The always insecure egomaniacal Twitter-troll-in-chief Donald J. Trump publicly insists that he has no ties to Russia (while refusing to release his tax records and business records for public scrutiny which likely demonstrate otherwise).
“You’re always asking me about the Russians. I don’t know nothin’ about no Russians!”
We know this is bullshit, as David Leonhardt reminds us at the New York Times. Trump’s Russia Motives:
The mystery at the core of the Trump-Russia story is motive.
President Trump certainly seems to have a strange case of Russophilia. He has surrounded himself with aides who have Russian ties. Those aides were talking to Russian agents during the campaign, and some are now pushing a dubious peace deal in Ukraine. Trump recently went so far as to equate the United States and Vladimir Putin’s murderous regime.
I count five possible explanations for Trump’s Russophilia, and they’re not mutually exclusive.
The first is the justification that Trump himself gives, and you shouldn’t dismiss it simply because he has an open relationship with reality. He says that fewer tensions with Russia would benefit the United States, which is a reasonable position. It’s not so different from the position of John Kerry, President Barack Obama’s secretary of state.
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The second explanation is the business conspiracy. Because many American banks wouldn’t lend money to Trump’s debt-soaked company, he had to look elsewhere, like Russia. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Trump Jr. said in 2008, specifically mentioning projects in SoHo and Dubai.
Trump could clear up this issue by releasing his tax returns. That he has not, unlike every other modern presidential candidate, means that he deserves no benefit of the doubt. The fairest assumption is that he has Russian business ties he wants to keep hidden.
The third explanation is a political conspiracy, and it’s at the center of the legal inquiries. The facts are certainly worrisome. Trump campaign advisers had close links to Putin’s circle, and some of them spoke with Russian officials during the campaign. Meanwhile, Putin’s government was directing pro-Trump cyberattacks. If there was coordination — and there has not been any evidence to date — it would indeed be a worse scandal than Watergate.
The fourth explanation is the flimsiest: the idea, contained in a dossier compiled by private investigators, that Russia has compromising material on Trump. Unless real evidence emerges, I’d encourage you to ignore this theory.
The final possible motive — an ideological alliance — is in some ways the most alarming. Putin isn’t only a leader with “very strong control over his country,” as Trump has enthused; Putin also traffics in a white, Christian-infused nationalism that casts Islam and “global elites” as the enemies.
He does not go as far pursuing these themes as hard-core Russian nationalists, much as Trump merely flirts with the alt-right. Either way, the themes are undeniable. As Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Russia, says, “The inauguration speech sounded like things I’ve heard from Russian nationalists many times.”
Stephen Bannon, who has emerged as the White House’s most influential adviser, clearly believes in ideological alliances, and Trump seems open to them. After winning the election, he met with Britain’s leading nationalist, Nigel Farage, before Britain’s prime minister.
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The Republicans who run the Senate and the F.B.I. need to pursue their investigations without the friendly deference they have generally shown to Trump so far. If they don’t, it will be left for patriotic leakers, and journalists, to make sure the truth comes out.
Steve Benen reports on recent developments the Senate and FBI investigation. Trump’s Russia scandal takes an unexpected turn:
On Friday afternoon, FBI Director James Comey delivered a classified, hour-long briefing to the Senate Intelligence Committee on the Russia scandal, and soon after, the Senate Intelligence Committee sent “formal requests to more than a dozen organizations, agencies and individuals, asking them to preserve all materials related to the committee’s investigation” into the controversy.
We don’t know much about how the briefing went – committee members were tight-lipped following Comey’s presentation – though Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted late Friday that he’s “now very confident” that the committee will conduct “thorough bipartisan investigation” into Russia’s “interference and influence.”
Reading between the lines, this makes it sound as if the Republican-led panel is trying to knock down the idea that a special select committee is necessary to investigate the scandal without political interference.
A day later, Reuters reported that the FBI is pursuing “at least three separate probes” related to Russian intervention in American politics, “according to five current and former government officials with direct knowledge of the situation.” Two of three, according to the report, relate to alleged cyber-crimes, while the third is the ongoing counter-espionage probe.
And then yesterday, the New York Times moved the ball forward, though in an unexpected way. A Back-Channel Plan for Ukraine and Russia, Courtesy of Trump Associates:
A week before Michael T. Flynn resigned as national security adviser, a sealed proposal was hand-delivered to his office, outlining a way for President Trump to lift sanctions against Russia.
Mr. Flynn is gone, having been caught lying about his own discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador. But the proposal, a peace plan for Ukraine and Russia, remains, along with those pushing it: Michael D. Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, who delivered the document; Felix H. Sater, a business associate who helped Mr. Trump scout deals in Russia; and a Ukrainian lawmaker trying to rise in a political opposition movement shaped in part by Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort.
