The Seven Circles of Donald Trump’s Russia Inferno
We now know that the president wasn’t ignorant of his campaign’s contacts with Moscow’s intelligence agents. But, on a scale, how complicit was he?
Back in May, Lawfare’s Jane Chong began compiling an annotated set of links to the known facts in the Donald Trump-Russia affair. At the same time, one of us co-authored a piece detailing seven possible theories that could explain the available evidence, ordered from least to most sinister. The first three theories included:
- Theory #1: This is all a series of coincidences and disconnected events. Yes, Trump held positions favorable to Russia, which may have attracted supporters with Russian business interests. But that interest was unrelated to Trump himself, and each element is unconnected from every other element.
- Theory #2: Trump attracted Russophiles. A variant of Theory #1, by this read, Trump’s many unsavory tendencies, including his solicitude for Vladimir Putin, meant the only people willing to work for him held similarly fringe views on the subject or had shady business ties to the Russians. The Russian hacking operation thus coexisted with a “largely unconnected incentive for people with untoward Russian business connections to attach themselves to Trump. The latter incentive may have resulted in individuals doing unsavory or even illegal things or acting on behalf of Russian interests, but it did not involve any Russian infiltration of the Trump campaign as such, much less Russian corruption of Trump himself.”
- Theory #3: The Russian operation was not about helping Trump but instead about harming the more probable winner, Hillary Clinton.
With last week’s revelations regarding the meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and multiple individuals they believed were connected to the Russian government, these theories seem less plausible. Those emails, after all, demonstrate that at least some central figures in the Trump campaign were, in fact, specifically informed — with almost comical explicitness — of the Russian government’s effort to interfere in the election. They were also informed that the Russian motivation was to assist Trump. And the Trump campaign welcomed and, at a minimum, attempted to participate in that effort.
So what’s left? Well, back in May, the remaining possibilities included:
- Theory #4: Russian intelligence actively penetrated the Trump campaign, but Trump was not aware.
- Theory #5: Russian intelligence actively penetrated the Trump campaign, and Trump did know or should have known.
- Theory #6: There really is some kind of kompromat, or compromising material, and Trump’s uncharacteristic consistency in praising and supporting Putin was motivated by the fear that Russia would release negative information about him.
- Theory #7: While implausible, the final theory that accounted for all known facts was that the president of the United States is a Russian agent.
Note that merely six months into Trump’s presidency, the likely explanations for his conduct now reside on the decidedly more sinister end of the spectrum. Or, at least, if you’re inclined to favor the less sinister side of the spectrum, you now have to account for the known actions of individuals at the center of the campaign that seem more consistent with the theories at the more sinister end of it.
To be sure, there is no more evidence today than there was before to support the very worst possibilities: the theory that the Russians have kompromat on Trump or that he is a true Manchurian candidate. There is, however, substantially more information to support the theory that Russian intelligence endeavored to, and in fact managed to, infiltrate the Trump campaign and that Trump knew or should have known it was happening. And there’s at least some evidence that the purpose of that infiltration was to help the campaign by giving it dirt on Trump’s opponent.
Remember that this is actually not the first story in which people associated with Team Trump got — or sought — help from Moscow. Before the New York Times broke the news on Don Jr., the Wall Street Journal reported that now deceased Republican operative Peter W. Smith sought to obtain emails purportedly hacked from Clinton’s private server, including from groups he suspected were linked to Russian intelligence. Smith claimed to have support from high-level Trump campaign staffers, including then future and now former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. The story leaves ambiguous the extent of actual involvement or knowledge on the part of the Trump campaign of Smith’s activities, as well as whether Smith was in contact with real Russian intelligence operatives or merely imposters looking to take him for a ride.
But the Trump Jr. meeting leaves no such ambiguities. The participants were the tightest of Trump’s inner circle — his campaign manager, son, and son-in-law — and the disclosed emails spell out in black and white an account of the Russian government’s intent and its ambitions to assist the Trump campaign. If the younger Trump was surprised to learn of this, he did not demonstrate it with his response: “If it’s what you say I love it.” And if he had anxieties about guiding that involvement, he suppressed them when he suggested a specific time frame — later in the summer — for the disclosure of material.
The White House insists that Donald Trump was unaware of this meeting — held by his close family one floor beneath his office in Trump Tower while he was on the premises — though it appears the president himself has wavered on this particular talking point. He told the press pool on Air Force One that “in fact, maybe it was mentioned at some point,” though he said he was unaware that it was about possible derogatory information about Clinton.
