There were plenty of clues before the election that Donald Trump and his associates had more ties to Russia than any other presidential candidate for the past fifty years. But the media chose to ignore them in favor of a Hillary Clinton email server that might have been vulnerable to hacking. Not actually hacked, just vulnerable. Oh, and her staff’s recipes for risotto after emails were hacked from the Democratic National Committee server, probably by Russia.
So now we have a president with those Russian-connected associates and possibly his own connections, a president who has said admiring things about Vladimir Putin and has criticized the American intelligence community for investigating that Russian hack.
News stories are appearing now on Russian connections, and I am finding it hard to keep track of them. The latest (Wall Street Journal, CNN) is that Trump’s national security advisor Michael Flynn, Trump’s guy in the job that Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice have held, is being investigated by a counterintelligence task force for his phonecalls to Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. There is another recent story that three Trump aides are being investigated for connections to financing the hacking of the DNC. It’s important to understand the various investigations; I want to figure out which is which.
All too often, I find myself slipping into an easy acceptance of those Russian connections. It is not abnormal for the president’s national security advisor to have Russian contacts. Russia is a country that we have dealt with in many dimensions and that we will continue to deal with. But the number and types of contact across the Trump administration are extraordinary. They include campaign work for Victor Yanukovych, the Kremlin-backed president of Ukraine; business ties of many stripes and variations; the Russian Order of Friendship; appearances on the state media channel RT and celebration, with Putin, of that channel’s anniversary; and more. Russia is not a friendly nation, and it has recently increased its unfriendly behavior. Its doctrine of war includes information operations in peacetime. We need to know the US president’s relationship to that unfriendly nation, as well as his advisors’ relationships.
The Russian connection is a complicated story and hard to follow in the media. Reporters at different outlets turn up fragments of information and publish stories based on each fragment filled out with information already available, wound together in varying ways. I’m going to try to unwind all that. It will take several posts.
There seem to be two investigations described in the recent stories: Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak and possible connections of three other aides to financing of the DNC hack.
In the Flynn story, the focus seems to be phone calls Flynn placed to Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., on December 29, the same day President Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and imposed other sanctions in retaliation for Russia’s election hacking. The calls are said to have been captured by “routine US eavesdropping” on the Russian diplomats.
The reason for concern is a question of whether Flynn was trying to undercut Obama’s sanctions. The initial Russian reaction to the expulsion came from Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister, who recommended reciprocating by expelling US diplomats from Russia, which would be a standard response. Putin decided not to expel any. There is no publicly available evidence that that was the subject of Flynn’s phonecall(s), and Trump officials have denied it was the subject. Different numbers and dates of phonecalls have been claimed by various sources, and the administration has not been consistent in its claims.
The Washington Post and NBC now say that the FBI has concluded that nothing illegal occurred in the phonecalls, but CBS says that the investigation continues. CBS describes the investigation as “trying to determine whether the Trump team was coordinating with the Russians leading up to and after the election.” That is broader than investigating Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak.
CBS may be referring to the investigation by six law enforcement and intelligence agencies described by McClatchy. The agencies are the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Justice Department, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and representatives of the director of national intelligence. McClatchy mentions three Trump aides. This investigation began last April and is said to be into how money may have been moved to help in Russia’s hacking.
In its story on the investigation, the New York Times named Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and Roger Stone as those investigated on the US side. All three have done business in Russia. Manafort and Stone denied any connection to the Russian government or hacking of the DNC. Page, who made at least two trips to Russia last year, said he had done nothing wrong. The story also noted that communications intercepts were part of the investigation, which may refer to the Flynn phonecalls or something more. The story says that this investigation is not based on a dossier assembled by Christopher Steele, a former British spy working as a private investigator.
Worth noting is that the anonymous sources are most likely from inside the intelligence agencies. People there may be concerned that the Trump administration will shut down the investigation.
Photo of Michael Flynn from Washington Post.