The Trump team’s habit of lying in public about its contacts with various official and unofficial emissaries of the Russian government is problematic on its own terms, but especially troubling because it raises the possibility that American foreign policy could be influenced by the fear of blackmail.
That, you’ll recall, was the basis for the original bombshell Trump/Russia leak story in which it came out that US government surveillance of Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak revealed that he and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had discussions about sanctions during the Obama-Trump transition period. For an incoming administration staffer to discuss sanctions with an ambassador is not a crime or necessarily scandalous. But Flynn, seemingly aware of the political sensitivities around the Trump/Russia nexus, lied about the conversation both externally and internally to the administration.
Sally Yates, the acting attorney general at the time, saw the problem. She warned White House Counsel Don McGahn that “the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.”
The theory here is simple. If you lie to the public about meetings with the Russian government, the Russian government will know that you lied and could threaten to release embarrassing and personally damaging information unless you take positions they like.
McGahn did nothing about Yates’s concerns. Later, the information leaked to the press, Flynn became an embarrassment, and he was fired — ostensibly for the crime of having lied to Mike Pence. Yates was also dismissed — over her (correct) observation that the initial version of Trump’s travel ban wouldn’t hold up in court.
But the basic problem she identified persists. Unlike the public, the media, the Congress, the FBI, or the special counsel’s office, Russian intelligence services know exactly what went down between their government and the Trump campaign. Their knowledge of the facts, paired with Trumpworld’s relentless dishonesty and the high consequences of seeing that dishonesty revealed, means a potentially large swath of Trump’s inner circle has been (and may still be) exposed to blackmail.
And that, in turn, makes it hard for the country — and our allies — to trust that American policy toward Russia is being made in service of American interests rather than in service of keeping Trump’s team out of legal and political trouble.
This might be easy to ignore if Trump’s attitude and policies toward Russia were typical for an American politician. But from his contempt for NATO to his unwillingness to punish Moscow for election meddling, they’re not.
The Donald Trump Jr. scandal is new to us, but not to the Russians
Consider the entire tale of Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.
Trump Jr. said, quite publicly, and over a period of many months, that he had no meetings with representatives of the Russian government. He called allegations that anyone on the team might have worked with the Russians “disgusting” and “phony.” President Trump and many of his spokespeople have maintained that was true of the entire campaign.
Again, the story that there was collusion between the Russians & Trump campaign was fabricated by Dems as an excuse for losing the election.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
And yet we now know that it wasn’t true. At a minimum, Junior, Jared Kushner, and campaign manager Paul Manafort went to a meeting with Veselnitskaya under the impression that the purpose of the meeting was for her to provide them with incriminating information about Hillary Clinton. That effort, according to the emails, was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
That information was eyebrow-raising when aspects of it became public on Sunday, dramatic when more was revealed Monday night, and positively explosive when the emails themselves came into the open on Tuesday.
But Veselnitskaya — a Moscow-based attorney and lobbyist for Russian interests in the United States — knew it all along.
She knew it when Donald Trump Sr. stood before the cameras and openly asked Russian hackers to try to find Clinton’s missing emails. She knew it when Trump stood on a debate stage and denied having anything to do with the Russians. She knew it when the Flynn story was roiling Washington. She knew it the morning after James Comey was fired. Since she knew it, it’s very likely that the Russian government knew it, and it’s something they could have used to increase the legal and political jeopardy facing both father and son at any moment.
Why did these emails come out now?
Indeed, though this seems somewhat far-fetched, it’s at least possible that the whole reason these emails are coming to light now is that the Russians wanted them out.
Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, after all, just had a somewhat unorthodox summit meeting that was held to a very small group of people — so small as to exclude National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and other conventional members of the American national security establishment. We don’t really know what went down at that meeting, or what inspired Trump’s tweets about a joint US-Russian cybersecurity task force, or what spurred Trump to counter-tweet shortly thereafter disavowing the idea.
The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn't mean I think it can happen. It can't-but a ceasefire can,& did!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 10, 2017
But maybe the meeting didn’t go well. Maybe Putin didn’t hear what he wanted to hear.
And maybe in consequence he took out a hit on Trump’s son, just as back in February 2014 he leaked intercepted audio of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland talking to US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt and saying derisively “fuck the EU.”
We, of course, don’t yet know what other meetings, phone calls, or emails may have passed between Trump’s team and the Russian government. The wording of Rob Goldstone’s email to Trump Jr. strongly suggests the existence of a larger pro-Trump operation by the Russian government that Trump Jr. was familiar with. But the Russians know who they met with, who they called, and when.
Information is power. And because the Russians have a lot of information about Trump/Russia contacts, and because Trumpworld keeps lying about Trump/Russia contacts, the Russians have a lot of power.
Trumpworld knows the Russians have the goods
The joke on Twitter is that former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak must be the most forgettable man on the planet. After all, how else did Attorney General Jeff Sessions forget to mention his meetings with Kislyak — and then end up needing to correct himself again because he’d maybe forgotten another one? How did Jared Kushner forget to list that foreign contact on his security clearance form?
Beyond the meetings themselves, we later learned that the subject of one of these Kushner meetings was an effort to set up a secure back-channel for Trump to communicate with the Kremlin using Russian equipment and facilities.
The Russians would, of course, have known about this effort the whole time. And they could have released that information — either directly or disguised through intermediaries — at any time.
And Kushner himself — an assistant to the president and senior adviser in the White House possessing top-level security clearance and a wife whose counsel is so trusted that she sits in for the president at summit meetings — would have known this whole time that the Russians knew. Is that why he was an unexpected and influential voice pushing his father-in-law to fire FBI Director James Comey? Congressional Democrats are pushing for Kushner to lose his security clearance on these grounds, while Republicans are dismissing it out of hand as mere partisanship.
