IISS Strategic Comments

The Trump administration and the Russia probes

The investigations of possible collusion between the campaign of US President Donald Trump and the Russian government to influence the 2016 US presidential election have intensified over the last several weeks. Key figures, including the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, appeared before congressional committees and the FBI executed a pre-dawn raid on a residence belonging to former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. A shake-up of senior staff and discord between Trump and other senior officials have compounded the administration’s difficulties. Secretary of Homeland Security and retired general John Kelly replaced Reince Priebus as chief of staff, and the combative Anthony Scaramucci was dismissed after only 11 days as communications director. Via Twitter, Trump also launched personal attacks on his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and issued veiled threats against Special Counsel Robert Mueller, though both remain in their positions. In addition, he publicly insulted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over the Senate’s failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

At the same time, Congress, including members of the Republican Party, is increasingly willing to stand up to Trump, as demonstrated by the healthcare defeat and the Russia sanctions bill, which he grudgingly signed on 2 August. The sanctions bill indicated that Trump would probably face resistance from both parties if, as is likely, he continued to pursue warmer ties with the Kremlin. But when the federal government gets back into full swing next month, Trump will face increasing pressure from the probes into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, which will almost certainly have an impact on an already erratic foreign-policymaking process, especially on matters pertaining to Russia. A key factor will be the standing of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, who has undergone withering criticism from the right-wing media for his advocacy of a more aggressive US posture in Afghanistan and against Russia – positions at odds with the views of both the president and his alt-right base. The most acute danger is that Trump’s impetuousness, aggravated by the Russia probes, could increase risks in the tense stand-off between the United States and North Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.

Ongoing investigations

There are five concurrent and ongoing investigations concerning Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and agents of the Russian government and related leaks of classified information. As reported first by the Washington Post, Special Counsel Mueller is also investigating possible obstruction of justice by Trump in connection with his firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Of the four congressional inquiries, that of the House Intelligence Committee has been the most politicised. Chairman Devin Nunes undermined its credibility and had to recuse himself after holding a press conference outside the White House following his review of sensitive intelligence materials, in which he lodged baseless accusations that Obama administration officials had inappropriately ‘unmasked’ the identities of US citizens affiliated with the Trump campaign. The House Government Oversight and Government Reform Committee is investigating payments that Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn received from Russia and Turkey prior to his appointment and material related to Comey’s dismissal. Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz resigned his House seat in June and was replaced by Trey Gowdy, who also plays a prominent role on the House Intelligence Committee. It is unclear how these committees, led by Republican loyalists, will proceed.

On the Senate side, the Intelligence Committee led by Chairman Richard Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner has maintained greater professionalism and bipartisanship. The Committee has interviewed Kushner, Manafort and others – specifically, about the now-infamous June 2016 meeting that Donald Trump Jr organised with a Russian attorney promising deleterious information targeting Hillary Clinton. The Senate Judiciary Committee led by Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein has investigated the enforcement of the Foreign Agent Registration Act and explored Russian efforts to counter the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on Russia after the mysterious death of corruption investigator Sergei Magnitsky.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Special Counsel Mueller after Sessions recused himself from Russia-related matters, following revelations that he misled senators during his confirmation hearing about his meetings with the Russian ambassador while he was an active adviser to the Trump campaign. Given that Rosenstein appointed Mueller after authoring a dubious memo used by the White House to justify Comey’s firing, many observers believe the move was intended to restore Rosenstein’s credibility. Mueller has impeccable credentials for the role of special counsel. He is a decorated Vietnam War veteran and a former acting deputy attorney general. He was FBI director for 12 years, until 2014, and is widely credited with adapting the agency to post-9/11 counter-terrorism priorities.

Mueller has since hired an experienced and distinguished staff of former justice department officials and financial crimes analysts, suggesting that the probe will focus, at least at first, on Trump’s business dealings and those of his campaign. Asked by the New York Times if he considered a probe into the finances of The Trump Organization a red line, Trump replied ‘yeah’, but then pivoted to boasting about his business successes. Senators from both parties have cautioned Trump against any moves to fire Mueller. According to the rules governing the special counsel written in 1999, Mueller works for and reports to Rosenstein, not directly to Trump. To remove Mueller, Trump would either have to order Rosenstein to do so or to fire Rosenstein if he refused to follow Trump’s orders. Both actions could provoke a constitutional crisis in the Senate.

