At his confirmation hearing in January, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was asked by Sen. Al Franken what he would do if he discovered any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign — himself included — communicated with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign.
“I’m not aware of those activities,” Sessions responded. “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
According to a new report in the Washington Post, Sessions’s statement was untrue. Justice Department officials told the Post that Sessions met twice last year with members of the Russian envoy.
As my Vox colleague German Lopez notes, a word of caution is needed: There is ambiguity about what Sessions meant at the hearing when he said he had no communications with Russian officials. As a result, a perjury charge is highly unlikely. Sessions is claiming he was distinguishing his work as a senator from his work as an official Trump campaign surrogate.
Still, the Sessions story raises a familiar question: What is up with the Trump administration and Russia? There is a ton of smoke, and far more questions than answers.
Last week, I spoke with Mikhail Fishman, editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times, an English-language weekly newspaper published in Moscow. Fishman has followed the bizarre Trump-Putin relationship closely, and has the benefit of viewing it from the Russian vantage.
My conversation with him is worth reading on its own, but a couple of passages are worth revisiting. First, I asked him how Trump and Putin are different, and why those differences might matter.
In their habits, they're radically different. Trump is a posturing performer, full of idiotic narcissism. He appears to be a disorganized fool, to be honest. Putin, on the other hand, is calculating, organized, and he plans everything. He also hides much of his personal life in a way that Trump does not.
Then there's also the fact that Putin is so much more experienced than Trump. He has more than 15 years of global political experience. He knows how to do things, how to work the system. He makes plenty of mistakes, but he knows how to think and act. Trump is a total neophyte. He has no experience and doesn't understand how global politics operates. He displays his ignorance every single day.
Fishman’s point is clear enough: Putin sees in Trump an opportunity to manipulate US-Russia relations. The Kremlin, he told me, considers Trump “a stupid, unstrategic politician,” and has thus sought to infiltrate his orbit. This explains Putin’s public orientation to Trump as well as Russia’s clandestine efforts to form allegiances with Trump’s campaign.
Ultimately, Fishman believes, Putin’s goal is to reassert Russia’s great power status:
The first thing he wants and needs is the symbolic legitimization of himself and Russia as a major superpower and world player that America has to do deal with as an equal. He wants to escape the isolation of Russia on the world stage, which was what the campaign in Syria was all about. Putin has grand ambitions for himself and for Russia, and nearly every move he makes is animated by this.
If you want to understand Russia’s intentions, this is a useful framework. The Russians supported Trump’s victory for a reason: They want to change the broader dynamic. Their meddling in our politics makes plenty of sense in light of that goal.
For more on the Trump-Russia scandal, read Vox’s explainer.