Russiagate: Trump Is Trying to Put Out a Fire With More Smoke

If Republicans have a shred of intellectual integrity, they’ll ignore the president’s flailing, and follow the evidence wherever it leads.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 7: U.S. President Donald J. Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House on May 7, 2017 in Washington, DC. President  Trump is returning from a weekend trip to the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. (Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 7: U.S. President Donald J. Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House on May 7, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump is returning from a weekend trip to the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. (Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)

There’s a lot we know — and even more we don’t know — regarding the Kremlin interference in the U.S. election last year. The most important thing we know is that there was interference. This is the consensus, “high confidence” assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, which further concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump. That in and of itself is scandalous enough. What we don’t know — and need to find out — is whether the Trump campaign actively colluded with this Russian operation and, more broadly, what links if any exist between the U.S. president and the dictator in the Kremlin.

Much remains unexplained. Why, for instance, did Trump associates repeatedly communicate and meet with Russians close to Putin during the campaign? American and European intelligence agencies reportedly have found copious evidence of such conversations, but so far there is no indication of what transpired. If there was an innocent explanation, why did former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions lie about their conversations with the Russian ambassador?

More questions concern Trump confidante Roger Stone. Was he truthful in saying that he talked last year with Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks (described by Trump’s own CIA director as a “hostile intelligence service”), and with the hacker persona Guccifer 2.0, which U.S. intelligence has determined was simply a front for Russian intelligence? What did they discuss? And how is it that Stone seemed to know in advance of Russian-orchestrated leaks of documents such as the emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta?

Yet another question mark concerns the financial dealings that Trump may have had over the years with wealthy Russians closely linked to the Putin regime. The former MI6 chief, Sir Richard Dearlove, has said that Trump’s views on Russia may have been influenced by the “deals… he did after the financial crisis of 2008 to borrow Russian money when others in the West apparently would not lend to him.”

In a similar vein, golf writer James Dodson says that in 2014 he asked Eric Trump how the Trump Organization was able to spend so much money building so many golf courses. He recalls the reply: “Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia…. We’ve got some guys that really, really love golf, and they’re really invested in our programs. We just go there all the time.” Eric Trump now denies saying this. If this claim is in fact false, why doesn’t the president reveal his tax returns and those of the Trump Organization so the American people find out what his actual sources of financing were?

But of course President Trump has repeatedly shown he has no interest in the truth getting out. He has impeded the inquiry at every step. For many months, he refused to even accept that Russian hackers had been responsible for stealing the Democratic Party documents he loved to quote on the campaign trail. He now grudgingly concedes that Russia was probably responsible but still adds disingenuously “could’ve been China, could’ve been a lot of different groups.”

Rather than aiding the inquiry now being undertaken by the FBI and multiple congressional committees, Trump is leveling cockamamie countercharges at the Democrats designed to obfuscate and obstruct. He did this most notoriously by claiming that President Obama illegally wiretapped him — which soon morphed into an accusation that Britain’s GCHQ had done the dirty work at Obama’s behest. No evidence has emerged to support these wild theories, and indeed both Trump’s own FBI and NSA directors have flatly contradicted them.

Even as his accusations against Obama were being dispelled, Trump expanded his smear campaign to Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, accusing her of illegally “unmasking” the names of Trump associates in surveillance reports. This theory was most avidly pushed by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a former member of Trump’s transition team.

Now this conspiracy theory, too, has imploded, with both the New Yorker and NBC News reporting that, as NBC put it, “A review of the surveillance material flagged by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes shows no inappropriate action by Susan Rice or any other Obama administration official, Republican and Democratic Congressional aides who have been briefed on the matter told NBC News.” As former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, there is a difference between requesting an unmasking through appropriate channels, which Rice seems to have done, and illegally leaking classified information to the public. The only person who may have done something inappropriate here is Nunes, who has had to recuse himself and is now under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for improper handling of classified materials.

But wait! Trump’s PR campaign isn’t done. He told John Dickerson of CBS News on April 30: “You have Podesta, who, by the way, I understand has a company with his brother in Russia. Hillary’s husband makes speeches in Russia. Hillary did a uranium deal with Russia. Nobody ever talks about that.”

Trump talks about these allegations all the time (he tweeted about them again on May 7), even though none are remotely relevant. Leave aside the fact that he is twisting the facts. PolitiFact has the full story. Hillary Clinton, for example, did not do a “uranium deal with Russia”; she was one of multiple federal officials who signed off on a Russian firm buying a controlling stake in a Canadian company that owns some uranium mines in the United States, none of whose production can be exported to Russia. Even if Trump were telling the whole truth, it’s hard to see how Russian attempts to influence Democrats in any way excuses Russian interference in the U.S. election on his behalf — much less possible collusion between his campaign and the Russians. These are hardly comparable offenses and even if they were, the existence of one would not excuse the other.

Only marginally more convincing is the latest alibi from the Trump camp. Eric Trump claims that his father’s cruise-missile strike against Russia’s Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad, on April 7 proves “that there is no Russia tie.” That’s a stretch, especially given that there has been no follow-up to this one strike and the administration gives every indication that it is content with Assad remaining in power.

More broadly, Trump defenders claim that he is hardly pursuing the kind of foreign policy Putin would want; he is not, for example, withdrawing from NATO or lifting sanctions. There is some truth to this, although Trump is also not sending arms to Ukraine or ramping up sanctions to punish Russia for its interference in our election. Moreover, part of the reason why Trump has not done a deal with Putin, as he repeatedly vowed to do, may be the fallout from Kremlingate: The president knows he cannot afford to be seen as selling out to Moscow.

But ultimately it doesn’t matter what Trump does in office. What matters is what happened last year: The Kremlin intervened in our election. It would still matter even if the Russian operation had no impact at all; the Watergate burglary was significant even though it didn’t swing the 1972 election. But in fact, there is considerable evidence to indicate that the Russian operation, which generated a series of WikiLeaks revelations in the month before the vote, did have a real impact. The polling website FiveThirtyEight notes that “the timeline of Clinton’s fall in the polls roughly matches the emails’ publishing schedule.” It’s hard to see why Trump would talk about WikiLeaks 164 times in the last month of the campaign if it was inconsequential.

None of Trump’s evasions or counteraccusations can change the fact that a grave crime was committed against our democracy, and that we need to get the full story if only to prevent the Russians from doing it again. Republicans may disagree, but imagine how they would feel if the situation were reversed and President Hillary Clinton were accused of conniving with a hostile foreign power? They would be demanding answers. If they have a shred of intellectual integrity or sheer patriotism, they should do the same now even when the allegations concern a member of their own party.

Photo credit: RON SACHS-Pool/Getty Images

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.” Twitter: @MaxBoot