USA Politics Decoder

Trump, Russia, and the seriousness of smoke

Finding the patterns

As reports of contacts with Russia emerge, the president's denials and counterattacks create the impression that the administration has something to hide.

President Trump (L) congratulates Jeff Sessions after he was sworn in as US Attorney General in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Feb. 9, 2017.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
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When it comes to Trump and Russia, “the smoke IS the fire.”

That’s what an unnamed Republican recently told Axios co-founder and columnist Mike Allen.

Mr. Allen took that to mean that all the warning signs and unanswered questions surrounding the Trump team’s relationship with Russian officials have themselves become a full-on political problem. Taking the metaphor a bit farther, it’s also possible that the substance revealed so far about Trump-Russia connections is indicative and troubling in and of itself.

In part, all this is because President Trump’s own denials about the connection have been belied by events.

Mr. Trump has long hit back hard at press reports of any Russian connection. He’s repeatedly called them “fake news.”

On Feb. 13, his first national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, was forced to resign due to evasions concerning the nature and number of his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the US. Following that, an obviously frustrated Trump told reporters that Mr. Flynn was the only problem, as far as he knew.

“I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge no person that I deal with does,” said Trump at the time.

Since then, Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions has had to recuse himself from any investigations into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election campaign following a Washington Post revelation that he met twice with that same Russian ambassador in the campaign, and did not disclose that information during his confirmation hearing.

The New York Times has reported that Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner met with the ambassador at Trump Tower in December. Flynn was at this meeting, which was intended to set up a line of communication between the incoming administration and Moscow.

Two other Trump campaign officials, J. D. Gordon and Carter Page, met with the (apparently indefatigable) Russian envoy at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, according to USA Today.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump Jr. was likely paid $50,000 for an October speech to a French foreign policy group with alleged Kremlin ties, according to The Wall Street Journal. Other stories have continued to detail the lucrative work former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort did for pro-Russian political factions in Ukraine.

There’s nothing wrong with campaign or transition officials meeting with Russian diplomats. That has happened all the time in US politics, even at the height of the cold war. Nor have there been many indications that improper subjects were discussed. (Flynn did discuss US sanctions on Russia with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, though it’s unclear whether he told Mr. Kislyak to be patient and await friendlier treatment from the incoming Trump administration.)

Counterattack, Trump-style

For Trump, the problem is that he appears to take mention of the subject as a personal attack, and a jab against his perceived political legitimacy. That’s led to blanket denials and fierce rhetoric in response.

“The real story is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total witch hunt!” said Trump in a statement on the Sessions situation issued Thursday night.

As the rising smoke of news continues, fairly or not, this creates the appearance that the administration is trying to hide something.

“I want to know what the Russians have on Donald Trump,” said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi in February.

In truth, the issue may be much broader than Trump’s personal standing. Even if all the connections between team Trump and Russian representatives are fully innocent and legal, their number and breadth suggests that Moscow wants to learn all it can about a new and potentially friendly force in American politics. That’s an intelligence-gathering effort in a wide, open sense. The Trump administration may not be interested in Russia so much as Russia is interested in them.

A wider credibility problem 

Meanwhile, the continued revelations about contacts previously denied make the Trump administration appear somewhat hapless. Why didn’t Mr. Sessions just mention his meetings with Kislyak during his Senate confirmation hearing? They could be minimized as a common occurrence between a top lawmaker and a diplomat.

GOP lawmakers, to this point largely united in their opposition to a wider inquiry on the matter, are beginning to waver in their support. A number of them called upon Sessions to recuse himself, which he has now done.

The question is whether this crack in the Republican wall will widen into a bipartisan call for a special prosecutor to conduct a wide-ranging inquiry on the entire issue of Russia’s interference in the 2016 vote.