KremlinGate Enters Uncharted Waters as Russian Links Overwhelm DC

New revelations of clandestine ties between the president and Moscow bring turmoil to the Oval Office

WASHINGTON, D.C. - FEBRUARY 15: (AFP-OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a listening session with the Retail Industry Leaders Association and member company chief executive officers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on February 15, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Questions about ties between Trump's team and Russian intelligence agents mounted Wednesday after news of extensive contacts between the two were reported. Democrats and some Republicans are calling for an investigation into Trump's links to Russia.

U.S. President Donald Trump. Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images

Just a few days ago, I broke the story that the National Security Agency, the country’s most prolific and secretive spy service, was withholding highly sensitive intelligence from the White House, fearing that it might be compromised by members of Team Trump who possess unsettling links to Moscow. That bombshell, which gained significant media traction, was pooh-poohed by some pundits who preferred to ignore the new administration’s increasingly obvious ties to the Kremlin.

Then Michael Flynn, the embattled National Security Advisor, got pushed out late Monday, once the extent of his dishonesty about his repeated phone calls to the Russian ambassador came to light. Flynn’s unceremonious defenestration, just three weeks after the inauguration, sets a White House record—but what’s remarkable is how someone as slippery and dissimulating as Flynn lasted even that long.

Particularly since the Justice Department shared its security concerns about the National Security Advisor with the White House weeks ago, based on intercepts of calls between Flynn and the Russian embassy in Washington, to no avail. That Flynn lied about the content of those calls, specifically discussions of lifting sanctions on Russia, to Vice President Mike Pence, offered the ostensible reason why Flynn tendered his resignation, but the reality is murkier and more troubling.

In the first place, it’s difficult to see how Flynn decided to parley with Moscow without a go-ahead of some kind from Donald Trump. We don’t know this to be the case and cannot allege or even speculate that this occurred. But while Flynn is unquestionably a loose cannon, as a career military man he understands the chain of command with perfect clarity. Moreover, accepting that the soon-to-be National Security Advisor opened up back-channels of communication with the Kremlin all by himself is as credible as the notion that the Plumbers decided to break into the Watergate without orders from higher up.

In response to Flynn’s downfall, the right-wing media went into spasms of indignation, denouncing his “political assassination“—a take endorsed by the president himself. Allegations of political interference by leaky, Obama-controlled intelligence agencies spread like wildfire, though it’s impossible not to notice that the same right-wing pundits now furious about Intelligence Community leaks hurting Trump were greeting similar leaks rapturously exactly one year ago, when they were severely damaging Hillary Clinton in EmailGate.

The president seems to be increasingly flabbergasted by the exposure of his clandestine relationship with Moscow.

Trump likewise demonstrates remarkable inconsistency, since only a few months ago, he considered how purloined Clinton and Democratic National Committee emails went public to be utterly unimportant compared to their content. In the president’s eyes, IC leaks of information unflattering to him are illegal and immoral, while Russian intelligence stealing his opponents’ emails and divulging them to the public via Wikileaks are the height of integrity and patriotism.

The rising debate over Flynn’s demise, however, was quickly overshadowed by explosive reports that revealed Team Trump’s secret collusion with the Kremlin in the months leading up to the election. As The New York Times reported, NSA intercepted numerous conversations between members of Trump’s inner circle and senior Russian intelligence officials, as well as other Kremlin power-players. Although NSA sources did not reveal the content of those calls—and even specified that to date, no signs of collusion in hurting Clinton’s campaign had been found—the appearance of something worse than mere impropriety was unavoidable. There are several reasons why a presidential campaign might regularly contact a hostile foreign intelligence service—and none of them is savory.

Then CNN amplified this big news with a deeply sourced report of its own describing “constant communications” between high-level Trump associates and Russian spies last summer and fall. There’s now no doubt why NSA is worried about sharing its best intelligence with a White House that can’t get off the phone to the Kremlin.

