By David Thornton
The question is why Russia is a recurring subject within the Trump Administration.
The rumors of Russian influence within the Trump Administration go back as far as Trump’s announcement of his candidacy. Rumors surfaced quickly about Trump’s longstanding business ties to Russia and The Hill noted that the Kremlin had funded nationalist opposition groups in several countries, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, which recently came close to winning the presidency.
Several of Trump’s former advisors were linked to Russia and Vladimir Putin. First to go was Paul Manafort, Trump’s first campaign manager. Manafort was a political consultant for Ukrainian dictator and Putin ally, Viktor Yanukovych, for 10 years until he was toppled by a revolution in 2014. Trump fired Manafort in August 2016.
Carter Page was a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign. Page was forced to take a leave of absence from the Trump campaign after allegations that he met with Russian officials on a trip to Moscow. Page was apparently the target of FBI surveillance for his links to Russia.
Roger Stone, another Trump campaign aide, claimed to have communicated with WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, and may have had foreknowledge of the WikiLeaks dump of Podesta emails in October 2016. WikiLeaks is widely believed to be a Russian front organization. Stone claims that he resigned from the Trump campaign, while Trump says he was fired.
Michael Flynn survived the campaign to become National Security Advisor. Unfortunately, shortly after Trump took office, Flynn was forced to resign for lying about contacts that he had with the Russian ambassador.
Amid the rumors of Trump campaign officials’ links to Russia, candidate Trump called upon Russia to “find the 30,000 emails that are missing” from Hillary Clinton’s server. When Trump made the statement, it was common knowledge that Russian fingerprints were all over the first hack of the Democratic National Committee a month earlier. The hack of John Podesta’s email account has also been traced to Russia.
After the election, when briefed on the evidence for Russian interference in the election, President-elect Trump finally admitted that “Russian entities” were responsible for the hacking in January, a conclusion that most other observers had long since reached. Even then, he denied that the interference was aimed at helping his campaign.
While there is so far no smoking gun that members of the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians on the hacking and election tampering, Lawfare Blog notes that “cooperation [between the Trump campaign and Russian hackers] was an open and public feature of the campaign. It included open encouragement of the Russians to hack Democratic targets; denial that they had done so; encouragement of WikiLeaks, which was publicly known to be effectively a publishing arm of the Russian operation, in publishing the fruits of the hacks; and publicly trumpeting the contents of stolen emails.”
Writing for Just Security, Julian Sanchez argues that secret contacts between the campaign and the Putin government were not needed. “Russia’s efforts on Trump’s behalf were, for the most part, pretty open, even if Trump affected not to notice them,” he says. “Trump’s praise of Vladimir Putin—grounded in an affection that long predates his political career—was public, as was his gleeful exploitation of the fruits of hacks against his opponents and encouragement of more of the same, as was his attempt to exculpate Russia long after the intelligence community had reached consensus about their responsibility, as was his use on the campaign trail of stories pushed out by Russian state media. Trump could see they were helping him, they could see he appreciated it and was reciprocating. What, exactly, would have been the marginal benefit of some further secret communication making this happy symbiosis a matter of explicit agreement? Collusion would have been redundant.”
At this point, it is Trump himself keeping the Russia scandal alive. After the firing of FBI Director James Comey, Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt, “And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won’.” This shocking statement confirmed charges by the critics that the firing was at least partly due to Comey’s handling of the investigation of Russia’s election interference and contacts with the Trump campaign.
When President Trump defended rather than denied his sharing of classified material with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister, it was simply the latest in a long line of contacts between the two organizations. Like many of the other contacts, Trump’s sharing of classified material was probably legal, but ethically questionable and almost certainly unwise.
Why does Russia keep popping up in the Trump Administration? Because Donald Trump encouraged the Russian interference in the campaign and — knowingly or unknowingly — hired a plethora of pro-Putin advisors. The president’s clumsy attempts to deflect the investigation into the campaign’s Russia ties and ensure that the subject won’t go away anytime soon.