FEB 14, 2017
We know that Trump is the most pro-Russian president in American history. He regularly praises Putin and dismisses well-founded charges that the Russian strongman murders innocent people. “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers,” the president recently told Bill O’Reilly. “What, you think our country is so innocent?”
We know, too, that Putin’s intelligence agencies ran a hacking operation last year designed to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Trump. On Jan. 6, the U.S. intelligence community released a “high-confidence” report that makes untenable Trump’s repeated claims that the hacking could have been done by a random 400-pound couch potato.
What we don’t know is this: What are the links, if any, between Trump and Putin? Is Trump merely an admirer of Putin’s (which is troubling enough), or does Putin actually have something on Trump that would cause the president to act in ways contrary to American interests?
Some curious connections between the Trump camp and the Kremlin already have come to light. Last summer, lobbyist Paul Manafort was fired as Trump’s campaign manager after ledgers were discovered in Kiev showing millions of dollars in cash payments to him from Ukraine’s Russian-backed strongman, Viktor Yanukovych. Another fired campaign advisor, Carter Page, was close to the Kremlin’s state-owned oil industry. Now, Flynn has departed his White House post after all of three weeks on the job when it emerged that he had carried on secret conversations prior to the inauguration with Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to Washington. Flynn had at least one other connection to the Kremlin, having gone to Moscow in December 2015 as a paid guest to attend a dinner alongside Putin honoring the Russian propaganda outlet RT.
Flynn was undone because he subsequently lied about his conversations with Kislyak to Vice President Pence. But we now know, thanks to the Washington Post, that the Justice Department had notified the White House three weeks ago that Flynn was opening himself up to blackmail by lying about the phone call, which had been monitored by U.S. intelligence. The White House did not act on that information until it was leaked last week, and it is not clear whether anything would have been done if the information hadn’t become public.
It is also unclear whether Trump knew at the time about Flynn’s backdoor contacts with the Russians, but circumstantial evidence points that way. The widespread assumption is that Flynn relayed a message to Putin on Dec. 29 not to worry about President Obama’s imposition of sanctions to punish Russia for its meddling in our election, suggesting that they would be lifted once Trump took office, perhaps as payback for the help that the Kremlin gave to Trump’s campaign. When Putin got the hint and did not retaliate, Trump tweeted on Dec. 30: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!”
From the outside, it certainly looks as if both Flynn and Trump might have been colluding to undermine U.S. foreign policy while Obama was still in office, much as Richard Nixon did in the fall of 1968 by secretly sabotaging Lyndon Johnson’s attempts to open peace talks with Hanoi. This is no Watergate, at least not yet, but it is imperative to ask the Watergate question: What did the president know, and when did he know it?
There are other questions that Trump and his aides should be asked as well. We have learned recently, courtesy of CNN, that U.S. intelligence has corroborated at least some parts of the 35-page dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele in which he claimed that Trump was subject to Kremlin blackmail on sexual and financial grounds. While it may be impossible to embarrass Trump for sexual misdeeds after his taped confession of groping, there could well be shady financial dealings in his past that help to explain why he refuses to release his tax returns.
It is certainly curious that Trump has repeatedly denied any financial links to Russia (“I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA—NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING,” he tweeted on Jan. 11), and yet the public record reflects that he staged the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013 and tried to conduct numerous other deals there. His son Donald Trump Jr. bragged in 2008 that their company had “a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
The American public deserves to know more — a lot more — about what ties, if any, our president may have with a hostile foreign power. Media reporting is insufficient because reporters cannot subpoena documents or force testimony under penalty of perjury. The Republican-run Congress does have that authority but so far has not chosen to exercise it. The only way we are likely ever to get to the bottom of Kremlingate is through the appointment of a bipartisan, 9/11-style commission.
It is scandalous that Republicans so far have blocked such a move; they are putting partisan considerations above the interests of the country. Perhaps now the stonewall will finally crumble? Flynn’s resignation should not be the end of the story.