Those looking to the behavior of the Trump campaign to tie together Smith’s efforts and Trump Jr.’s meetings in some sort of broader conspiracy may be looking in the wrong place. These revelations may well be further indication of “systemic, sustained, furtive” coordination not by the Trump team itself but by the Russians. As Moscow’s intelligence operatives sought to make inroads, they may have found receptivity in probing in different places at different times — from the inner circle to more tangential figures. Think of the coordination then not as some grand conspiracy on the part of the Trump camp but as a pervasive rot among those tied to Trump that created opportunities for the Russians to exploit. The unifying characteristic may not be some grand plan to “collude” but rather a lack of commitment to resisting intervention from hostile foreign adversaries in free and fair elections — a lack of resistance that gave a foreign adversary multiple opportunities to take advantage over time.
These newer revelations also raise more possible scenarios and theories that were not part of the original seven. One that has gotten a lot of attention is the speech Trump gave the same day his son first received the email, in which he promised to give a future speech revealing damaging information on Clinton. This suggests that the fundamental relationship between the Trump campaign and Russia may have been the opposite of espionage; typically, espionage is about exfiltrating information from a campaign, but this sought to inject information into it.
The public record actually has some other suggestive indications of a relationship along these lines. The very public elements of Trump’s tacit cooperation with the Russians have been widely noted. He welcomed the Russian release of Clinton’s emails; he proclaimed to love WikiLeaks; he denied Russian involvement in the whole affair; he enthusiastically used the fruits of Russia’s illicit efforts to attack his opponent; and he had a monthslong bromance with the Russian dictator, after all. There is, however, another part of the Russian operation that Trump publicly supported that has gotten far less attention — and now looks at least somewhat more sinister.
The U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of 2016 election interference noted that the Russian operation comprised two distinct elements. One part was helping Trump, but there was another part, too:
When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the presidency the Russian influence campaign focused more on undercutting Secretary Clinton’s legitimacy and crippling her presidency from its start, including by impugning the fairness of the election.
Before the election, Russian diplomats had publicly denounced the US electoral process and were prepared to publicly call into question the validity of the results. Pro-Kremlin bloggers had prepared a Twitter campaign, #DemocracyRIP, on election night in anticipation of Secretary Clinton’s victory, judging from their social media activity.
The identifiable efforts to discredit a possible Clinton victory were twofold: promoting the idea that the Democratic primary was “rigged” against Clinton’s opponent, Bernie Sanders, and creating uncertainty regarding the legitimacy of the election outcome. Trump heavily abetted both of these goals.
NPR notes that on March 4, 2016, a Russian political analyst with deep ties to the Kremlin posted a YouTube video that, among other charges, impugned the legitimacy of the U.S. electoral system. Alexander Dugin called American vote counting “stupid and fake” and claimed (falsely) that while “the majority votes for Sanders,” Clinton won by “bribing the electors.” Between the time of the Dugin video and the inauguration, Donald Trump tweeted about a “rigged” election at least 29 times. At least eight of these tweets (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) specifically alleged that the Democratic primary was rigged against Sanders — which is to say that it closely hewed to the Kremlin’s talking point.
Trump had similar critiques of the Republican primary and of the U.S. election in general. At a campaign rally in August 2016 in Columbus, Ohio, he said, “I’m afraid the election’s going to be rigged. I have to be honest.” In a Fox News interview a day later, he claimed, “People are going to walk in. They’re going to vote 10 times, maybe.” That same month, his campaign website encouraged people to become “Trump Election Observer[s]” to “Help … Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!”
Furthermore, when it appeared overwhelmingly likely that Clinton would win the presidency, Trump openly and repeatedly floated the possibility that he would refuse to concede the election. When asked about doing so, he told the New York Times, “We’re going to have to see. We’re going to see what happens. We’re going to have to see.” He refused to offer a direct answer when asked at the third debate, saying, “I will look at it at the time. I will keep you in suspense.” Later, he pledged to accept the election results only “if I win.”
The relationship between Trump’s talking points over time and those pushed by the Kremlin does not mean that Trump was receiving secret, covert messaging help from Russian spies. The Russians were, after all, running RT and Sputnik and had a giant influence operation as part of their active measures campaign — an influence campaign that may have influenced the election, as well as some voters. Trump’s claims of a rigged outcome may have been preemptive attempts to balm his legendarily fragile ego in the event of defeat, attempts that may have dovetailed nicely with what Russia was putting out for reasons of its own. And the fact that Trump was, once again, directly mirroring the Kremlin’s talking points could well be just a coincidence — or it could be that the Kremlin was mirroring his talking points, though the Russian government does appear to have gotten there first.
But the degree of message compatibility here is worth noting if for no other reason than that the pattern thus far is that, as one bombshell revelation follows another, the more innocent explanations do seem to slip out of the realm of the plausible.
Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare.
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