While Mueller and his team can prosecute members of Trump’s circle, a sitting president has never been indicted. In the case of Bill Clinton, the independent counsel handed the investigation over to Congress where it formed the basis of articles of impeachment. If Mueller ultimately discovers prosecutable crimes and this precedent holds, the constitutional process will take months, perhaps more than a year, to unfold. Mueller appears to be proceeding systematically. He has convened a grand jury, requested information from foreign financial institutions and talked to senior intelligence officials inside the government. Most dramatically, he directed the FBI to raid one of Manafort’s residences on the day the former campaign chairman was scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, just one day after he had appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee. The raid prompted media speculation that Mueller did not believe Manafort was being fully cooperative with Congress and, moreover, that Mueller was pursuing separate investigations against him related to his foreign business dealings in order to secure Manafort’s cooperation in the Trump inquiry. The probe has also reportedly targeted Manafort’s business partner and former son-in-law.

To be fully effective, the congressional inquiries and the special counsel’s office need to coordinate witness interviews. If a committee makes a deal with a witness in exchange for testimony, it could jeopardise a criminal case. In 1990, for example, an appellate court overturned Oliver North’s conviction for crimes involving the Iran–Contra scandal due to North’s prior compelled testimony to Congress.

Smoking guns?

According to media reports, documents provided by Manafort to Congress revealed the now infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting involving Trump Jr, Kushner, Manafort and the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was accompanied by a Russian-American lobbyist, a Georgian-American executive representing the Russian real-estate contacts of the Trumps – Aris and Emin Agalarov – who facilitated the meeting, and a translator. News of precisely who attended the meeting and its purpose remained sketchy until Trump Jr released an email providing substantive details. The email – with the subject header ‘Re: Russia – Clinton – private and confidential’ – revealed that Veselnitskaya offered Trump Jr

some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump – helped along by Aris and Emin.

Trump Jr responded, ‘If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer’. The entire chain, including the title, had been forwarded to Manafort and Kushner, so they had been apprised of the meeting’s intended focus and content in writing.

Trump, Trump Jr and Kushner downplayed the significance of the meeting, claiming that it was unproductive and primarily involved a discussion of Russia’s ban on the adoption of Russian children by American parents, which Russian President Vladimir Putin had imposed in response to the Magnitsky Act. Various members of the Trump family, however, offered differing details of the story, which detracted from their credibility. For his part, Kushner said he joined the meeting for ten minutes and had his assistant interrupt him early as a pretext for leaving. He also said he did not read the full email describing the prospective meeting, which raises the question of why he would have attended it during a busy campaign. Trump himself reportedly wanted his spokespeople to emphasise the meeting’s focus on adoption but then pivoted to describing the meeting as opposition research that anyone in politics would have pursued.

After meeting privately with the Senate Intelligence Committee, Kushner delivered a rare public statement flatly denying any inappropriate contact with Russians during the campaign. In his statement, Kushner also attempted to paper over his initial failure to disclose his contact with multiple Russians in the documentation he had been required to submit to obtain his security clearance, known as a Standard Form 86, saying

I did not collude, nor know of anyone else in the campaign who colluded, with any foreign government. I had no improper contacts. I have not relied on Russian funds to finance my business activities in the private sector. I have tried to be fully transparent with regard to the filing of my SF-86 form, above and beyond what is required. Hopefully, this puts these matters to rest.

Kushner further explained that he had two meetings with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the US, during the campaign and transition: one consisting of pleasantries, and one in which they discussed a Russian offer to provide a military briefing on Syria during the transition. To clarify reports that Kushner had asked to set up a secure communications channel within the Russian embassy, Kushner noted that Kislyak had first inquired about the availability of secure communications inside the transition office. Since the office lacked that capability, Kushner asked Kislyak if the briefing could be done at the Russian embassy, but Kislyak rejected the idea. The key questions for investigators are why Kislyak was volunteering such a briefing, and whether it was part of an effort to sway the incoming administration’s views on Syria or a broader campaign to lift sanctions. The final meeting Kushner addressed was with Sergey Garkov, the head of a sanctioned Russian state-owned bank. Kushner claimed he met Garkov at Kislyak’s recommendation because Garkov was a Putin confidant, not because of any business dealings with the bank or Russian financiers. He reported that Garkov gave him gifts from the village in Belarus where his grandparents lived. Kushner attributed his initial omissions of foreign contacts in the SF-86 security background questionnaire, including the contacts in the Russia meetings, to a miscommunication between members of his staff.

