Trump and Russia: Smoke, Mirrors and Fire

Listening to the partisan debate over President Donald Trump’s White House and Russia, one of two things must be be true. Either, as Trump supporters contend, the media and U.S. intelligence community are engaged in a politically motivated effort to undermine the legitimately elected President of the United States; or, if the more hysterical among Democrats are to be believed, Moscow has placed their man in the Oval Office — or at the very least managed to infiltrate the highest levels of American government. Both possibilities are deeply disturbing. The reality is likely somewhere in between.

Take a Deep Breath…

Washington has been a partisan tinderbox for a while now. Any minor dust up gets affixed with the suffix “-gate” and immediately becomes a media obsession. (Monday’s resignation of Michael Flynn is “Flynngate” in case you’re keeping score.) Everyone needs to calm down and check their political reflexes.

The swirl of controversy around connections between Trump’s team and Russia reached gale force Monday with the resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. It hit full hurricane strength Tuesday with a New York Times bombshell headline sure to send everyone to their partisan corners: “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence.”

The responses have been predictable. For Trump supporters, more fake news from a leftist media and their subversive “deep state” intelligence community sources, for Democrats, a smoking gun.

Upon careful reading, the Times story is less dramatic than it first appears. Officials say they have found no evidence of collusion with the Trump team related to Russian election interference; investigators have yet to substantiate any of the more explosive allegations in the famous opposition research dossier; and, members of Trump’s team had private business interests entirely separate from the campaign that might explain at least some of the contacts.

So Far, No Evidence of Collusion

If the Times‘ report of repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials is accurate, then the next question is what those conversations were about. Based on what we know so far jumping to the conclusion that these contacts indicate that Trump’s associates were in on Russia’s effort to influence the election is premature:

“The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election. The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.”

The Trump Dossier Remains Unverified

The F.B.I.’s investigation has, in part, focused on verifying the opposition research dossier produced by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. According to the Times, those efforts have so far not born fruit:

“The F.B.I. has spent several months investigating the leads in the dossier, but has yet to confirm any of its most explosive claims.”

“It’s not like these people wear badges.”

Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, is the only individual mentioned by name in the Times story. It is well-known that Manafort served as a political advisor to the pro-Russian former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych. So, it’s not particularly surprising that he might have contacts with people in Moscow’s orbit. Manafort calls the implication of collusion with the Russian government “absurd” and is adamant that he has never knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers. “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer,’” Manafort told the Times.

Anyone doing business in Russia, as several of Trump’s associates have, is likely to unknowingly encounter Russian intelligence operatives in the normal course of commerce. Acknowledging this, the Times adds that, “[l]aw enforcement officials did not say to what extent the contacts might have been about business.”

Trump Strikes Back

President Trump has struck back in recent days, casting all this as a politically motivated smear campaign. In a series of tweets and public comments lashing out at the media and the leakers themselves. In a press conference Thursday, a frustrated President Trump denounced the stories. “The press is honestly out of control,” he said. “The level of dishonesty is out of control.”

On Twitter, Trump contended that it is all as an extension of the political rancor of the campaign.

For President Trump, illegal leaks are the real problem, a consistent theme of his Tweets in recent days.

Trump Versus Spies

President Trump is correct that leaking signals intelligence intercepts is illegal. Whatever you think of Trump, the permissiveness with which this kind of highly sensitive information is leaking should be a concern. The Washington Post story that ultimately led National Security Advisor Michael Flynn to tender his resignation was based on the anonymous accounts of “[n]ine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time…”

That so many officials were willing to do so is worrying. Trump has pledged an investigation to get to the bottom of it. President Obama’s extensive mole hunts and aggressive leak prosecutions have already set a standard for this. Better it be handled independently at the Justice Department than directed by the White House.

There is doubtless a political component. At least some of the “former officials” mentioned by the Washington Post are likely to be former Obama administration staffers with a political ax to grind. Still, it is wrong to chalk it all up to just petty revenge. There are reasons other than politics that the intelligence establishment might harbor some ill-feelings about Trump.

There is a pervasive unease about Trump among career intelligence officers stemming from a broader clash of worldview between Trump and the foreign policy and intelligence community on consensus issues like Russia and NATO. Trump has also said many less than flattering things about America’s spy agencies. All this has “generated unprecedented enmity in our Intelligence Community,” according to John Schindler, a former NSA spy and professor at the Naval War College.

There’s also the possibility, which must be at least considered, that at least some of the leaks are rooted in real concerns about connections between Trump’s inner circle and the Kremlin.

So far, none of the leaks directly implicate Trump, a substantial oversight if the aim is to just make stuff up to damage the President. Trump is hardly the first President to face the ire of the intelligence community. Spies also got all leaky over pressure from the Obama White House to sugar-coat intelligence reports about ISIS. Then there is Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Leaks are bipartisan.

The leaks of some in the intelligence community do not justify broad condemnation of intelligence agencies. Most intelligence officers are deeply patriotic men and women who put their lives on the line overseas doing incredibly dangerous things to get the President and policy-makers the information they need to make critical national security decisions. This, at least, is worthy of respect.

This is a time to ask questions, not answer them.

It is valid to believe that career intelligence professionals should be, well, more professional about these things while simultaneously being concern that the new President and those around him appear overly cozy with Moscow. It is appropriate that Congress investigate both. If President Trump is correct that it is all “fake news,” the White House should welcome the opportunity.

Until this question is settled, President Trump will find it difficult to implement his agenda. If the intelligence community is actively working against the President by fabricating connections to Russia, it is unlikely to stop on its own. With each new leek, the President bleeds political capital he will need to accomplish the big things he promises.

If there is truth to the allegations, a secret this explosive is bound to find its way out of the shadows one way or another. But, in the meantime, caution is warranted. The whole country descending into a partisan food fight of conspiratorial speculation does not serve our national interests. As Danielle Pletka, a foreign policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and frequent Trump critic wrote recently, that’s exactly what Russia wants:

Those who gain the most from this are people and countries that seek to undermine our system, erode belief in our institutions, seed questions about the quality of our democracy and distract from that which is real.

It is possible that the Trump-Russia connection is a lot of smoke and mirrors. But, there may be some fire too. Either way, this is a time to ask questions, not answer them.

Follow on Twitter: @tgriffinnc

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