign’. Coordination is broader than collusion, although Trump’s critics have tended to use the terms interchangeably. Collusion implies a secretive and deceitful relationship for mutual benefit. Coordination is more general and could encompass any kind of non-specific relationship that does not necessarily have to have been ongoing. Comey also specified ‘the campaign’ as opposed to campaign associates or affiliates, suggesting the investigation relates to individuals who had formal roles in the campaign more central to its operation than those of peripheral figures. This is a key point because loosely affiliated Trump allies such as Page and unofficial adviser Roger Stone were never formally members of the campaign’s apparatus; Paul Manafort, however, was the campaign chairman, if only briefly, and Michael Flynn was Trump’s ever-present and heavily consulted foreign-policy adviser and, after the inauguration, briefly his national security adviser.

The congressional investigations have engendered their own controversies, especially with respect to the bizarre behaviour of Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. Nunes’ pro-Trump biases were on full display during the 20 March hearing when he focused on leaking and unmasking rather than the substance of Russian active measures or possible links with Trump associates. Representative Trey Gowdy (former chair of the Benghazi select committee) followed the same pattern. Towards the end of the hearing, both Nunes and Gowdy urged Comey to expedite the FBI’s work now that a ‘cloud’ was hanging over the White House.

Nunes subsequently went to the White House and gave a press conference outside the West Wing announcing that he had just seen intelligence reports that confirmed Trump’s Twitter accusations that the prior administration had put the Trump campaign under surveillance. The episode sparked outrage, since intelligence products are supposed to be provided to Congress directly, not via the White House, and only Nunes, not his Democrat counterpart Adam Schiff nor the rest of the committee, had seen the alleged reports. Nunes eventually recused himself from the Russia investigation and now faces an ethics investigation over the possible disclosure of classified material.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina and Vice-Chairman Mark Warner of Virginia, has functioned in a much more collegial, professional and bipartisan manner. Burr has pledged that ‘this investigation’s scope will go wherever the intelligence leads.’ Nevertheless, because of the debacle in the House and Trump’s denials and obfuscations, several senior members of Congress and analysts have called for the creation of a congressional select committee to substitute for the respective intelligence-committee inquiries or a special prosecutor run out of the Department of Justice. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, reportedly angering Trump, after lying in his confirmation hearing about meeting twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in 2016.

The key players

In the course of the investigations, several individuals have emerged as those most likely to have engaged in suspect conduct and, therefore, to possess probative information. Perhaps first and foremost is Flynn. Flynn, the shortest serving national-security adviser in US history – he lasted 24 days – resigned after admitting that he misled Vice President Mike Pence by telling him his communications with the Russian ambassador after the election were not policy-related and were simply intended to organise communications between the Kremlin and the incoming administration. But the Washington Post reported that the Department of Justice told the White House that transcripts of Kislyak’s calls with Flynn demonstrated otherwise, and included reference to the prospects for lifting sanctions on Russia. Separately, the army is investigating Flynn for possibly violating the Emoluments Clause of Article I, section 9, of the US constitution by accepting speaking fees from the Russian news outlet RT – which the IC assessed was involved in Russia’s attempt to influence the US election – without following proper procedures. In December 2015, when he was a Trump adviser, Flynn accepted a US$45,000 fee to speak at a gala dinner celebrating RT’s tenth anniversary; he was seated next to Putin at a table populated by top Kremlin leaders, three of whom were under US sanctions for their role in Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Flynn has offered to appear before Congress or the FBI in exchange for immunity. It is unclear what he would want immunity from and whether his testimony would be sufficiently valuable to warrant immunity.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and seemingly ubiquitous but generally silent adviser, could have significant information. He has played an informal role as the foreign-policy liaison to several important international actors, such as China and Israel. Thus, his post-election meetings with Kislyak are not surprising, but the fact that he also met, at Kislyak’s request, a Russian financier who remains under US sanctions has given cause for suspicion. Kushner also failed to disclose those meetings on his security-clearance application forms. He has offered to meet with the Senate Intelligence Committee to address these issues but no such meeting had transpired as of mid-April 2017.

