Briefing: Trump & Russia

While it’s too soon for definitive conclusions, here's what we know so far.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
A Russian state flag waves on top of a hummer and sickle at the State Duma in Moscow, Russia, on Feb. 14, 2017.

From the day he took office, President Trump has labored under a cloud called “Russia.”

According to a US intelligence report, individuals connected to Russian intelligence hacked into Democratic Party computers during the 2016 election campaign and leaked information in an effort to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself ordered the operation, the report concluded.

At the same time, a growing number of Trump associates have been found to have connections to Russia (see this Washington Post graphic). So far, there's no proof of collaboration with the Russian government to help Trump win the election, but the question of whether such collaboration took place remains open. The FBI and two congressional committees are investigating.

Another concern is leaks to the press. Foremost is the question of who leaked the name of Michael Flynn, Trump’s now-former national security adviser, and the contents of intercepted phone calls he had with the Russian ambassador.

This week, two other names moved onto the marquee:

  • Rep. Devin Nunes (R) of California, who announced Thursday that he is temporarily stepping aside from his committee's Russia investigation while his behavior is investigated by the House ethics committee. Congressman Nunes had raised partisan hackles last month over controversial steps he took while investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election.  
  • Susan Rice, national security adviser under President Barack Obama, who faces claims that she inappropriately used her ability to “unmask” the names of Trump associates in intelligence intercepts – an allegation she denies.

All together, these story lines can create confusion for Americans who just want the basic facts. While it’s too soon for definitive conclusions, here's what we know so far:

What was the nature of Trump associates' contact with Russians?

There are different categories of contact. One centers on communication with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. Mr. Flynn, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner all spoke with or met Ambassador Kislyak both before and after the election.

There’s nothing wrong with talking to the Russian ambassador. The trouble for Flynn and Mr. Sessions is that they were not forthcoming about such contacts when asked. Flynn also faced questions over whether he acted illegally when he reportedly discussed US sanctions against Russia with Kislyak before Trump took office. Flynn was fired; Sessions recused himself from any Justice Department investigations into Russian involvement in the election.

In addition, Flynn was paid more than $65,000 by Russian entities, including RT state-owned television, a cargo airline, and a cybersecurity firm. Flynn requested immunity from the Justice Department and the House and Senate intelligence committees in exchange for testimony, but the request has not been granted.

Mr. Kushner, too, has had other contact with high-profile Russians. In December, during the transition, he met with the chairman of a bank with ties to Putin that has been under US sanctions for three years. The meeting does not violate sanctions, but it caught the interest of the Senate intelligence committee.

Other Trump associates with Russia connections include Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and Roger Stone, who were involved with his campaign but are not members of his administration.

Long before serving as Trump’s campaign manager for five months last year, Mr. Manafort had worked for the Russian-backed former president of Ukraine, as well as Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs. Manafort’s work in Eastern Europe is now under federal investigation.

Mr. Page, whose role in the campaign was less central than Manafort’s, this week acknowledged that Russian intelligence operatives tried to recruit him in 2013.

Mr. Stone worked only briefly for Trump’s campaign, but remained an informal adviser. Now the Senate intelligence committee wants to talk to Stone, who says he had communicated with Guccifer 2.0, the hacker who allegedly breached the Democratic National Committee. Stone calls such contact “innocuous,” according to CNBC.

What does all of this prove?

So far, nothing. Trump associates’ Russia connections and the Russian hacking scandal could be coincidental. Trump himself calls the whole Russia controversy “fake news.” But investigations are ongoing, and Trump’s own rhetoric has fueled speculation. During the campaign, he spoke admiringly of Putin’s leadership and called for improved US-Russia ties, glossing over aggressive Russian actions in recent years.

Trump has had his own connections to Russia over the years, mainly involving his real estate empire. He last visited Moscow in 2013 for the Miss Universe pageant, which he then owned, and also (unsuccessfully) pursued development deals.

The most recent Trump-Russia connection centers on the establishment of a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and Trump. Erik Prince, founder of US security firm Blackwater and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, reportedly met with a Russian close to Putin in January in the Seychelles islands. On its face, there is nothing wrong with such a back channel, but it gives one more data point to those suspicious of Trump’s ties to Russia.

Why did Devin Nunes recuse himself from his committee investigation?

As chairman of the House intelligence committee, Nunes – along with ranking Democrat Adam Schiff of California – was leading an investigation into Russian meddling in the election. But last month, Nunes visited a source in the White House complex to view classified documents, then briefed Trump (and the media) on what he found: information that he said showed Trump transition figures may have been caught up in legal surveillance. Trump claimed vindication for his March 4 tweets saying he had been wiretapped before the election.

Democrats had accused Nunes of trying to help Trump, and called for him to step down from the investigation. He resisted until Thursday, calling the charges against him “false and politically motivated.” 

What did Susan Rice do, and was it wrong?

Obama's former national security adviser reportedly “unmasked” the names of Americans associated with Trump, who were mentioned in foreign surveillance reports but not by name. They were not being surveilled, but they were talking to foreigners who were.

On Wednesday, Trump told The New York Times that Rice and other Obama administration officials may have committed a crime in “unmasking” Trump associates.

So far, there is no evidence that Rice did anything wrong. As a senior administration official with high-level security clearance, Rice had the right to request that the Americans' identities be made known to her. The relevant intelligence agency must approve the unmasking, as a check on politically motivated activity.

Unmasking is not the same as leaking.

Rice cannot publicly comment on whether she did or did not unmask Trump associates, since the report in question is classified. But she has defended herself vehemently in interviews since the “unmasking” story broke.

"The allegation is that somehow the Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes," Rice told Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC Tuesday. "That's absolutely false."

Other observers, however, have called into question Rice's recent response when asked about Nunes's allegation that Trump associates had been swept up in incidental surveillance. "I know nothing about this," she told the "PBS Newshour" on March 22 – a response that wouldn't add up if this week's reports are true.

So does the 'unmasking' story vindicate Trump’s claim that he was surveilled?

Not exactly. But it fans the flames. And it gives Trump a way to deflect attention from the investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and whether his campaign colluded with the Russian government.

Trump and Republicans maintain that leaks by unnamed government officials on Trump associates’ contacts with Russian officials represent an effort by the so-called “deep state” to undermine Trump. Exhibit A is a Feb. 9 article in The Washington Post that cited nine sources in revealing that Flynn had discussed sanctions with Kislyak before Trump took office.

Also at issue is the identity of the “senior US government official” who leaked Flynn’s name to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius in a Jan. 12 piece. That was the first time Flynn was identified in the press as having misrepresented his interactions with Kislyak. Revealing the contents of “signals intelligence” is a felony.

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