Donald Trump and the Russians: An Evolving Story

The story involving Donald Trump’s associates and Russian intelligence officials keeps getting curiouser and curiouser. And it begins well before the 2016 presidential election. In December, 2015, Gen. Mike Flynn traveled to Russia to celebrate the 10th anniversary of a television channel called Russia Today, an unabashed mouthpiece for the Kremlin. Flynn received money to be interviewed on air and to attend a gala dinner highlighted by a speech given by Vladimir Putin. But why would the ex-chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency accept money from a propaganda tool of the Russian government as tensions mounted between Russia and the US? Can you imagine a retired FSB director being paid to appear on Fox News?

American intelligence agencies established last year that the Russian government launched a concerted effort to interfere with our presidential campaign. The Obama administration responded by imposing new sanctions against Russia. Under ordinary circumstances, the Russians would have retaliated in kind. But Putin failed to do so. At the time, his reaction puzzled most observers. Now we know when sanctions were announced, Flynn discussed them with the Russian ambassador, perhaps conveying they would be rescinded by the Trump administration. This could explain why Putin dismissed Obama’s pronouncement.

Of course, Trump denied he instructed Flynn about what to say to the Russian ambassador. But Trump’s baffling comment at the time, that Russia’s mild response confirmed that Putin was “very, very smart”, suggests Flynn was not acting on his own, that a coordinated effort to disparage Obama’s course of action involved Trump himself. How else to explain why Trump praised Putin at the very moment Obama punished the Russian government for interfering in the election? At best, Trump allowed an underling to freelance on a sensitive issue of national security. At worst, he concealed his role in the whole affair. And a possible presidential cover-up might explain why Trump did not fire Flynn immediately when he lied to the vice-president.

Aside from the Flynn scandal and the possibility of a cover-up, the most astonishing part of this evolving story involves frequent and ongoing conversations between Trump campaign officials and/or other associates and Russian intelligence officials during the presidential campaign. And this begs a very simple and pivotal question: why would Trump associates have any contact with Russian officials during a presidential campaign, especially since it was reported Putin wanted to interfere with the election? During the campaign, they had frequent conversations with intelligence personnel working for a dangerous political adversary. What were they talking about? What did Trump associates want?

While American intelligence sources have not confirmed any outright collusion between Trump supporters and Russian officials to undermine the Clinton campaign, the fact these conversations occurred is mind-boggling. Do these contacts indicate a secret relationship or understanding between Trump and Putin and does this explain Trump’s reluctance to criticize Putin, even after his aggressive behavior in Crimea and Ukraine? Given events in Eastern Europe and developments in Russia over the last several years, it is surprising any major American politician would compliment Putin. But it is astounding when a presidential candidate and a standing president praise a political leader who remains committed to policies that threaten our national security. No wonder many in Eastern Europe and throughout NATO remain worried about Trump’s political resolve to contain Russian ambitions.

How are we to understand Trump’s behavior vis-à-vis Putin? Does he admire and envy the way Putin governs? Recall that in a remarkable tweet message during the campaign, he appreciated the way the Russian leader controlled his people. Some have suggested Trump views Putin as an important ally in the battle against Islamic extremists. But Russian policy in Syria, for instance, has bolstered Assad rather than target terrorists. Moreover, Russia’s air force committed war crimes against a civilian population in Aleppo. Why hasn’t Trump spoken out about Russia’s horrific role in Syria? The more sinister explanation for Trump’s reticence to confront Putin involves unconfirmed reports the Russians have compromising personal information. In this regard, the Russian general who supplied pivotal intelligence to Christopher Steele, who compiled the report indicating the Russians had “kompromat” against Trump, was found dead in a car on a Moscow street in January. Russian media reported his death as suspicious. That seems obvious. But why was he killed? For collaborating with Steele or because he knew too much?

How ironic that candidate Trump vilified Hillary Clinton and threatened to “lock her up” for using a private email server that never endangered the nation. Now there is real concern that a pivotal relationship with a menacing political adversary may be gravely compromised. There is more than a whiff of scandal here. So six weeks into Trump’s presidency, it is time to establish an independent prosecutor to get to the bottom of it. Will congressional Republicans, who spent millions to fund several investigations of Clinton’s e-mails, address a serious challenge to our national security? Or will they engage in partisan politics and refuse to allow Republicans to investigate Republicans, as Rand Paul recently put it?

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano