The saga of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin seems to get more complex and less clear each week. The latest chapter included a dossier gathered by a British intelligence veteran at the behest of Trump’s political opponents, first from within the GOP, and then from interests associated with the Clinton campaign. The dossier included allegations that Russia had been cultivating Trump for years, of business ties between Trump and Russia, and of Trump’s sexual misconduct while in Russia for business in 2013. There is no proof that these allegations are true, but they have taken most discussions of Trump’s relationship with Russia in a new direction.
One of the challenges of probing the Trump-Putin relationship is that there are so many components to it with varying degrees of relevance and gravity. For example, Trump campaigned on a platform that included a less confrontational relationship with Russia. On its own this is a perfectly legitimate, if in the eyes of many misguided, political position and one that should be debated among the American people and our legislature. Trump also may, or may not, have business relationships with Russia that are of interest to the American people and that might inform his positions on Russia and might eave him vulnerable to conflicts of interest. We know that for quite a while during the campaign, Trump’s most senior advisor was a man with strong ties to pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine. Again, this alone is not necessarily a problem, but given Trump’s possible other ties to Russia, is troubling. According to the DNI report from earlier this year, it also seems that the Russian government preferred Trump to his opponent Hillary Clinton and that the Russian television network RT has made a lot of stories critical of Clinton and of the US more broadly. This seems to be a bizarre and irrelevant point, that while probably true should not cause a crisis in our democracy. According to that same DNI report, Russia illegally gained access to DNC emails and was involved in leaking those to the press during the 2016 election as a deliberate, and ultimately successful effort to damage Hillary Clinton.
There is clearly a lot of pieces to Trump’s relationship with Russia. The first question facing anybody trying to figure all this out is what is important and what is not. Much of what is now taking up the Trump-Russia bandwidth is not pertinent or significant and should not be treated as such. RT is a Kremlin mouthpiece that doesn’t like the US and likes Trump. While that may be unfortunate it is hardly an existential crisis for democracy. Trump may have engaged in sexual shenanigans while in Moscow. That may be interesting, if true, but should not break a presidency. Trump doesn’t support the mainstream hawkish view on Russia and its near abroad. Again, on its own that is simply policy position that should be discussed and debated like any other.
Some of the most important issues in the Trump Russia mess are in danger of being lost in waters now muddied by unproven stories about prostitutes, less than plausible assertions that Trump is some kind of semi-sleeper agent and what amounts to little more than kvetching by the DNI about RT. The first of these is that Trump benefited from a Russian effort to swing the election, not by having their state run media support him, but through Russia breaking into the DNC emails and leaking damaging information about Hilary Clinton. The second is that there is reason to believe, not least because of Donald Trump’s steady refusal to dispel concern by releasing his tax records, that the Trump Organization has a financial relationship with Russia that will lead to conflicts of interest once he becomes president. Moreover, these potential conflicts of interest may drive US policy towards Russia. These are the two issues that raise deep concerns for the country and that any congress, regardless of party, that understood its role in our system of checks and balances as central to our democracy, would have begun investigating already.
Over the course of the campaign and the transition period, we have learned that one of Trump’s favorite political tactics is essentially “hey, look at that shiny object over there.” He ran for president by deflecting attention from bad story to a new one every few days, or hours. That is what we are saying more specifically with regards to Russia. It is important to keep the focus on what we know is important, how Putin helped him win and what Trump’s business interests and relationships are in Russia. Unless we do that, Trump will continue to get away with just pointing to the next shiny Russian object.
Photo: cc/Steve Baker