Almost everyone on the left and in the press is freaking out about the growing complex web of ties between Russia, Donald Trump, and his associates.
When Russian operatives launched their hacking efforts to disrupt the 2016 election in the United States they had a clear goal in mind, but it was not perhaps the goal that was achieved. Their aim, in all likelihood, was simply to mire the early days of the new presidential administration in controversy, weakening it and, if they were lucky, Americans’ faith in the democratic process. Right now, the frenetic nature of the Russia discussion from both political leaders and in some of the press is doing “Putin’s work” far more effectively than any deep-cover comrade currently in the Trump administration.
Of course, the fault also lies squarely at the feet of the Trump administration. At every turn, when questioned about one Russian connection or another, they have not only obfuscated the truth, as Carter Page did with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, but they have blatantly lied about it, like disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The Trump ethos is one of big-league pronouncements, so that has led to multiple assertions by the press secretary, the vice president, and even the president himself that they never, ever talked to any Russians about anything. Except, of course, for the times they did.
Along with making it difficult to spot the truth–as well as discerning lies from the sort of mistakes that a neophyte presidential operation would make*–about the Trump team position on Russia, the president himself has further clouded the issue by engaging in a sort of media “bromance” with Putin. He has said harsher things about President Obama, his fellow Republicans, and even the family of a fallen soldier who criticized him than he ever has about the Russian autocrat.
In mid-December 2015, at his annual press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Donald Trump as the best candidate in the then-nascent 2016 presidential election. A day later, on Morning Joe, then-candidate Trump praised Putin as a “real leader” and made the same sort of moral equivalence between Russia and the United States that so shocked the country when he said it as the president. Since then Trump has praised Putin for his authoritarianism, finding himself attracted to the defiant strength the would-be dictator projects through his carefully cultivated image in the Russian state press.
All of this is very weird, and given that there are at least three investigations into ties between Russia and Trump campaign officials, it’s very serious stuff. Even if there’s nothing to these claims of collusion and quid pro quo that are circling Team trump, we’ve covered how their “war” against press leaks about these sorts of “problem stories” can actually bring down a presidency. In fairness, the first person to float the idea that Russia hacked Democrats to help Trump was John Podesta of the Clinton campaign, who himself later fell victim to Russian hackers. Naturally, Trump responded by denying that Russia was even involved, a position he maintained until after winning the election.
While this was going on, Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, reportedly with the approval of the Trump campaign, traveled to Russia in July. His stated purpose was to deliver remarks to a conference. However, as noted in the infamous Trump dossier, Page and two other Trump officials met with executives from the state-run oil conglomerate Rosneft, where he was allegedly offered a bribe to encourage Donald Trump to take a position that Russia’s sanctions should be weakened. Later that month, Page and other campaign officials including now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Also at the time of the convention, a linguist trained by Russian military intelligence, Konstatin Kilimnk met with Trump campaign official J.D. Gordon for the express purpose of lobbying the Republicans to soften the language in their platform about arming Ukrainian rebels against Russian incursion. In fact, according to the dossier by former British spy Christopher Steele, Russia’s opening offer to Team Trump was reportedly to hack the Democrats as long as he didn’t make Crimea a campaign issue. Of course, a number of Obama-era officials have said that there is no evidence that this sort of collusion happened. However, the circumstantial evidence keeps mounting.
There is a vast web of connections–detailed in seven charts in Politico magazine–between Trump associates like Manafort, dirty trickster Roger Stone (who correctly “predicted” John Podesta’s emails would leak days before they did) and Russian associates. There are also plenty of associations with Trump himself and Russian nationals. Oligarch Aras Agalarov helped Trump host the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. Trump is also associated with Sergei Millian, the leader of the Russian-American chamber of commerce (who is also, according to Politico, an alleged source for Steele’s dossier.)
Of course there is no more questionable connection between Trump and Russia than convicted Russian mafia money-man Felix Sater, now a real estate developer. Sater has a relationship with Dimitry Firtash, both a friend of Putin’s and former business associate of Manafort. Sater also brokered a deal through Sal Lauria–a felon who turned FBI informant–with the FL Group, an Icelandic hedge fund that reportedly holds some of Putin’s hidden money. The FL Group also invested in Trump’s SoHo project in a deal also brokered by Lauria.
After the election, Sater worked with Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen and Putin-ally in Ukraine Andrii Artemenko on the proposed deal to lift Russian sanctions that was “hand-delivered” to Flynn days before his firing.
At the risk of being cliché, there’s more smoke there than in a church-basement bingo in 1985, but thus far there hasn’t been any “fire.” There could be perfectly innocent and reasonable explanations for all of this. Trump has an unknown number of companies doing business all over the world, so of course he might have times to some Russians.
Transition and campaign officials meet with foreign officials all the time, which is why they went to the RNC in Cleveland. That Flynn and Trump’s son-in-law and volunteer adviser in the White House Jared Kushner met with Kislyak after the election is also not necessarily nefarious. Yet, rather than strolling them in through the Trump Tower lower like every other visitor during the transition, they sneaked him through the backdoor like he was somebody’s mistress.
Beyond the hacking, beyond the media bromance, the most troubling thing about this whole story is that there are no reasonable excuses offered by the Trump administration. Rather they issue blanket denials, dub the stories fake news, and then dismiss it as no big deal when the proof becomes undeniable.
Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev purchased a former Trump mansion for $95 million (an incredible price at the time) while going through a divorce. During the election Rybolovlev’s private plane shadowed Trump’s campaign plane a number of times in Las Vegas and North Carolina, including five days before the election.
Both Trump and Rybolovev denied they met. Yet, the spokesman Rybolovev hired to refute the claims he has ties to Trump is a former writer for Brietbart who worked under current White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, according to the Palmer report. Still no fire, but it’s getting hard to see for all the smoke.
The Trump administration is not being forthright about all these connections, and it’s important to learn why that is. However, this is a complex story and the Trump team seems more inclined to obfuscate the truth rather than clarify (and spin) it. That makes this ripe for conspiracy theorists, who think Trump is a Manchurian candidate or that there is a shadow government run by President Obama trying to undermine Trump with a false flag operation they are blaming on Russia.
The only thing we can do to challenge that is to lay what’s known, what’s rumored, and hope that the checks and balances built into the government help clear away all the smoke to see precisely what lies at the center of it all.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
*Author’s Note: Such as not keeping track of the meetings taken by campaign officials with people outside the campaign. So when we ask “why not just publish a list of all the meetings of all Trump-associated folk with any foreign representatives,” the answer could simply be because they hadn’t been keeping track of such things.
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