I’m going to be honest: the further you go into the rabbit hole of Donald Trump’s Russia connections, the more difficult it is to tell what might be true and what is conspiracy theory-esque. There’s a lot floating around on the internet and a huge cast of characters and corporate players to familiarize yourself with (Paul Manafort, Viktor Yanukovich, Bayrock, Trump Soho, Gazprom, Sergey Kislyak…the list goes on)…
In this update, I have sought to only provide links to (what I consider) reputable sources with histories of deeply researched reporting. I have made sure to include reporting from news organizations that have reputations as centrist or right-leaning, such as Forbes, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The New York Observer, Christian Science Monitor, and Politifact. As of early March 2017, a great deal remains unknown about the extent of Trump’s relationship with Russian government and business organizations. Most articles linked below do contain some degree of speculation – however, taken as a whole and in context of what is known of Trump’s business history, I believe they paint a very unsettling picture of the current president.
I highly suggest reading at least one article from each bolded sub-heading below.
From USA Today: The Trump-Russia connection: What we know now
Background context and general analysis:
Donald Trump and Russia – What do we really know? (National Review)
Here are a few of the key questions: If Trump was briefed on the existence of contacts between his campaign officials and Russian intelligence operatives, why the repeated denials? Does he disbelieve the intelligence? Or are anonymous officials misleading the press, speaking of briefings that either didn’t occur or were substantially different from how they are being portrayed? Or is Trump simply lying? It was in the midst of this atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion that last night’s news hit. The Trump team has now lost three key aides (Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Carter Page) because of alleged ties to Russia; the intelligence community believes Russia tried to help Trump win the election; the Trump team can’t seem to tell the truth about its communications with Russia; and Trump himself is oddly persistent in his admiration for Vladimir Putin — even going so far as to slander the U.S. in an effort to defend America’s foremost geopolitical rival.
The situation begs for a bipartisan, transparent investigation.
Donald Trump’s ties to Russia go back 30 years (USA Today)
The Trump administration’s deepening Russia problem (Christian Science Monitor)
Trump’s Russia scandal reaches a political tipping point (Washington Post)
President Trump’s ties to Russia matter. Here’s why. (America Magazine: The Jesuit Review)
[I posted these before, but just to review: Trump, Russia, and the new geopolitics of the Baltics; Lesser-known walls: How Trump’s presidency is intensifying fear in the Baltics; U.K. said to fear Trump to embolden Putin, weaken NATO pact; Trump is destabilizing Europe from within and without]
Trump’s campaign ties to Russia
Both the frequency of the communications during early summer and the proximity to Trump of those involved “raised a red flag” with US intelligence and law enforcement, according to these officials. The communications were intercepted during routine intelligence collection targeting Russian officials and other Russian nationals known to US intelligence.
The biggest question is whether Trump and his people [understood] that [Russian intelligence had] an interest in what goes on in the United States and the elections. It’s not enough to say that this guy spoke to some people from the Russian intelligence, or from the foreign intelligence. The thing is to know, does he actually understand this? That no, these people are not just businessmen, not just officials, that they try to get information.
Trump’s apparent involvement in steering the language change — Gordon reportedly told CNNthat “this was the language Donald Trump himself wanted and advocated for back in March ” — is also at odds with what Gordon told Business Insider in January, when he said “neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Manafort were involved in those sort of details, as they’ve made clear.”
Trump’s business & financial ties to Russia
That would normally be an end of the matter, but not everyone is inclined to take Deutsche’s compliance department at its word after a string of governance scandals in recent years that culminated in a $630 million settlement for failing to police money-laundering by its Moscow office last month. As part of that settlement, the New York Department for Financial Services ordered it to hire an independent monitor to review its compliance operations.
The Guardian quoted Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., a Democrat member of the House Ways and Means Committee, as saying: “I think it’s important for the American people to know the extent of the bank’s involvement with the president, and whether there is any Russian involvement in loans made to Mr. Trump.”
“Trump early on back in the 1980s made entrees into the Russian market in terms of soliciting buyers for his condominium buildings. Those connections with very high net worth Russians haven’t gone away. Now he’s the President of the United States. So if you’re an affluent Russian with the ability to invest somewhere in the $1 million to $10 million price range in a luxury property outside of Russia, there’s a feeling in general that his administration is going to be favorable to real estate interests.”
