In January, President Donald J. Trump learned that, before he ever took office, the man he picked as his national security adviser was making promises to a Russian diplomat, promises that intimated a lifting of U.S. sanctions against Russia in return for its apparent attempts to sway the outcome of the U.S. election. This was at worst dangerous and illegal behavior; at best, it was staggeringly unpatriotic.
But it wasn’t until weeks later, after The Washington Post broke the story of Michael T. Flynn’s intercepted conversation with Sergey I. Kislyak, Russia’s U.S. ambassador, that Trump asked for Flynn’s resignation.
Had Flynn’s friendly convo with Kislyak been a rogue operation, don’t you think Trump would have dumped Flynn sooner? The question here isn’t simply: What did Trump know and when did he know it? It’s more like: What does Flynn know about Trump?
Since Flynn’s departure, a turbo-charged form of the usual Trumpian chaos has characterized the White House response. We’re told that Flynn had to go because it was revealed he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence who, back on January 15, assured the American people that Flynn had not discussed the matter of sanctions in his phone call with Kislyak.
And on Tuesday, we learned that Pence was not disabused of that notion until last week, even though Trump had been briefed on the matter on January 26.
Further revelations include Tuesday's New York Times report of contacts between Russian government and intelligence officials and other members of Trump’s circle, and CNN’s report of confirmation by “multiple current and former US law enforcement and intelligence officials“ of certain—but unspecified—allegations made by a former British spy in a dossier compiled on Trump at the request of U.S. political operatives. (The spy, Christopher Steele, was initially hired by anti-Trump Republicans during the GOP primary, who dropped the project once Trump won the nomination. Democrats then hired him.) The Times report prompts new consideration of Steele’s assertions that, in addition to Flynn, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was in frequent contact with Russian intelligence figures.
Reached by the Times, Manafort essentially said that he was never knowingly in contact with Russian spies but, hey, ya never know. “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer,’” Manafort told Times reporters.
Still, the more intriguing question is the validity of Steele’s intelligence on Trump’s allegedly long-standing deal with the Russian government of quid pro quo information-trading between the Trump Organization and the Kremlin. Over the course of several years, Steele’s sources told him, the Trump team gathered information on Russian oligarchs with U.S. assets, and delivered it to Russian operatives in exchange for information on Hillary Clinton and Democrats.
And Trump should know his oligarchs. As Mother Jones reported, as late as 2009, one of Russia’s biggest kleptocrats, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, was getting the take from a gambling operation run out of Trump Tower, in an apartment directly below one of Trump’s own.
If Steele’s sources are correct on the quid pro quo information-trading, and that Michael Flynn was, per CNN, in “constant communication” with Russian operatives during the campaign, might Flynn know something about that info-trading business? And might that info-trading business amount to something even more egregious than Russia’s attempt to sway the U.S. election?
Republican congressional leaders would rather you didn’t know. On Tuesday, Representative Jason Chaffetz, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, made a big show of his willingness to get tough with the administration by ordering an investigation of the Trump team’s flouting of security norms during a dinner party at Mar-a-Lago, when word reached the president that the North Korean regime had launched a missile designed for use in a nuclear attack. But in the wake of the multiple revelations of the Trump administration’s legally questionable and ethically indefensible dealings with Russian operatives deployed in the service of Trump’s campaign, Chaffetz sees no reason for an investigation of the Flynn matter, telling ABC News that the issue “seems to have resolved itself with the White House taking some decisive action” in requesting Flynn’s resignation.
And mavericky patriot Senator John McCain is dialing back his call for an independent investigation of Russia’s hacking into the emails of Trump’s Democratic opponents during the campaign, seeing as how Senator Mitch McConnell, always a profile in courage, doesn’t want to go that route.
Then there’s the Donald himself, likely sweating the possibility that whatever intel the Kremlin has on him could soon come to light—notwithstanding whatever intel domestic intelligence services have on him. Naturally, he took to Twitter: “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!” the president tweeted.
It would be interesting to explore whether former top Kremlin aide Oleg Erovinkin was one of the operatives with whom Trump associates were communicating. Not long after BuzzFeed’s publication of Steele’s dossier, Erovinkin—suspected of being one of Steele’s sources—turned up dead. Steele remains in hiding. And Chaffetz tells us there’s nothing to look at. Move along.
Did the president of the United States, a great deal-maker by his own estimate, oversee an operation by which his campaign traded information with Putin? Don’t we have a right to know if he can be trusted with the nation’s secrets?