Another dangling thread concerns Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and a major financial supporter of Trump’s presidential campaign. He made some kind of effort to set up back-channel communications to Russia via a meeting in the Seychelles, but it’s not currently clear what came of that. But the Russians know exactly what happened. And Prince — who’s close to Steve Bannon and whose sister is in the Cabinet — knows that the Russians know.
Even though Manafort was fired months before the election because of the cloud of potential dirty Russian money hanging over his head, he continued to advise the Trump campaign, including on the post-election Russia investigation. But while the FBI is merely investigating the sources of Manafort’s income (and potential laundering thereof), the Russians are in a position to know exactly what kind of compensation he got from a Russian front party in Ukraine. And he knows that they know.
Trump’s finances are a huge source of vulnerability
The “Steele dossier” was made famous for its wilder allegations, including the notion that Trump is being blackmailed by secret Russian kompromat pertaining to some unorthodox sexual behaviors.
It also contains the much more boring allegation that Trump paid bribes in St. Petersburg “very discreetly and only through affiliated companies” while exploring doing some business deals there. Nobody who’s ever spent time in Russia would find the idea that a person paid some bribes while dealing with Russian officials to be particularly shocking. And, of course, dealing with government officials is par for the course when it comes to real estate.
The problem is that paying bribes in pursuit of a business deal is, technically, illegal under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Trump’s been annoyed by the FCPA in the past, calling it a “horrible law” in a 2012 interview that “this country is absolutely crazy” to have on the books because it puts American businesses at a “huge disadvantage.”
But part of Trump’s philosophy of business has long been a willingness to plow ahead in legal gray areas. Adam Davidson’s reporting on the Trump Tower in Baku, Azerbaijan, suggests that he dispensed with normal FCPA compliance procedures and basically got away with it. He may well have done the same in St. Petersburg. After all, Trump’s new chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Jay Clayton, is a longtime FCPA critic. And Trump pretty clearly believes on the merits that American businesses should be allowed to bribe foreign officials.
But while American authorities have little incentive to heavily scrutinize Trump’s FCPA compliance in the former Soviet Union, the Russians are well-positioned to know a great deal about this. They’re also in a good position to know if the surge in purchases of Trump condo properties through anonymous shell companies involves any of their citizens.
Trump’s stance toward Russia really is strange
In parallel to all of this there is the matter of Trump’s actual policy toward Russia, which has remained extremely idiosyncratic even as Trump has purged his domestic policies of any real hint of heterodoxy.
This tendency toward idiosyncratic, Moscow-friendly moments was extremely strong on the campaign trail. It reached its high point in government with Flynn’s appointment to serve as national security adviser. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also has an extremely unusual resume for a top American diplomat, featuring zero military or diplomatic experience but instead the receipt of an Order of Friendship award from the Russian government and some time spent lobbying against sanctions on Russia.
With Flynn replaced by McMaster, Trump has mostly hewed to a more orthodox approach. But he does seem to have explored relaxing sanctions on Russia and has been strikingly reluctant to affirm America’s commitment to NATO — going so far as to at one point strike a pro-NATO line from a speech that appeared in his prepared text and that his advisers had briefed the press would be delivered. He’s repeatedly seemed to side with the Russian government over American intelligence agencies on the question of Russian culpability for hacking. He even briefly — and bizarrely — suggested a joint US-Russian cybersecurity initiative.
He has also made clear that Russia will face no repercussions whatsoever for its election meddling, something lawmakers of both parties see as a direct assault on American democracy.
There are any number of possible explanations for this behavior. But surely a desire to keep Putin happy lest the Russians start releasing politically embarrassing information belongs on the list.
Trump’s lying is a national security risk
A responsible administration would have taken Yates seriously in the first place.
It would have either fired Flynn right away, or else forced him to come clean and apologize right away. And it would have learned the Flynn lesson, that even though the political scrutiny given to Russia-related matters was awkward, lying about it was even more troubling.
But they didn’t take that lesson. Time after time, Washington has been roiled by new stories and new revelations. Each time, the Trumpworld defense has been that the mere fact of a new undisclosed email here or undisclosed meeting there is hardly proof of wrongdoing. Yates’s point, however, was that, under the circumstances, the very lack of disclosure was itself the problem.
Reluctance to come clean could reflect blundering, stubbornness, or simply blindness to the extent of the problem. But another possibility is that they’ve been trying to hide the truth because the truth is really bad. In that case, lying to the public and then hoping the Russians don’t expose the lies could be the best strategy.
By having repeatedly committed itself in public to false narratives about interactions with the Russian government, Trump and his aides have repeatedly put themselves under the thumb of the Russians. To let the president and his top aides have that kind of threat hanging over their heads would, under any normal circumstances, be considered completely intolerable.
These are, of course, unusual times. And having decided that they can tolerate a confessed sexual predator in the White House and accommodate his desire to run his businesses in a way that makes it easy to bribe him, congressional Republicans can no doubt rationalize the bribery issue away, too. After all, McMaster and Jim Mattis will be along to babysit the commander in chief. Except when he leaves them out of key summit meetings, unexpectedly drops text from a major speech, or otherwise needs to respond in real-time to a crisis.
Beyond the implications for Trump personally, his administration, or the 2018 midterms, this is an uncomfortable situation for America’s allies and a downright catastrophic one for American foreign policy. Part of what makes it so disastrous is that nobody really has any idea about the extent of the exposure and what kind of pro-Putin policies Trump might pursue in the future.
Worst of all, the Republican majorities that control Congress seem to have decided that they would just as soon not know, treating the Trump-Russia story as essentially an endless series of annoying White House gaffes rather than the potentially crippling security vulnerability it is.