Argument

Donald Trump’s Russia Scandal Is Just Getting Started

Donald Trump’s Russia Scandal Is Just Getting Started

Donald Trump’s administration has now completed its first full personal scandal cycle. It began with the revelation of Mike Flynn’s discussions with the Russian ambassador to the United States and the subsequent claims that Vice President Mike Pence’s defense of Flynn stemmed from false information provided by the then-national security advisor, followed on Monday night by Flynn’s resignation. Since Flynn’s story has a neat beginning, middle, and end, it’s tempting to treat the underlying scandal as essentially complete and to begin focusing on the avalanche of other controversies spilling out from the Trump White House.

That would be a grave mistake. The Trump-Russia file, which concerns fundamental questions of national security, is far more deserving of close scrutiny by Congress, the media, law enforcement, and the public than any of the White House’s many other alleged misdeeds. And the Flynn phone calls are only the beginning, not the end, of the scandal in question.

When news first emerged last month that Flynn spoke to Ambassador Sergei Kislyak during the transition, he and other White House officials — notably Vice President Pence — insisted that the talks did not include any discussion of sanctions. Now Flynn has all but declared that he lied to Pence, assuming sole responsibility for both the possible illegal conversations and the lies the administration proffered to the American public. But why should we believe that version of events when this White House has given us so many reasons for doubt? It is just as reasonable to believe that Flynn, rather than freelancing during the phone calls, was acting with approval, in accordance with the Trump team’s Russia policy.

And that raises the question of what motivates Trump’s Russia policy in the first place. The famed dossier compiled by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele, alleging that Russian President Vladimir Putin cultivated Trump over several years as part of a plan to subvert the West, contained some errors, but U.S. officials have told CNN that they have corroborated some of its information. Trump and Putin have dismissed the dossier’s allegations, but Trump was vehement during the campaign about the need to transform relations with Putin’s regime and perhaps lift all sanctions against Russia.

The most important question the dossier raises is whether Trump colluded with Russia in its interference in the U.S. presidential election. That is crucial not just because it might constitute treason, but because if it did occur, that alone would amount to kompromat. Forget the prostitutes. If Trump and the Kremlin worked together, that fact alone gives Putin something with which to pressure Trump to act in Russia’s interest.

Even if there was no direct collusion between Trump and Russia, his aides may have made arrangements without his knowledge. The dossier claims that a representative from Trump’s presidential campaign, Carter Page, met last July with Igor Sechin, head of the Russian oil monopoly Rosneft and a senior Kremlin official. Sechin reportedly offered brokerage on a 19 percent stake in Rosneft in exchange for lifting sanctions, and Page was “non-committal in response.”

Page runs an investment firm specializing in oil and gas deals in Russia and nearby countries and has a track record of defending Putin and criticizing U.S. policy on Russia. The Trump campaign eventually cut ties with Page, but Trump had earlier named him as one of five foreign-policy advisors he consulted with.

At about the same time, Trump chose Paul Manafort, a man with close ties to powerful people in Russia, to lead his operations during the summer’s Republican National Convention and later to lead the campaign. Manafort, who has been accused of (and denies) receiving $12 million in cash payments from the deposed Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych — a close Moscow ally — played a key role in the purging of the Republican Party platform of criticism of Russia and support for Ukrainian independence.

At the time when the dossier alleges the “secret meeting” between Page and Sechin occurred, Page is known to have been in Russia for a speaking engagement. (In fairness, even if the meeting between Sechin and Page did occur, there is no guarantee that Trump was aware of it.) Page was also in Moscow five months later on Dec. 7, one month after Trump’s electoral victory, when Putin and Sechin announced on Russia’s national television that the country had sold to foreign investors 19.5 percent of Rosneft, almost exactly the portion cited by the dossier.

Putin and Sechin said the stake in Rosneft was acquired by a joint venture of Qatar and Switzerland’s Glencore. But Glencore said it was acquiring an “indirect equity interest” amounting to just 0.54 percent of Rosneft. And when Reuters set out to confirm the identity of the purchasers, it found a Singapore-registered entity holding the 19.5 percent stake, with the entity’s ownership a tangle of shell companies whose real proprietors it could not ascertain.

According to the dossier, Steele heard of the Page-Sechin meeting from a “source close to Rosneft president.” That source, Russia watchers speculated, was possibly a man well-known in intelligence circles, a former general at the KGB and its successor agency, the FSB, named Oleg Erovinkin.

Erovinkin turned up dead in late December. He had been personally named by Putin to become Rosneft’s chief of staff. Sechin, too, a former deputy prime minister, was handpicked by Putin.

When Erovinkin was found dead in the back seat of his Lexus on Dec. 26, at least one Russian news site suggested foul play with the headline “Sechin chief of staff killed in central Moscow.” State media declared that the government was conducting a large-scale investigation. But Rosneft later announced that Erovinkin had heart trouble.

Before Erovinkin’s death, in early December, Russian media buzzed with details of a purge inside the cyber-operations branch of the FSB, with several officers detained and charged with treason. At least four people have been arrested; among them are Sergei Mikhailov, head of the FSB’s Information Security Center, and his deputy. CNN confirmed the arrests, and a lawyer for one of the men said his client is charged with providing “several special services to the United States.”

The Kremlin, it appears, wanted the world to know about the arrests. Russian media described the “theatrical” detention of Mikhailov, who was reportedly attending a gathering of intelligence officers when he was carried away with a bag over his head.

The drama was likely meant to send a message — but to whom? Speculation in Russia is that the arrests are connected to the hacking of the U.S. election and possibly with confirming the operation to the CIA. By letting word of the arrests spread, the Kremlin may have been issuing a warning to its own agents. But if the Trump team did, in fact, work with the Kremlin, one can only imagine what a trial could bring to light and what the consequences might be for Trump.

During the campaign, Trump publicly called on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. Since becoming president, his statements on Russia have ranged from traditional to shocking. His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, condemned Russia and insisted sanctions imposed over the seizure of Crimea are here to stay. But when Trump was asked about Putin being a “killer,” he suggested the U.S. government has no moral standing to criticize him.

As long as doubts about the possible collusion of Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin continue, and as long as Trump refuses to release his taxes and relieve doubts about financial connections, it will be difficult for him to act on any of his promises to transform policy toward Russia.

The Trump administration no doubt hopes that by firing Flynn, it can signal he was acting alone, that he “went rogue.” But without a credible, thorough investigation into what transpired before the election, it is impossible to know if Flynn was following the administration’s playbook and whether Trump or his administration is guilty of something much more serious.

Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images