One of the Trump associates named in both reports is Paul Manafort, the shady veteran political operative who left the campaign last August when his unsavory ties to the Kremlin hit the newspapers. In response to the latest allegations, Manafort replied, “I don’t remember talking to any Russian officials,” last year, memorably adding that he had no recollection of ever being in contact with Kremlin spies: “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’”

That appears to be yet another untruth, since as I reported back in August, Manafort’s longtime friend in Kyiv, Konstantin Kilimnik, who served as his translator and sidekick during Manafort’s years as a political fixer for Ukraine’s then-ruling party, was remarkably open about his longstanding affiliation with GRU, that is Russian military intelligence. Kilimnik boasted of his GRU ties, which he didn’t discuss in the past tense only. For Manafort to say he’s never been in contact with Russian spies is therefore unconvincing.

Since the Intelligence Community has already concluded that Russian spies, acting on the orders of President Vladimir Putin, clandestinely interfered in our election last year, to benefit Trump at the expense of Hillary Clinton, the Republican candidate’s regular contacts with the Kremlin and its spy agencies appear highly suspicious and raise many troubling questions. Here some of Trump’s stranger utterances on the campaign trail, for instance his encouraging Moscow last summer to release more of his opponent’s purloined emails, go from appearing merely unseemly to potentially something much worse.

In response to the latest revelations of Team Trump’s troubling Moscow linkages, his defenders are citing the usual litany of excuses which we are accustomed to hearing from Wikileaks and all the other Putin-helpers in the media. That our spy agencies are out of control and spying on Americans. That the IC is partisan and inclined to casually break laws. That Americans should fear our own spies, but strangely not Russia’s.

Perhaps this is progress of a sort, since it was only a few weeks ago that Trump compared the IC to Nazi Germany.

None of this is true. In the first place, NSA intercepted the relevant communications entirely legally. Just as in the Flynn case, they were not “spying on Americans” but on legitimate foreign intelligence targets, in this case under the provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. When an American citizen pops up in, say, a phone call to a top GRU operative—that’s called “incidental collection”—that information gets minimized and tightly protected. But NSA and the FBI are not required to pretend the call never happened, so long as proper minimization procedures, which are required by FISA, are followed.

The president seems to be increasingly flabbergasted by the exposure of his clandestine relationship with Moscow. As is his wont, he took to Twitter to lambaste the Intelligence Community and the mainstream media some more, denouncing “fake news” and IC leaks, while asserting that American spies are acting “just like Russia”—a puzzling statement that may be more revealing than the president intended—and to top it off they’re “very un-American.” Perhaps this is progress of a sort, since it was only a few weeks ago that Trump compared the IC to Nazi Germany on Twitter.

All the same, presidential mania on social media isn’t a pretty picture and will do nothing to stop the coming investigations by Congress into what exactly was going on between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin last year. Trump’s bluster and deflections on the campaign trail sufficed to push aside some of those troubling questions, but things have reached a point that the full story, no matter how unpleasant it may be, will come out, eventually.

At a minimum, the House and Senate intelligence committees will be conducting investigations which ought to worry the White House, whose political future will likely depend on how many Republicans are willing to back Trump—and by extension the Kremlin—over fellow Americans. Since several prominent Republican senators, including Intelligence Committee chair Richard Burr, have indicated that investigations are going forward, the White House can’t depend on partisan loyalty to protect them for much longer.

Republicans should be advised to put country over party right now and pursue rigorous inquiries into the full extent of Trump’s Moscow links and their impact on the election—and the new administration. Washington is at the precipice of a scandal unlike anything seen since Watergate. Indeed, KremlinGate promises to be much seedier and more troubling than anything proffered by President Nixon.

Here the inevitable comparisons to Watergate fall short. Tricky Dick committed domestic crimes, and paid the price for them, but Nixon was in no way beholden to a foreign power—much less one which has several thousand nuclear weapons pointed at the United States. Neither did Nixon collude with that foreign power’s spies to arrange his own election to the presidency.

We are now discussing things worse than mere impeachment. If members of Trump’s team colluded with Russian intelligence, the Espionage Act comes into play, and we’ve entered uncharted waters, presidentially speaking.

For the foreseeable future, the still-forming White House will be enmeshed in fighting for its political life as disturbing allegations mount in Washington. Donald Trump promised to shake up American politics, and less than a month into his presidency he has surely done so. But not in the way he promised.

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