With the midterm elections 17 months away, it’s pretty clear that all of this Russia business is relevant. We have a new president with no government experience, a mercurial temperament, and an outsize ego. His hopelessly short-staffed administration is struggling to get his legislative agenda through the House and Senate, where the GOP is trying to manage thin majorities as well as different priorities in the two chambers. The Russia investigations are relevant because they consume time and energy from the Republicans’ legislative efforts, strain relationships between the president and Capitol Hill, and hinder President Trump’s ability to recruit top people to the administration. The probes also cast a political shadow over every Republican running in the midterm elections.
So where is all of this Russia business heading? What role did Russian intelligence or other entities play in trying to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election and why? Was there any coordination or collusion between Russian intelligence or other entities and the Trump campaign or people associated with the Trump campaign? Did Trump, the Trump Organization, or his family members have any kind of business or other financial relationship with Russian entities and, if so, why were these denied and not disclosed earlier? What was the purpose of the meetings with Russians before the election and during the transition, and why did presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner seek a channel of communications that would be out of the earshot of U.S. intelligence agencies? All relevant questions.
Here are some educated guesses. There will be no resolution of this mess anytime soon, certainly nothing this year and probably not until after the 2018 elections. In the past, these kinds of special-counsel and independent-prosecutor investigations have taken on lives of their own, going in unanticipated directions with unanticipated results. Remember that the Whitewater investigation started off looking at an Arkansas real estate deal and ended up delving into the tawdry details of President Clinton’s sex life. Also remember that more people get ensnared in cover-ups than in the putative focus of an investigation.
It’s pretty clear that the intelligence and federal law enforcement communities believe there was a concerted, widespread, and sophisticated effort by the Russian government to undermine the credibility of the presidential election. Destabilizing adversaries is a time-honored form of non-kinetic warfare, and the internet has provided the means to undermine rivals in largely invisible yet devastating ways.
There appears to have been a highly organized effort by groups acting on behalf of Russian security services or other Russian entities to damage Hillary Clinton, her campaign, and the Democratic National Committee though the use of Wikileaks and the spread of negative stories across the internet. False documents and emails were also created and disseminated. The intent was likely not so much to elect Donald Trump, who seemed an unlikely candidate when the Russians began their mischief, as to punish Hillary Clinton for crossing Russian President Vladimir Putin during her time as secretary of State. Putin was quoted Thursday in The New York Times denying that his government had hacked into Clinton emails but adding that if the perpetrators are “patriotically minded, they start making their contributions—which are right, from their point of view—to the fight against those who say bad things about Russia.” U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies don’t think these patriotic Russians were freelancing.
While there may have been no systematic coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian groups, there was an unprecedented level of contact between them. Individuals working for Russian intelligence may have shared information with people working on the Trump campaign, who may or may not have known the true source of that information. People in the intelligence community believe that there is no category of “appropriate” contact with known operatives of an adversarial foreign intelligence service.
People in the intelligence community believe it is likely that Trump or the Trump Organization has had business and financial relationships with Russian banks and other businesses in the past that were previously unknown—and they’re not talking about the 2013 Miss Universe pageant. If this is true and even if perfectly legal, how extensive and how financially significant were these relationships, and were entities associated with Russian security services or any other Russian governmental agencies involved?
Were there other relationships between anyone involved in the Trump campaign or transition team with foreign governments other than the already-disclosed ties between Gen. Michael Flynn, who was briefly Trump’s national security adviser, and the Turkish government and Russia’s RT Television?
In an Oval Office meeting on March 21, 1973, White House Counsel John Dean told President Nixon and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman that “we have a cancer within—close to the Presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding. It grows geometrically now because it compounds itself.” Well, it’s at least premature, and quite possibly an exaggeration, to say that the Russia affair is a cancer on the Trump presidency, but at the very least it is a high-grade fever, the kind that frequently warns of an infection. Does this fever break soon or does it linger, and what does it portend? With such narrow Republican margins on the Hill and the stakes so high, the answers to these questions are highly relevant to the outcome of the midterm elections.
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