Trump’s Russian connections (Financial Times)
The Republican candidate’s links to Russia are a mix of bling, business and bluster spanning 30 years. This account in five sections traces Trump’s fascination for Russia from its beginnings in Soviet times through deals done in the Putin era to Trump’s appointment of a slew of Russia-connected advisers during the US presidential campaign. It concludes with outside views on Trump’s long-standing Russia ties and the president-elect’s own explanations.
The truth, as several columnists and reporters have painstakingly shown since the first hack of a Clinton-affiliated group took place in late May or early June, is that several of Trump’s businesses outside of Russia are entangled with Russian financiers inside Putin’s circle.
So, yes, it’s true that Trump has failed to land a business venture inside Russia. But the real truth is that, as major banks in America stopped lending him money following his many bankruptcies, the Trump organization was forced to seek financing from non-traditional institutions. Several had direct ties to Russian financial interests in ways that have raised eyebrows. What’s more, several of Trump’s senior advisors have business ties to Russia or its satellite politicians.
Looking into Trump’s deals, FORBES has uncovered numerous e-mails and sworn statements that indicate Sater was closer to Trump, his organization and his children than previously revealed. Additionally, FORBES has connected three billionaire oligarchs from Kazakhstan to potential deals involving Trump and Sater.
- Learning Eye-Popping Details About Mr. Sater (talkingpointsmemo)
- Trump Denies Links to Russian-American Businessman (NPR)
Post-election: US Intelligence Community and Trump
The Spy Revolt Against Trump Begins (New York Observer)
A senior National Security Agency official explained that NSA was systematically holding back some of the “good stuff” from the White House, in an unprecedented move. For decades, NSA has prepared special reports for the president’s eyes only, containing enormously sensitive intelligence. In the last three weeks, however, NSA has ceased doing this, fearing Trump and his staff cannot keep their best SIGINT secrets.
Since NSA provides something like 80 percent of the actionable intelligence in our government, what’s being kept from the White House may be very significant indeed. However, such concerns are widely shared across the IC, and NSA doesn’t appear to be the only agency withholding intelligence from the administration out of security fears.
What’s going on was explained lucidly by a senior Pentagon intelligence official, who stated that “since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the SITROOM,” meaning the White House Situation Room, the 5,500 square-foot conference room in the West Wing where the president and his top staffers get intelligence briefings. “There’s not much the Russians don’t know at this point,” the official added in wry frustration.
The CIA has concluded that Russia intervened in the 2016 election specifically to help Donald Trump win the presidency, a U.S. official has confirmed to NPR.
“Before, there was confidence about the fact that Russia interfered,” the official says. “But there was low confidence on what the direction and intentionality of the interference was. Now they [the CIA] have come to the conclusion that Russia was trying to tip the election to Trump.”
- [Let’s just note here that the White House has no business asking the FBI to “knock down” stories in the press…as John Dean [former Nixon White House Counsel] says, “I have expertise on this matter. Push back on an FBI investigation of the White House is better known as a COVER UP] (twitter)
Security consultant and ex-National Security Agency (NSA) employee, John Schindler said he had received an email from a senior intelligence agent discussing the President.
It opened with the words: “He will die in jail”, he said.
Dangerous Ground (Talkingpointsmemo)
American intelligence officials expressed despair at the election of Trump during a recent meeting with their Israeli counterparts, Bergman reported. They said that they believed that Putin had “leverages of pressure” over Trump, though they did not elaborate.
Congressional/governmental/public figure response to Trump-Russia connections
Trump, Putin, and the New Cold War (The New Yorker)
Rhodes said, “The new phase we’re in is that the Russians have moved into an offensive posture that threatens the very international order.” Samantha Power offered a similar warning, shortly before leaving her post as United Nations Ambassador. Russia, she said, was “taking steps that are weakening the rules-based order that we have benefitted from for seven decades.”
For nearly two decades, U.S.-Russian relations have ranged between strained and miserable. Although the two countries have come to agreements on various issues, including trade and arms control, the general picture is grim. Many Russian and American policy experts no longer hesitate to use phrases like “the second Cold War.”
American allies, including the British and the Dutch, had provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officials — and others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — and associates of President-elect Trump, according to three former American officials who requested anonymity in discussing classified intelligence.
Separately, American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates.
…At intelligence agencies, there was a push to process as much raw intelligence as possible into analyses, and to keep the reports at a relatively low classification level to ensure as wide a readership as possible across the government — and, in some cases, among European allies. This allowed the upload of as much intelligence as possible to Intellipedia, a secret wiki used by American analysts to share information.
