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It’s Still All About Russia—and It’s Outrageous

At every turn Trump has not only helped Putin but thwarted the examination of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election.
September 3, 2020
It’s Still All About Russia—and It’s Outrageous
US President Donald Trump (R) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk as they make their way to take the "family photo" during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. (JORGE SILVA/AFP via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Facebook announced that it had recently detected and defeated an online attack by the Russians, a disinformation campaign using “13 Facebook accounts and two Pages linked to individuals associated with past activity by the Russian Internet Research Agency”—the very troll farm the Kremlin used in 2016 to harm the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

What a crazy coincidence, just after the director of national intelligence decided to stop briefing members of Congress in person about election security threats. This is the same DNI whose top counterintelligence official that warned in August that the election then three months away had already been tainted by the Russians: “We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’” The statement added that “some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.”

ABC News reported Wednesday that the Department of Homeland Security blocked publication of an intelligence warning to law enforcement about a Russian campaign to hype “allegations about the poor mental health” of Biden.

So DHS and the director of national intelligence have decided Russian election interference is no big deal. Hey, it’s not like it’s new. Russia has never stopped working to help Trump, and in four years he has never once rejected their help, instead he has relished it. He has denied intelligence findings, politicized intelligence, sided with Vladimir Putin on the world stage in Helsinki over our intelligence community, and made clear in an interview with George Stephanopoulos last year that any foreign assistance offered to his campaign would be considered.

At every turn Trump has not only helped Putin but thwarted the examination of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election. Trump told White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller and likely obstructed justice in many other ways all recounted in the Mueller report. Even before there was a special counsel investigation, Trump welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak to the Oval Office by boasting that firing FBI Director James Comey had relieved “great pressure.”

For weeks now, more alarming revelations about Russia have seeped into the news, making even more clear the disturbing picture of how Trump seeks to retain his hold on power and continues to undermine U.S. national security with Putin’s assistance. The Russia news has been drowned out by headlines about the national party conventions, the pandemic, and clashes in Kenosha and Portland—but it is equally consequential.

Russia has grown more emboldened recently with military provocations to which there has been little to no response from the Trump administration: a Russian armored vehicle wounded several U.S. service members after an intentional crash into a U.S. vehicle in Syria. In two separate incidents last Friday, Russian aircraft intercepted U.S. Air Force bombers—in one case, flying dangerously near a B-52 over the Black Sea, in another case violating the airspace of a NATO member. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week issued a statement saying the United States would agree with the EU’s call for an investigation into the apparent poisoning of Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny “if the reports prove accurate”; we now know that it was a Russian military nerve agent that was used on him. Meanwhile Trump has been lobbying for Russia to join the G7 for a year and wants Putin to visit the White House before the election.

Trump’s silence on bounties on American troops Russians paid the Taliban for is now 69 days old—Sen. Tammy Duckworth has been keeping watch on Twitter—though Trump has known about them far longer than that.

But Trump has never criticized Putin, why would he start now? He has shown no concern over the bounties story whatsoever and admitted recently that in his numerous conversations with Putin, bounties on U.S. troops just hasn’t come up and he doesn’t believe it anyway. It is a breathtaking betrayal of our men and women in uniform.

And the whole world has been watching with confusion Trump’s love affair with Putin. Consider a recent report in the Independent quoting a British official present at a meeting with President Trump in 2017 describing Trump unloading on then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn because he missed an opportunity to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Somebody just mentioned in passing that Vladimir Putin had asked for a call with him, and right in front of [U.K. government officials] he absolutely shouted down Mike Flynn,” said Nick Timothy, who served as chief of staff under former prime minister Theresa May. “Like really shouted. This was at a formal dinner with butlers and fancy crockery—and he was properly shouting at him down the table.”

Stunning findings in a new report show Russiagate was never a witch hunt or a hoax. The final volume of a massive bipartisan report from the Senate Intelligence Committee, released last month, reveals that Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager in 2016, was working with a Russian spy—sharing campaign data with Konstantin Kilimnik, an intelligence officer who was presumably passing it directly to the Kremlin—representing “a grave counterintelligence threat.” Manafort, later convicted of bank fraud and tax fraud, lied to the special counsel and destroyed the communications he had by encrypted messaging with Kilimnik and others, preventing investigators from being able to learn the full extent of his activities.

The Senate report also found that Trump had spoken with Roger Stone about WikiLeaks, though he had told the special counsel in written responses he had “no recollections” of doing so. The committee reported “significant evidence” showed WikiLeaks was “knowingly collaborating with Russian government officials.”

To Trump, Putin is a once and future client. In 2015-16, Trump was trying to negotiate a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow—a goal going back more than 20 years—even while he was running for the presidency. Such a project required the cooperation of the Russian government. Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, made direct contacts with the Kremlin about the Trump Tower plans, so Vladimir Putin knew Trump was lying about it to the American people all along.

Yet a new book by New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt reveals that the Department of Justice moved early on to protect Trump from an examination of his financial and business ties to Russia—what would likely be his motive for wittingly or unwittingly working with the Russians both during his campaign and his presidency. Though some career counterintelligence officials believed Trump’s ties to Russia “posed such a national security threat that they took the extraordinary step of opening an inquiry into them,” wrote Schmidt, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein immediately narrowed the probe, “all but ensuring it would go nowhere.” With abundant contacts that all—yes—did amount to collusion, Mueller’s hands would be tied: He was tasked with proving a criminal conspiracy with evidence that could stand up in court.