The “Ukrainian lawmaker,” in this case, is Andrii Artemenko, who’s allied with Putin’s government.
According to the Times’ reporting, Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, claims he received a sealed envelope from Felix Sater, a controversial figure in Trump’s orbit, and Cohen delivered the envelope to Michael Flynn before his resignation.
According to the Washington Post’s reporting, however, Amid Russia scrutiny, Trump associates received informal Ukraine policy proposal, Cohen had a different version of events: he met with the president at the White House, but never dropped off any documents.
The Times stands by its reporting. Why Cohen would tell two very different stories to two different newspapers is unclear.
To be sure, back-channel communications like these aren’t illegal or even uncommon, but the broader context matters: people close to Trump have been quietly passing around a pro-Putin plan, which may yet be part of a White House blueprint to ease Russian sanctions, which may help explain Russia’s illegal efforts to help put Trump in the White House.
Indeed, any story that further solidifies the connections between the U.S. president and his allies in Moscow is worth paying attention to.
The New York Times reports today, Contradicting Trump on Russia: Russian Officials:
For months, President Trump and his aides have insisted that they had no contact with Russian officials during the presidential campaign, a denial Mr. Trump repeated last week.
“I have nothing to do with Russia,” he told reporters on Thursday. “To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.”
The denial stands at odds with statements by Russian officials, who have at least twice acknowledged contacts with aides to Mr. Trump before the election.
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The dispute began two days after the Nov. 8 election, when Sergei A. Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, said his government had maintained contacts with members of Mr. Trump’s “immediate entourage” during the campaign.
“I cannot say that all, but a number of them maintained contacts with Russian representatives,” Mr. Ryabkov said during an interview with the Interfax news agency.
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More recently, Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey I. Kislyak, told The Washington Post that he had communicated frequently during the campaign with Michael T. Flynn, a close campaign adviser to Mr. Trump who became the president’s national security adviser before resigning from the position last week.
“It’s something all diplomats do,” The Post quoted Mr. Kislyak as saying, though he refused to say what subjects they discussed.
Mr. Trump and his aides denied any contacts occurred during the campaign.
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Separately, The New York Times and other news outlets reported last week that Trump campaign advisers and other associates of Mr. Trump’s had repeated contacts last year with Russian intelligence officials. Those reports, citing anonymous current and former American government officials, were vigorously denied by the White House.
On Thursday, Mr. Trump made clear his annoyance when questioned about contacts with Russia.
“How many times do I have to answer this question? Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia,” he said during a White House news conference.
Well maybe Mr. Trump should be answering questions under oath before the Senate Intelligence Committee after providing the committee with his tax and business records for review. Let’s get to the bottom of this scandal. If Trump is telling the truth you would think that he would want the opportunity to put these doubts to rest and to exonerate himself.
Even better would be a bipartisan commission with an independent counsel (in the mold of Archibald Cox from the Watergate investigation) to remedy the conflict of interest that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has as a Trump campaign insider. The House recently had an opportunity to vote on a Democratic proposal calling for such an investigation. Here is how they voted:
Probe of Trump-Russia Ties: Voting 233-190, the House on Feb. 15 blocked a bid by Democrats to force floor debate on a bill now in committee that would create a “National Commission on Foreign Interference in the 2016 Election” for investigating ties between associates of candidate Donald Trump and Russian intelligence officials starting months before election day. A yes vote was to quash a Democratic bid for a bipartisan, outside probe of the Trump-Russia connection. (H Res 123)
Voting yes: Martha McSally, R-2, Paul Gosar, R-4, Andy Biggs, R-5, David Schweikert, R-6, Trent Franks, R-8
Voting no: Tom O’Halleran, D-1, Raul Grijalva, D-3, Ruben Gallego, D-7, Kyrsten Sinema, D-9
That’s right, congressional Tea-Publicans would rather not investigate a foreign adversary compromising the U.S. presidency, and/or let the Senate Intelligence Committee knock down the idea that a commission or special select committee of Congress is necessary to investigate the scandal, despite the fact that Attorney General Sessions has refused to recuse himself from the investigations being conducted by the FBI.
Tea-Publicans would rather look the other way, or to cover it up. Republicans used to fear Russians. Here’s what they think now. (On the issue of Russia cyber-meddling in the U.S. elections, Republican public opinion more closely resembles public opinion in Russia than overall opinion in the United States. This softer line on Russia is out of step not only with GOP elites, but also with overall American views.) Some true American patriots we got here.