Trump and Russia: A Point of Departure

The extent and nature of the Trump campaign and administration’s involvement with Russia has continued to draw headlines for the better part of a year, so it is easy to lose track of the specifics, particularly given the extent to which mainstream coverage of the story has taken in unverified reports, anonymous sourcing, and in some cases barely concealed speculation.

This is deeply problematic, as President Trump’s defenders have used these breaches of journalistic norms to argue that the entire story is a partisan fabrication motivated by a desire to undermine his presidency.  In addition, the opposition’s distrust of the administration runs so deep that every new revelation, regardless of its marginal reliability, has been woven into an overarching narrative of a campaign which collaborated with a foreign power to steal an election, or even worse, of an administration deeply beholden to that foreign power due to a combination of blackmail, financial ties, and covert support.

With all of this in mind, this article will serve as the base for Torchlight’s ongoing coverage of this story by providing a summary of the key events which are verifiably known.  This includes both events of the story and milestones in its coverage.

Russian Involvement with the 2016 US Presidential Election

 On July 22, 2016, Wikileaks posted nearly 20,000 emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee’s servers, followed by over 8000 more the day before the presidential election.  The emails generated a wave of criticism of the DNC due to the internal discussions they revealed.  By July 26 the United States intelligence agencies had already reached a consensus that the Russian government had sponsored the original theft.  By December the CIA had reached the conclusion that the hacks were part of a broader campaign by Russia specifically to ensure the election of Donald Trump, and in January the Director of National Intelligence concluded that Putin had actively directed the campaign.  Congressional Republicans and Trump’s supporters questioned these conclusions on the grounds that much of the evidence involved actors only indirectly associated with the Russian government, an established tactic the Putin regime has used in the past to ensure plausible deniability (as has the United States government).

Russian Connections within Trump’s Circle

As recently summarized by the Washington Post, a substantial number of President Trump’s allies have or had active connections with Russian officials and business interests in recent years.  This includes (but is not limited to):

  • Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, who as head of ExxonMobil negotiated substantial agreements with the Russian government.
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak a number of times during the campaign; having failed to disclose this during his confirmation hearings, he has recused himself from all investigations of Russian involvement with Trump’s campaign and administration.
  • Michael Flynn, former National Security Advisor, also communicated with Kislyak during the campaign.  He failed to inform Vice President Pence, and after Pence denied to the press that Flynn had been in contact with the Russians, Flynn stepped down.  On March 30, it was reported that Flynn had offered to testify to the FBI and Congress in exchange for immunity.
  • Paul Manafort, former Campaign Manager, stepped down from the campaign on August 19 after reporting emerged on his work lobbying Congress on behalf of the pro-Russian government of Ukraine, possibly violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act.  He was also directly paid millions of dollars by a Russian oligarch for business efforts, and appears to have received millions from a slush fund of Party of Regions, a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.
  • Finally, Trump himself has attempted business ventures in Russia repeatedly since 1987 (when it was still part of the USSR), though the majority never panned out.  Beginning in the late 1990s he began making more substantial connections, selling real estate to and receiving funding from Russian investors, building Trump SoHo in 2008 with a construction firm formed by a former Russian official, and bringing the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013 with funding from a Russian billionaire.

Recent events

  • On January 10, 2017, Buzzfeed decided to publish a dossier of unverified intelligence, containing (by their own admission) known errors, regarding Russian involvement with Donald Trump.  The dossier had been compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele as opposition research, and made an extensive set of embarrassing and troubling claims about Trump’s activities in Russia going back many years.  It had been circulating in Washington for months without being publicly discussed, and with no news outlets verifying enough of the contents to publish it.  Buzzfeed’s decision (in the name of transparency) generated weeks of late night jokes about the contents of the dossier, but also triggered a wave of front page stories by news outlets who had judged its contents unpublishable by their own standards, but fair game once another outlet violated those same standards to make it public.  In the subsequent weeks no significant developments have emerged relating to the charges in the dossier.
  • During Senate testimony on March 19, 2017, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the bureau is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, and that it included the question of whether Trump associates colluded with Russia.
  • On March 22, 2017 the Republican Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes briefed the Trump Administration that US intelligence agencies had collected surveillance on Trump associates incidental to an unrelated ongoing investigation.  The briefing may have violated federal law, as the information was apparently leaked from FISA wiretaps (normal channels would have included his Democratic co-chair Adam Schiff).  In addition, the briefing came before he notified his committee.  Consequently, Nunes’ ability to oversee the committee’s current Russia investigation has come into question, and as of March 28 he had canceled multiple upcoming hearings related to it, as well as general meetings of the committee.  On March 30, it was reported that Nunes’ source for the information consisted of White House staff.