Back when they could boast about it, the Trump sons were happy to be bankrolled by the Russian oligarchs. In 2008, Don Jr. said at a real-estate conference that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” In 2014, Eric Trump told a golf publication the family didn’t need American banks because “we have all the funding we need out of Russia.” Trump’s tax returns and financial records detailing his Russian loans, or gifts, still remain secret.

Secrets and Russian connections followed Team Trump from the campaign to the White House. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, was in touch with Russian ambassador Kislyak before Trump was elected and then, during the transition, established a back channel through which he communicated with the Russians in secret. Kushner—who, by the accounts of every national security official who has left the White House, is essentially second in command to the president—has run a national security apparatus outside the official channels for four years.

For example, during the early stages of the pandemic Kushner was buying ventilators from the Russians (which later turned out to be faulty) much to the surprise of officials at the State Department. Kushner worked on the transaction with Kirill Dmitriev, a Putin ally the Russian president tasked with ingratiating himself with the Trump transition team in 2016, according to the Senate intelligence report.

Beyond Kushner, Trump has plenty of other helpful lieutenants making sure the Russians aren’t held accountable for attacking the 2016 election, let alone attacking this coming election. Why else would Republicans who control the Senate refuse to address the staggering finding of the first volume of the Senate intelligence report—released last year—which found that while no votes were changed in voting machines in 2016, there was “an unprecedented level of activity against state election infrastructure.” Russia may have “intended to exploit vulnerabilities in the election infrastructure during the 2016 elections and, for unknown reasons, decided not to execute those options.” Perhaps, the report said, Russia intended to exploit those vulnerabilities “at a later date.”

Seems alarming, but not to DNI John Ratcliffe, who decided Congress would no longer be briefed in person on election threats despite what his intelligence experts have concluded. Republican lawmakers not only talk up Trump’s “hoax” BS in television interviews but use Russian disinformation in their rhetoric and in probes designed to harm Biden. Trump’s false narrative—echoed by Republican senators throughout the impeachment proceedings—that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 election was shot down by the Senate Intelligence Committee report, which said there was no reliable evidence of it.

“The American people ought to know what Russia is doing,” said House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff. “They ought to know their president is unwilling to stand up to Vladimir Putin. They ought to know that Senators like Ron Johnson are pushing a Kremlin false narrative about Joe Biden, and doing it knowingly.” (It is worth reminding everyone of Sen. Johnson’s quiet-part-out-loud boast that his investigations—aided by information from pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs—“would certainly help president Trump win re-election and certainly be pretty good . . . evidence about not voting for Vice President Biden.”)

Even if Putin can’t help re-elect Trump, he has cashed in mightily in just four years—a weakened America, both domestically and internationally, a weakened NATO, a weakened European Union, and a much stronger position for Russian across the Middle East. On Syria and Ukraine, Putin has scored his greatest wins, gifts from Trump for which he was asked nothing in return. We learned from the impeachment investigation Trump has never defended Ukraine from the Russia annexation of Crimea or its continued aggression and instead labeled Ukraine “corrupt.” American withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan were high on Russia’s wish list as well.

Early on the “grownups” in the administration subverted Trump’s pro-Putin agenda, but much of that collapsed after National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster left the administration, Trump sided with Putin in Helsinki over American intelligence officials including his then-DNI Dan Coats, and then decided—in defiance of allies, Congress and his own cabinet—to remove troops from Syria, prompting James Mattis’s resignation as secretary of defense. By the time his third national security advisor, John Bolton, who has said Putin plays Trump “like a fiddle,” had himself resigned, Trump had started talking about relaxing sanctions on Iran (a gift to Russia) and had invited the Taliban to Camp David.

Earlier this year Trump sacked Joseph Maguire as DNI, because a deputy of Maguire’s had briefed members of Congress on—yep—the Russians trying to interfere to help re-elect President Trump. Following Maguire’s firing, Admiral William McRaven wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that quoted Edmund Burke’s famous line, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” McRaven praised Maguire as “a man whose integrity was more important than his future employment,” said “there is no better officer, no better man and no greater patriot,” and warned that Maguire’s punishment for telling the truth should make Americans “deeply afraid for the future of the nation.” McRaven concluded:

When good men and women can’t speak the truth, when facts are inconvenient, when integrity and character no longer matter, when presidential ego and self-preservation are more important than national security—then there is nothing left to stop the triumph of evil.

American voters may not know or care how damaging it is that we have become a satellite of the Russian Federation, but many good men who have devoted their careers to serving our country do. They know it’s just as pernicious if it wasn’t intentional as if it was. Either Trump duped the United States or the Russians duped him. Before Election Day, we need

Maguire, Mueller, McMaster, Mattis, and Coats to explain to the American public what will happen to our nation if we allow the triumph of Putin.

A.B. Stoddard

A.B. Stoddard is a columnist at The Bulwark. Previously, she was associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics.