The Trump-Russia Problem Remains

The Trump-Russia Problem Remains

Moscow’s recent counter-sanctioning of American officials includes figures who have nothing to do with Russia policy… but do happen to be political enemies of former President Donald Trump.

 

Insight into the relationship between the Russian government and former U.S. president Donald Trump was recently provided by a list of Americans that Moscow is sanctioning as retaliation for American sanctions on Russia because of the latter’s invasion of Ukraine. Among the 500 Americans on whom Russia is placing travel and financial restrictions are some who have nothing to do with setting policy toward Russia, are unlikely to have any dealings with Russia at all, and whose only common trait is that Trump considers them adversaries. These include: Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state who resisted Trump’s pressure to alter the results of the 2020 election; Letitia James, the New York attorney general who is suing Trump for business fraud; and Jack Smith, the special prosecutor who is investigating multiple possible violations by Trump of federal law. The Russia list even includes Michael Byrd, a Capitol Police officer who shot a rioter who was at the front of one part of the pro-Trump mob that attacked the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

The sole plausible explanation for Russia’s inclusion of such people in its sanctions list is that Moscow had a stake in Trump gaining and maintaining power in Washington and today has a stake in him possibly returning to power.

 

The full scope of exactly what that stake entails is unknown to anyone but Trump and the Russians, and that is part of the problem. We don’t know because there has not been a full, unimpeded counterintelligence investigation of Trump. The investigation by former special counsel Robert Mueller was limited in scope to Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election and Trump’s obstruction of inquiries into that interference, and by a policy decision not to do criminal investigations of a sitting president. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is the agency that would be responsible for a counterintelligence investigation. But what steps the Bureau has taken to fulfill its responsibilities in this regard have not only been impeded but also met by a full-blown political attack aimed at discrediting the FBI and anything it might uncover.

It is highly likely that even before Trump first descended the escalator at Trump Tower and announced his candidacy for president, Russian security agencies had identified him as a promising “developmental,” as intelligence services term such prospects. The Russians already were familiar with Trump from his business dealings in Russia. In the United States, Trump was well-known, had a following, and showed political ambition. He was wealthy but also had money problems, as manifested in his multiple business bankruptcies. He lacked ethical scruples. His disjointed personal life provided additional angles the Russians could work. The mere possibility of Trump as a future agent of influence provided ample grounds for Russia to keep his case open.

Exactly what angles the Russians have worked and what vulnerabilities they may have exploited are part of what is unknown. Some of the more salacious possibilities, involving alleged conduct during visits to Russia that most people would find embarrassing, probably did not constitute a vulnerability for Trump. His salacious behavior in the United States has not seemed to hurt him politically, and he even boasts about it. A more workable angle has been pecuniary and has involved Trump’s business objectives, such as building a skyscraper in Moscow—an objective that, as Mueller found, Trump was still pursuing even after he announced his candidacy for president.

If Donald Trump were an ordinary applicant for a position somewhere in the U.S. national security bureaucracy that required a security clearance, it is unlikely he would have received that clearance. There was ample reason to disqualify him on what security adjudicators call suitability grounds, including the bankruptcies and multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. If that were not enough, then the business connections with Russia would be a disqualifier.

If, despite those huge red flags, Trump had somehow slipped through the clearance gauntlet, he would have come to be regarded as just as much of a security error as Jack Teixeira, the Massachusetts airman who freely shared classified information to impress his online buddies. Like Teixeira, Trump had no compunction about carting off to his home, contrary to U.S. law, piles of classified documents. While president, he tried to impress the Russian foreign minister and ambassador with the classified intelligence he had by showing some of that material to the Russian officials.

Trump’s mishandling of classified information may be coming full circle back to his foreign business dealings. The prosecutors under Smith who are investigating that mishandling recently issued a subpoena for information about Trump’s foreign business ventures since he took office.