Manafort is clearly of keen interest to investigators. He served as Trump’s campaign manager for most of summer 2016, in preparation for the Republican National Convention. Replacing Corey Lewandowski, who encouraged Trump’s populist attacks against the Republican field, Manafort was brought in to soften Trump’s tone. He has long-standing business ties in Eastern Europe, having served as a political adviser to ousted pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort was forced to resign after previously undisclosed payments he received from Yanukovych appeared in a ledger listing many of the ex-president’s financial relationships. The full extent of Manafort’s pro-Russian activities is not yet known, but an Associated Press report indicated that Manafort had a US$10 million annual contract with pro-Kremlin Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska that Manafort did not register with the Department of Justice. At a minimum, Manafort was influential in removing language from the Republican platform supporting the provision of lethal assistance to Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea.

The aforementioned Page has been under official scrutiny for some time. According to the president and Page himself, he had no official role in the Trump campaign and has never met Trump. Yet Trump cited him as an early foreign-policy adviser in an interview with the Washington Post’s editorial board in March 2016. Page has lied repeatedly in interviews about the extent of his contacts with Russian officials, including Kislyak. Even after a FISA court authorised surveillance of Page, he took to the airwaves to deny the claims rather than make a statement through a lawyer. Page was with Manafort and Sessions in Cleveland when they had the meeting with Kislyak that led to changes to the language about Ukraine in the Republican platform. Page also visited Russia in July 2016 to address a Russian university. According to the partially unverified Trump dossier, he used the trip to connect with senior Kremlin allies, if not Russian officials.

Stone is a long-time friend and political adviser to Trump, as well as his biographer, although he only served briefly in an official campaign capacity. As he has stated subsequently, he preferred to send short memos to Trump rather than participate in the formal campaign apparatus. Stone developed electronic communications with the Russian-aligned hacker Guccifer 2.0, who alerted him to the forthcoming WikiLeaks email releases. Stone subsequently passed on this information to his Twitter followers and blog readers. Two days prior to the Podesta leaks, he tweeted: ‘I have total confidence that @wikiLeaks and my hero Julian Assange will educate the American people soon … #LockHerUp ... Payload coming.’ The extent of Stone’s connections with Guccifer 2.0 and other Russian intermediaries will certainly be the subject of further inquiry.

Christopher Steele has a potentially important source of damaging intelligence. He is the former head of the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) station in Moscow, and compiled the notorious dossier that detailed Trump’s reported salacious activities during a visit to Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant. Steele’s dossier, which was presented directly by Senator John McCain to FBI Director Comey, covers much more ground than the singular celebrated instance of kompromat – compromising material – that has often been cited. It points to several Russian or ethnic-Russian sources who confirm the existence of an extensive conspiracy ordered by Putin and directed at Clinton. Intelligence officials view elements of the reports as credible, according to multiple media sources.

Outlook

At present, no conclusive ‘smoking gun’ evidence of the Trump team’s coordination with the Russians to influence the 2016 election has surfaced. A number of questions remain unanswered about the nature and content of contacts between these key players and Russian cut-outs used by the Kremlin to maintain deniability. The Trump administration has been somewhat effective in controlling the news cycle by lodging counter-accusations of unlawful surveillance and the like, and leveraging international crises such as the Syrian regime’s chemical-weapons attack and North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats to divert attention away from the investigations. But the Democrats’ consensus is to resist normalising Trump’s presidency and to oppose it comprehensively. Accordingly, Trump’s political opponents are strongly motivated to chase down all leads, as incontrovertible proof of coordination with Russia may be critical to building a case for Trump’s impeachment or resignation.

In addition, traditional media outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post, well-known online outfits like Talking Points Memo, and probing independent journalists like Louise Mensch – a former member of the UK Parliament whose blog Patribotics has been uncannily prescient and penetrating on this issue – appear determined to keep the story alive. Furthermore, the FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee have indicated that they will pursue their investigations exhaustively. The official investigations, of course, remain the essential prerequisites of legal action against any perpetrators. But the FBI’s probe could be compromised by the machinations of Attorney General Sessions and the Trump administration more broadly; the congressional inquiries by the interference of Trump’s allies in Congress. In this light, it appears desirable, if not necessary, for a fully empowered independent investigation to be authorised.

Volume 23, Comment 11 – April 2017

 
 

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