Russia claims ties to Trump campaign: Would it have mattered to voters?

Throughout the campaign, Democrats attempted to paint Donald Trump as a being in Russia's pocket, but a majority of voters were unmoved.

Sergei Karpukhin/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin (l.) delivers a speech during an international conference dedicated to the 175th anniversary of Russia's Sberbank in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday.

According to the independent Russian news agency Interfax, Moscow had contact with various members of President-elect Donald Trump's team during the campaign.

The source for the revelation was Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, a high-ranking diplomat from that country. Mr. Trump has denied any connection to the Russian Federation during his campaign.

While this revelation might have changed some voters' opinions before Election Day, most Russia-related scandals in the Trump campaign seemed to leave little impact on the candidate throughout the election. Despite international criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin for media suppression and human rights violations, Trump voters seem to have been unconcerned with, possibly even encouraged by, his apparent ties to Russia.

"There were contacts" between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government, said Mr. Ryabkov in the Interfax interview. "I cannot say that all of them, but quite a few have been staying in touch with Russian representatives."

The official did not elaborate on the details of any cooperation between the two parties.

Trump has received a great deal of criticism for his admiration of Mr. Putin and the Russian government, which is widely considered to be an oppressive regime. But this kind of interaction between a campaign and a foreign power would ordinarily not be considered that unusual, as Michael Desch, political science chair and professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, explains to The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

"Diplomats from many countries would be reaching out to the campaign staff of both of the candidates," says Dr. Desch. "I think if you were to ask the Clinton team over the course of the last year and a half how many representatives of foreign countries' embassies they fielded questions from ... I'm sure it would be quite common."

But the situation between Russia and Trump is a little different. With the alleged Russian hacking of the DNC and outspoken support in that country for Trump over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Trump has drawn fire for any connections he might have to the Russian Federation. Even though the contact between Russia and the Trump team, if it actually occurred, may have been benign, Trump still has good reason to distance himself from any implication of colluding with Russian officials.

Hope Hicks, the spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, responded to the Interfax interview by telling The Washington Post in an email that there was "no contact with Russian officials" before the election.

Trump's alleged ties to business interests in Russia have caught the imagination of some more conspiracy-minded critics of Trump, who speculate that Trump's tax returns might reveal some financial connection to Russian institutions. But even if he does have financial ties to the country, analysts are mixed on the validity of the notion that Trump's positions would actually be substantially influenced by foreign business interests, according to Matthew Schmidt, assistant professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven.

"We've never had a billionaire businessman as President," Dr. Schmidt tells the Monitor in an email. "We don't how to think about these kind of business connections with other world leaders, whether they pose a meaningful conflict of interest."

While Trump's position on Russia was heavily criticized by Democrats leading up to the election, it seemed to have little impact on the voters who turned out for his upset victory on election day. Trump's victory comes despite only 22 percent of Americans viewing Russia favorably and only 21 percent having confidence in its leader, Vladimir Putin, according to a 2015 Pew research poll. And yet, Donald Trump was able to ride to victory on the strength of his appeal in more domestic issues, including his hard anti-immigration stance, that resonated more with his supporters than potential ties to Russia.

"I think most Americans have no great love for Vladimir Putin," says Desch, "But like Trump's personal indiscretions, the impolitic things that Trump has said about Putin are so low on the public's radar screen of important issues, it really just didn't matter."

But Besnik Pula, assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech, tells the Monitor that more may have been at play than voters simply ignoring the Russia issue. 

"Mr. Trump successfully tapped into the distrust that many Americans feel over establishment politics and the media," he says in an email to the Monitor. "Relying on this tactic, Mr. Trump seemed to be able to neutralize claims and allegations that he was allied with the Russian regime or benefiting from Russian-backed hacking."

Trump was able to redirect voters' attention from the way in which the emails were hacked to the revelations contained in the exposed messages, says Dr. Pula. What's more, he painted Russia a potential ally in the fight against the Islamic State extremist group, also known as ISIS.

"Because Mr. Trump’s foreign policy message honed in on terrorism and ISIS, he often depicted the Russian role in Syria as one involving the fight against ISIS, and thus Russia as a potential US ally in this fight."

Whatever the nature of Trump's personal or campaign relationship with Moscow might or might not have been, Russia has welcomed Trump's election with open arms. Applause broke out in the Russian parliament on Wednesday after the results of the US election were announced and Putin told ambassadors that he would be willing to restore full ties with Washington.

"I think there's a sense of optimism because Trump has been willing to be less critical of the Putin regime and various Russian activities, particularly in Syria, than secretary Clinton has been," says Desch. "I don't think that they're dancing in the streets, but I think there's some sense that Russia can do business with in a way that would have been harder to do business with if Secretary Clinton had been elected."

This article contains material from Reuters.

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