Russia Probes Could Be a Millstone in Midterms for the GOP

With the administration already in disarray, contacts between Trump operatives and Russian entities endanger the Republican majority in the House.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner listens at right as President Trump speaks during a breakfast with business leaders in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in January.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
June 1, 2017, 8 p.m.

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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