But all this and the serious implications of it have been largely shoved out of the public consciousness by a huge, sustained campaign led by Trump’s political party to discredit any investigation of the matter or even any public attention to it. The initial motivation for that campaign was to neutralize the stigma of foreign influence associated with Trump’s Russia-aided 2016 election victory. The campaign has taken multiple forms, including the intentional mischaracterization by Trump attorney general William Barr of Mueller’s findings, Jim Jordan’s committee on supposed “weaponization” of law enforcement and security agencies, and Barr’s appointment of John Durham as a special prosecutor with the mission of trying to find something—anything—wrong with the FBI’s earlier investigation of matters involving Trump and the Russians. Durham’s investigation was a four-year, $6.5-million-dollar dud. Far from finding the sort of politically motivated deep state effort to defame Trump that Barr had suggested would be uncovered, Durham was a loser in the courtroom, and his recently issued final report was reduced to applying to the FBI the kind of hindsight-laden criticisms that can be found in just about any report looking back at a difficult government investigation, such as that there was insufficient “analytical rigor.”

In criticizing the FBI for acting based on “raw, unanalyzed, and uncorroborated intelligence,” Durham either misunderstood or, more likely, intentionally misrepresented the Bureau’s work. The FBI necessarily deals with that kind of intelligence all the time. As the organization’s name implies, its business is investigation. Its job is to take available lead information—which by its nature is typically raw, unanalyzed, and uncorroborated—and to investigate to determine what can be corroborated and what cannot, and what is true and what is not. When the lead information points to a possibility as serious as a hostile foreign regime’s influence at senior levels of the U.S. government, the Bureau would be derelict in its duty if it did not investigate. If no action were to be taken on any information other than what is already neatly packaged, analyzed, and corroborated, then the nation would not need a Federal Bureau of Investigation.

It would be interesting—if this did not prolong further a misappropriation of public funds and attention—to do an investigation of Durham’s investigation and to apply to it the same standards that Durham claimed to apply to the FBI’s work. For example, with regard to “analytical rigor,” on the same page in which Durham asserted that he had found “no evidence” that the FBI had considered how the Clinton campaign’s interest in tying Trump to the Russians might affect the Bureau’s investigation, the report cites a message from a senior FBI official warning his colleagues of exactly that hazard.

The Republican political interest in erasing the whole smelly Trump/Russia story from the public mind has been aided by some on the Left who, evidently motivated by a desire to downplay anything that risks exacerbating U.S.-Russian tensions, also have tried to discredit not only a Trump connection to Russia but the very fact that Russia interfered in the 2016 election on his behalf. Whether the smokescreen is coming from the Left or the Right, the smoke has now been blown so strongly and for so long that “Russiagate” gets repeatedly and casually voiced as a mantra that is assumed to be equatable with a hoax. And the FBI appears to have been browbeaten into not pursuing the subject further.

The fact of the Russian interference, to the benefit of Trump, in the 2016 presidential election is beyond any doubt. The interference has been documented by the intelligence community, the Mueller report, and most thoroughly for the public in a bipartisan report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

As for Trump’s role and whether there was something warranting investigation, the inspector general of the Department of Justice had already determined, before Durham had gotten very far into his own effort, that the FBI’s investigation of the subject, while its conduct was subject to some legitimate criticism, was indeed warranted.

Even without access to all the material that the FBI and the inspector general had access to, the public has seen enough that ought to justify both worry and further investigation. Recall what is a matter of public record regarding how Trump and his entourage dealt with the Russian interference. Trump publicly urged Russia to hack into his opponent’s emails, and a few days later the Russians did exactly that. Mueller reported that the Trump campaign and members of the Trump family replayed material created by the Russian trolls who were Moscow’s main cyber instrument for interference in the election campaign. The Trump campaign chairman repeatedly met and shared polling data with a Russian intelligence agent. Senior members of the Trump campaign and family met in Trump Tower with a Russian known to have ties to the Russian regime, for the purpose of receiving dirt on Hillary Clinton. And as Mueller determined and documented in his report, Trump repeatedly obstructed investigation of the Russian interference.