There was also an effort to pass reports and other sensitive materials to Congress. In one instance, the State Department sent a cache of documents marked “secret” to Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland days before the Jan. 20 inauguration. The documents, detailing Russian efforts to intervene in elections worldwide, were sent in response to a request from Mr. Cardin, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, and were shared with Republicans on the panel.
Trump’s response to leakers
Judd Legum: “Trump is effectively confirming the accuracy of these reports with this tweet” (twitter)
Evan McMullin: “This seems like presidential confirmation that the White House asked the FBI to help cover Trump campaign ties to Russian officers” (twitter)
The Timeline (talkingpointsmemo)
The acting attorney general informed the Trump White House late last month that she believed Michael Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and warned that the national security adviser was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail, current and former U.S. officials said.
The message, delivered by Sally Q. Yates and a senior career national security official to the White House counsel, was prompted by concerns that Flynn, when asked about his calls and texts with the Russian diplomat, had told Vice President-elect Mike Pence and others that he had not discussed the Obama administration sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 election, the officials said. It is unclear what the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, did with the information.
[Two important things of note here: 1.) Was Sally Yates fired by Donald Trump for more than just her refusal to implement his executive order travel ban? 2.) Upper level people in the white house knew the DOJ had serious reservations about Flynn, including questioning whether he was vulnerable to blackmail – remember, this was the National Security Advisor, this is not a small matter – but he was only fired after the news leaked to the press, not when he was first accused of lying]
Trump knew Flynn misled White House ‘for weeks’ (Al Jazeera)
Trump Tuesday: What did he know about Flynn? When did he know it? (Chicago SunTimes)
Why Donald Trump let Michael Flynn go (Politico)
Why Flynn’s Resignation Matters (Atlantic)
To put the story in simplest terms:
1) Russian spies hacked Democratic Party communications in order to help elect Donald Trump.
2) Donald Trump welcomed the help, used it, publicly solicited more of it—and was then elected president of the United States.
3) President Obama sanctioned Russia for its pro-Trump espionage.
4) While Russia considered its response, its ambassador spoke with the national security adviser-designate about the sanctions
5) The adviser, Flynn, reportedly asked Russia not to overreact, signaling that the new administration would review the sanctions; Russia did not respond.
6) As president-elect and then president, Donald Trump has indicated that he seeks to lift precisely those sanctions caused by Russia’s espionage work on his behalf.
All of this takes place against the background of Donald Trump’s seeming determination to align U.S. foreign policy ever closer to Russia’s: endorsing the annexation of Crimea, supporting Russia’s war aims in Syria, casting doubt on the U.S. guarantee to NATO allies, cheering on the breakup of the European Union.
It takes place, too, in the context of Trump’s murky corporate financial obligations to Russian entities.
Who Told Flynn To Call Russia? (Politico)
What about the other calls? (talkingpointsmemo)
But what is happening under the Trump White House is different, officials say, and not just because of Mr. Trump’s Twitter foreign policy. (Two officials said that at one recent meeting, there was talk of feeding suggested Twitter posts to the president so the council’s staff would have greater influence.)
A number of staff members who did not want to work for Mr. Trump have returned to their regular agencies, leaving a larger-than-usual hole in the experienced bureaucracy. Many of those who remain, who see themselves as apolitical civil servants, have been disturbed by displays of overt partisanship.
…Mr. Trump’s council staff draws heavily from the military — often people who had ties to Mr. Flynn when he served as a senior military intelligence officer and then as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency before he was forced out of the job. Many of the first ideas that have been floated have involved military, rather than diplomatic, initiatives.
Last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was exploring whether the Navy could intercept and board an Iranian ship to look for contraband weapons possibly headed to Houthi fighters in Yemen. The potential interdiction seemed in keeping with recent instructions from Mr. Trump, reinforced in meetings with Mr. Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, to crack down on Iran’s support of terrorism.
But the ship was in international waters in the Arabian Sea, according to two officials. Mr. Mattis ultimately decided to set the operation aside, at least for now. White House officials said that was because news of the impending operation leaked, a threat to security that has helped fuel the move for the insider threat program. But others doubt whether there was enough basis in international law, and wondered what would happen if, in the early days of an administration that has already seen one botched military action in Yemen, American forces were suddenly in a firefight with the Iranian Navy.
…And while Mr. Obama liked policy option papers that were three to six single-spaced pages, council staff members are now being told to keep papers to a single page, with lots of graphics and maps.
