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Evelyn Farkas was the Pentagon’s top Russia expert. Now she wants Trump independently investigated.

“The fundamental question is: Are you susceptible to blackmail from a foreign entity or individual?”

Donald Trump Speaks With Russian Leader Vladimir Putin From The White House
President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office of the White House, January 28, 2017.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

From 2012 to 2015, Evelyn Farkas served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia. Since leaving office, she’s been raising the alarm that there was more to the strange relationship between Trumpland and Russia than the public knew. Maybe even much more. This week, she was proven right.

We spoke Wednesday, and the relief was evident in her voice. Far from being concerned over the new revelations, she’s comforted that the ties are finally being made public and broad pressure is finally being applied for more investigations. “I didn’t think it would happen this fast,” she says.

The investigation we need, Farkas continues, is the equivalent of running “a security clearance on the president.” The core question is, “Are you susceptible to blackmail from a foreign entity or individual?”

Farkas, who served as the executive director of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, thinks Congress needs to create an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate Russia’s ties to the Trump administration and role in the election. In this interview, which is edited for length and clarity, she explains why.

Ezra Klein

What’s your level of alarm after the resignation of Michael Flynn?

Evelyn Farkas

It’s lower than it’s been since the summer, when I was first made aware of all this stuff. I’m like, finally, everybody else sees it! Seriously.

The reason I was so upset last summer was that I was getting winks and hints from inside that there was something really wrong here. I was agitated because I knew the Clinton campaign and the world didn’t know. But I didn’t think it would happen this fast. I didn’t think Flynn would survive a year, but I thought it would be most of the year.

The fact that Flynn is gone is constructive from the perspective of US foreign policy. He was getting it wrong on combating terrorism and Russia. So I feel relieved that he will not be whispering his policy prescriptions in the president’s ear.

On the bigger issue, the intelligence community, the bureaucracy, patriotic Americans, and some members of Congress are making it impossible for the White House to sweep whatever they are trying to hide under the rug. And the White House is clearly trying to hide something, or the president would have said, on day one, that he would support the investigations that began under his predecessor.

Ezra Klein

The piece of this I keep coming back to is Trump’s own actions. He’s a guy with very few consistent and clear policy positions, particularly on foreign policy. But he has always had very specific, very hard-line pro-Russian policies — questioning NATO, altering the GOP platform to be friendlier to Russia on Ukraine. And he has surrounded himself with staffers like Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, who are unusually closely tied to Russia. That behavior is what, to me, creates a context that makes these contacts between his associates and Russian intelligence really unnerving.

Evelyn Farkas

It is unusual. His personnel choices line up with his words on Russia. This is the only place where we haven’t seen Trump contradict himself, but we still don’t know exactly what his policy will be. We know he’s inclined to be friendly to Putin, to cooperate with Putin, but he hasn’t articulated specifics.

Ezra Klein

Where does an investigation like this go? What do you think the investigators are looking for?

Evelyn Farkas

From the perspective of the intelligence community, the fundamental question is: Are you susceptible to blackmail from a foreign entity or individual? There’s the possibility of blackmail based on giving money or lending money or guaranteeing something. There could be some hanky-panky that opens the president up to blackmail.

It’s like you’re trying to do a security clearance on the president. The intelligence agencies want to make sure there’s no undue foreign influence on him.

Ezra Klein

The question that concerns me is whether these investigations can be sustained. What we’re seeing emerge right now is largely information that has already been gathered. But the heads of the CIA, FBI, and Department of Justice are now people Trump has either appointed or kept on. Republicans in Congress have been reluctant to really investigate. So how does this inquiry maintain momentum?

Evelyn Farkas

Congress is so politicized. For them to be in charge of an investigation is hard. So I think that what you’re going to see happen — unless the Republicans really have a come-to-Jesus moment where they decide they’ll lose in 2018 unless they pull themselves together and really investigate this in a bipartisan fashion — is Democrats and the American people will force it out of Congress and into a bipartisan, independent commission.

Ezra Klein

What would that look like?

Evelyn Farkas

It should be made up of former members of Congress, éminence grises. It could be a Brent Scowcroft, an Eric Cantor. I was the executive director of the Graham-Talent WMD commission. The thing with these commissions is you begin by establishing a baseline of facts, and only then do you proceed with the investigation.

Ezra Klein

But Congress would have to vote to form a commission like that, right? And I doubt Trump would sign that bill.

Evelyn Farkas

It would have to be veto-proof. It would have to be the result of huge outside political pressure. The upside of farming it out, for Republicans, is that the commission allocates the blame. The president can’t say, Paul Ryan, you set me up. Paul Ryan can just say, we were under huge pressure to create the commission, but I didn’t know it would lead to this!

For more from Evelyn Farkas on Russia’s role in the American election and the difficult choices the US faces there and in Syria, listen to our recent podcast conversation:

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