The special counsel is clearly focused on the Trump Tower meeting with the Russian representatives. Mueller has reportedly sought Manafort’s notes from the meeting and is seeking the cooperation of the Georgian-American businessman who helped facilitate it. The inquiry would become even more threatening to the presidency if the special counsel uncovered evidence that the meeting was part of a larger Russian campaign to establish compromising information – popularly known by the Russian term kompromat – on members of the campaign, or, worse, evidence of active and willing collusion.

The presidential relationship

Trump and Putin met for the first time at the G20 Summit in Hamburg on 7 July. The meeting, originally scheduled for 30 minutes, lasted 135. Trump ignored even his wife Melania’s efforts to bring it to a close. The leaders were accompanied by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov. While the Russians had translators attend the meeting, Trump did not. This led to criticism that no definitive notes would emerge from the exchange, and indeed it produced conflicting readouts. Lavrov said Trump accepted Putin’s denial that Russia interfered with the election, while Tillerson effectively said the two agreed to disagree. Apparently without irony, Tillerson said the presidents also resolved to create a joint working group to examine cyber threats, ‘both in terms of how these tools are used to interfere with the internal affairs of countries, but also how these tools are used to threaten infrastructure, how these tools are used from a terrorism standpoint as well’. While this might have been a spontaneous proposal by the Russians to which Trump offhandedly acceded, the concept was clearly not vetted across the US defence and intelligence communities. They were roundly critical, and the idea was quickly taken off the table. Tillerson also said ‘there was a very clear positive chemistry’ between the two leaders and that ‘there was not a lot of re-litigating of the past’. The press subsequently revealed that Trump had had a second one-on-one exchange with Putin, lasting an hour, during a dinner for the G20 leaders and their spouses. The only other party present for that discussion was Putin’s translator, and the topics remain undisclosed.

Beyond confirming positive chemistry and a consensus within the US executive branch to move beyond election-related disputes with Russia, in the first meeting Trump and Putin discussed the recently announced ceasefire between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian opposition forces – excluding the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL – in southwest Syria negotiated by Jordan, Russia and the US. In his readout of that meeting, Tillerson said ‘this is our first indication of the US and Russia being able to work together in Syria’, reflecting the broader view of the administration that the road to peace in Damascus runs through Moscow. Although indications had emerged of a rising inclination among some members of Trump’s national security team to challenge Iran in Syria, overall the Trump administration still appears focused on expelling ISIS from Iraq and Syria. The July ceasefire suggests that, in line with Russia’s interests, it is relatively unconcerned about Assad staying in power in any post-conflict arrangement in areas once controlled by ISIS. Iran, the Lebanese Shia militia Hizbullah and other Iran-backed Shia militias stand to increase their presence in Syria under this approach, which led to Israel’s staunch opposition to the ceasefire and a rare public criticism of US policy by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Trump’s efforts to let bygones be bygones, however, were dealt a significant blow when he was forced to sign a Russia sanctions bill (which also included sanctions against Iran and North Korea) that passed almost unanimously in both the House and the Senate. Premised on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and ongoing intrigue in Ukraine, the new law gives the executive branch less scope to alleviate sanctions and imposes new penalties on companies that engage in business with certain Russian sectors, including energy and mining. In response, the Russian government announced that it would reduce US diplomatic staff in Russia by 775 and seized two American properties. On 10 August, Trump cavalierly praised Putin’s actions as a cost-savings boon, apparently not realising that most departing staff would remain federal government employees. To date, no one in the administration has condemned Moscow’s retaliatory actions.


Despite the growing political blowback from his praise for Putin, including increasingly adverse reactions among Republicans, Trump is still adamantly pro-Russian in his outlook and US policy on Syria remains wedded to accommodation with Russia. After his initial failure to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis for perpetrating violence in a Charlottesville, Virginia, demonstration on 12 August, many observers noted that only Putin had remained similarly immune from his criticism. The administration’s calculus regarding Putin may change as the special counsel and congressional inquiries proceed, but Trump and his political allies are likely to continue to attack the special counsel’s legitimacy and avoid unequivocally acknowledging Russian interference for as long as possible.

While the marginalisation of far-right White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon and pressure from Iran hawks could eventually help relax Trump’s embrace of Russia, the relentless attack by Breitbart News against National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster could cut the other way. If McMaster departs or is significantly weakened, there will be one less effective Putin sceptic in the White House, which might then be all the more defensive in response to criticism of a warm US–Russia relationship. Should the special counsel and congressional inquiries yield convincing evidence of collusion, a constitutional crisis would be inevitable and the White House would probably be more apt to maximise and politically exploit its divisive effect.

Volume 23, Comment 28 – August 2017


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