“The president likes maps,” one official said.
Paper flow, the lifeblood of the bureaucracy, has been erratic. A senior Pentagon official saw a draft executive order on prisoner treatment only through unofficial rumors and news media leaks. He called the White House to find out if it was real and said he had concerns but was not sure if he was authorized to make suggestions.
Officials said that the absence of an orderly flow of council documents, ultimately the responsibility of Mr. Flynn, explained why Mr. Mattis and Mike Pompeo, the director of the C.I.A., never saw a number of Mr. Trump’s executive orders before they were issued.
…Two people with direct access to the White House leadership said Mr. Flynn was surprised to learn that the State Department and Congress play a pivotal role in foreign arms sales and technology transfers. So it was a rude discovery that Mr. Trump could not simply order the Pentagon to send more weapons to Saudi Arabia — which is clamoring to have an Obama administration ban on the sale of cluster bombs and precision-guided weapons lifted — or to deliver bigger weapons packages to the United Arab Emirates.
Several staff members said that Mr. Flynn, who was a career Army officer, was not familiar with how to call up the National Guard in an emergency — for, say, a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina or the detonation of a dirty bomb in an American city.
But according to an individual familiar with Harward’s thinking, the former Navy SEAL who served on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush turned down the Trump offer because he did not receive sufficient assurances about staffing and autonomy. Specifically, the source said Harward wanted commitments that the National Security Council would be fully in charge of security matters, not Trump’s political advisers. And he wanted to be able to select his own staff.
Jake Tapper, Chief Washington Correspondent for CNN, claims on his verified Twitter account that “A friend of Harward’s says he was reluctant to take NSA job bc the WH seems so chaotic; says Harward called the offer a “shit sandwich.””
It is the President’s prerogative, of course, to choose whatever style of White House Counsel he likes, and McGahn appears to have the President’s full confidence. But even if McGahn enjoys the President’s trust, the questions above transcend presidential prerogative and concern the broader issue of whether and how the Executive branch is ensuring compliance with the law. This is an issue raised by other White House initiatives since the inauguration, of course. It should be of bipartisan concern.
Even if unintentionally, Nunes’s attempt to transform a major national security scandal into a surveillance scandal misleads the public on the activities of the IC. Irrespective of how information about the calls between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak was leaked, there is no way that Nunes is unaware that calls involving key Russian diplomats like Kislyak are monitored as a matter of routine. (And if Nunes is unaware of this, he has no business on, much less chairing, House Intelligence). So far, sources say word is that Flynn was not the target of the taps, and the fact that Flynn’s identity was ascertained signifies no legal mischief whatsoever under FISA, as David Kris explains. As far as Nunes or the public yet knows, Nunes pointed the finger at the IC here for nothing more than doing its job, in what appears to have been a short-sighted effort to shift blame.
Regarding those previously mentioned sanctions…
A Big Shoe Just Dropped (talkingpointsmemo)
On its own, Trump’s relationship with Sater might be written off (albeit not terribly plausibly) as simply a sleazy relationship Trump entered into to get access to capital he needed to finance his projects. Whatever shadowy ties Sater might have and whatever his criminal background, Trump has long since washed his hands of him. (Again, we’re talking about most generous reads here.)
But now we learn that Sater is still very much in the Trump orbit and acting as a go-between linking Trump and a pro-Putin Ukrainian parliamentarian pitching ‘peace plans’ for settling the dispute between Russia and Ukraine. (Artemenko is part of the political faction which Manafort helped build up in the aftermath of the ouster of his Ukrainian benefactor, deposed President Viktor Yanukovych.) Indeed, far, far more important, Cohen – who is very close to Trump and known for dealing with delicate matters – is in contact with Sater and hand delivering political and policy plans from him to the President.
- Trump Administration Issues Perplexing Statement on Whereabouts of Ukraine Conflict (Wall Street Journal)
What Jeff Sessions said about Russia, and when (Washington Post)
Investigators Probed Jeff Sessions’ Contacts With Russian Officials (Wall Street Journal)
Jeff Sessions Used Political Funds for Republican Convention Expenses (Wall Street Journal)
The Gravity is Strong (talkingpointsmemo)
Why Jeff Sessions is in deep trouble (Washington Post)
There are two issues here: Must Sessions recuse himself, and did he mislead the Senate?
