In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare wrote, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” What fun Shakespeare would have with Donald Trump! Imagine a play where Trump, the character, tries to dismiss his ties with Russia, and Shakespeare responds, “The scoundrel protests too much.”
Although Trump and his lackeys keep trying to discredit the various rumors about his dealings with Russia, the press and the U.S. national security bureaucracy won’t let them go. There are at least four threads that connect Trump to the Kremlin.
1.Trump’s business dealings with Russia. We do not fully understand Trump’s Russian business connections because Trump has never released his tax returns. On February 28, 2016, Senator Ted Cruz said, “There have been multiple media reports about Donald’s business dealings with the mob, with the mafia. Maybe his [tax returns] show those business dealings are a lot more extensive than has been reported.” At the time, Politifact noted, “Cruz’s statement is accurate. Media reports have linked Trump to mafia bosses and mob-connected business associates for decades.” Time magazine, and other sources, have tied Trump to Russian oligarchs.
Writing in the March 17 New Yorker magazine, Evan Osnos, David Remnick and Joshua Yaffa observed: “Two weeks before the Inauguration, intelligence officers briefed both Obama and Trump about a dossier of unverified allegations compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer. The thirty-five-page dossier, which included claims about Trump’s behavior during a 2013 trip to Moscow, ... concluded that Russia had personal and financial material on Trump that could be used as blackmail.”
Of course, the dossier and the other rumors may be false. Nonetheless, Trump has an obligation to the American people to have his tax returns examined by a bipartisan set of experts so that rumors about his financial affairs can be dealt with responsibly. (After all, it is a national security issue.)
2. Russia’s Interference in the 2016 Election. A separate thread has to do with nefarious deeds committed by (supposed) Russian hackers during the election. 17 U.S. intelligence agencies believe Russian hackers helped the Trump campaign by hacking DNC emails, as well as those of Clinton Campaign Manager John Podesta, and giving them to WikiLeaks. Recently, NBC News reported the CIA believes Russian operators wanted Trump to win.
Writing for PBS, David Bush reported that on January 6th, “The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a declassified version of its report to Obama on Russia’s role in the election. The report concluded with ‘high confidence’ — intelligence community speak for virtual certainty — that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the hacking operation in an effort to hurt Clinton’s campaign and help elect Trump. The report also found that the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, gave the information it obtained from the DNC and Clinton campaign’s emails to WikiLeaks.”
Of course, in the past, the Director of National intelligence has been wrong ― for example, about Saddam Hussein possessing “weapons of mass destruction.” Nonetheless, Congress has an obligation to the American people to evaluate reports that Russia interfered in the election.
3. Team Trump contacts with Russia. A separate thread has to do with a variety of contacts between Trump associates and Russian authorities. On February 15th the New York Times revealed that the FBI is investigating links between Russian intelligence and four members of the Trump team: Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and Roger Stone. (And, more recently, Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner.) On February 25th, the Guardian reported that the White House has tried to interfere with the FBI investigation. (Writing for Bill Moyers, Michael Winship reported on the Russian response: “Since the US election, there has been an unprecedented, and perhaps still continuing shakeup of top officials in Putin’s main security agency, the FSB, and a top former intelligence official in Putin’s entourage died recently in suspicious circumstances.”)
Connected with this is the conduct of General Michael Flynn, who up until February 13th was Trump’s National Security Adviser. Apparently, after then President Obama leveled sanctions against Russia, Flynn called Sergey Kislyak, Russian ambassador to the US, and said words to the effect that Russia shouldn’t worry the sanctions as Trump would reverse them. What’s extraordinary is that these conversations were wiretapped; and Flynn, given his extensive intelligence background should have been aware of this.
Once again, Congress has an obligation to investigate the Trump team connections to Russia.
4. Putin’s intentions. Finally, there’s the thorny question of what Vladimir Putin wants. There’s been a rush to say that he desires a close relationship with Trump. There are similarities. Both are thugs. Both have little regard for democracy and prefer the company of oligarchs. Both used the same tactics to gain power: disinformation, nationalism, xenophobia, racism...
Nonetheless, there are significant differences between the two men. Their relationship is asymmetric: Putin is a strong leader of a weak state; Trump is a weak leader of a strong state. Putin is a former KGB agent; Trump a former reality TV star. Putin knows when to keep his mouth shut...
What’s most likely is that when Trump showed up, Putin saw an opportunity to strengthen his hand by derailing the Clinton campaign. The authors of the excellent New Yorker article, Osnos, Remnick and Yaffa, conclude that Putin regarded Trump’s election as a way to weaken America’s standing in the world and Putin believed this would elevate Russia’s power: “Putin’s Russia has to come up with ways to make up for its economic and geopolitical weakness.”
So far, Putin’s strategy has worked: Trump’s election has weakened America’s standing in the world (and jeopardized our alliances, such as NATO). What remains to be seen is whether our loss is Russia’s gain.