As to the first, he cannot be both a subject of inquiry and the investigator. His own conversations are of material interest to the investigation. He has no choice but to recuse himself. “He clearly has to recuse,” Larry Tribe told me. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee (and is a former prosecutor), succinctly told me, “Attorney General Sessions should recuse himself from investigations related to Russian interference in our democracy. He said he would if there was a conflict of interest, and it is clear that there is.”
…He should be immediately recalled to the Senate to explain his actions. Talk of “perjury” is premature, since such a charge would require, among other things, an intent to deceive. But members of Congress plainly think that Sessions was trying to hide something. Nadler told me, “If it turns out he lied under oath, he of course will be subject to criminal prosecution and should immediately resign.” Swalwell likewise stated, “At best, he was careless with a subject of great importance; at worst, like General Michael Flynn, the Attorney General lied about prior contacts with Russia.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, on Monday, Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who has been cheerleading for Trump and denying a need to investigate, finally came out with a statement agreeing to examine the Russia scandal, including contacts between Russian officials and the Trump campaign.
Sessions was linchpin for Trump on Capitol Hill when he met Russian Ambassador (talkingpointsmemo)
David Frum on Jeff Sessions (twitter) [for the uninformed: David Frum is a neoconservative political commentator and also President George W. Bush’s former speechwriter]
Republicans, Protect the Nation (NY Times)
It’s Not About Mike Flynn (Lawfare)
Second, this case illustrates why surveillance law treats U.S.-person information with the same healthy fear we associate with nuclear waste and biohazard material—that is, with the vigilance reserved for things that are inherently dangerous if not closely guarded. As Eli Lake wrote this week in Bloomberg View, selective leaking of U.S.-person information “gives the permanent state” (or political appointees entrusted with the information) “the power to destroy reputations from the cloak of anonymity.” Even if not leaked to the press, such information can be misused: J. Edgar Hoover and his subordinates infamously used salacious information gleaned from FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr., to pressure King to retreat from public life.
Justice Robert Jackson lamented the all-too-common mistake, when discussing questions of government power, of “confusing the issue of a power’s validity with the cause it is invoked to promote, of confounding the permanent executive office with its temporary occupant.” Put simply, this is not about Michael Flynn, or even Donald Trump. If you welcomed these leaks because they hastened Flynn’s departure, would you be comfortable with selective leaks of U.S.-person intercepts becoming a routine weapon in political catfights? With an unelected “permanent state” wielding this power to undermine or intimidate politically accountable officials? With political appointees using it to sideline rivals or attack political opponents? (Note that it is too soon to say whether the leaker here was a career official or a political appointee).
Third, leaks of U.S.-person information are qualitatively more corrosive than leaks of other classified intelligence information. Both have the potential to harm national security. But leaks of U.S.-person information represent a basic breach of trust with the American public and an abuse of power by those granted access to this most sensitive information. An implicit bargain underlies our national-security apparatus: Americans entrust their government with these powers on the understanding that they will be used for legitimate purposes alone—and not turned inward against those they are meant to protect. Leaking foreign-intelligence information for domestic political purposes violates this bargain.
President Trump’s Untruths Are Piling Up (Atlantic)
McCain on Explosive Trump Dossier: ‘The Russians Do Use Women and Sex’ (talkingpointsmemo)
And, referring to the now-public (and still largely unsubstantiated) “dossier” on Trump, which alleged among other things that the Russian government could have compromising information on the President, McCain did not dismiss it out-of-hand.
“I didn’t know what to make of it, but everyone knows the Russians do use women and sex when people go to Russia,” he said. “It’s an old KGB honeypot.”
The head of US Special Operations Command said Tuesday that the US government is in “unbelievable turmoil,” a situation that he suggested could undermine US efforts to fight adversaries such as ISIS.
“Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war,” Army Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas told a symposium in Maryland.
While it wasn’t exactly clear what Thomas was referring to, his remarks come less than 24 hours after retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn was forced to step down as national security adviser, becoming by far the shortest tenured adviser in history.
Speaking in Germany at the Munich Security Conference, McCain didn’t mention the president’s name, according to the prepared text, while he lamented a shift in the United States and Europe away from the “universal values” that forged the Western alliance seven decades ago. McCain is the chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
Trump has repeatedly questioned the value of NATO, calling the military pact obsolete, and sought instead to stoke a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, Mr. Trump’s defense secretary, Jim Mattis, has accused Putin of wanting to break NATO.
David Frum: “Russian spokesman dropping hints to Trump that he owes them bigly – and they have the means to collect” (twitter/Bloomberg)