It seems that every day, some new member of President Donald Trump’s administration or family (they’re increasingly indistinguishable) makes the papers through the discovery of an interaction with a Russian. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was ousted for failing to disclose his contacts with then Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak. Donald Trump Jr. was harangued by headlines about his meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, attempted to create a “backchannel” to Moscow through the Russian Foreign Ministry, thereby defeating the purpose of a backchannel.
But the excitement to connect the dots has led some self-appointed investigators to become overzealous, instigating numerous “forwards” on social media by a sincere-if-misguided following that assumes collusion has already been proven and impeachment is a foregone conclusion. Conversely, many on the right, including the President himself, have interpreted this as a “witch hunt” without proof, despite months of evidence of contact between the campaign and the Kremlin. Yet correlation does not equal causation, so it’s important to parse out what looks bad from what is bad.
First, we have to lay out what constitutes, “ties.” The Russian state has accurately been compared to the mafia in the way it is organized and run – with informal, closed-door agreements and family connections taking precedence over transparent legal proceedings. Corruption is rampant and generally accepted as the way to get ahead, while those who speak out against President Vladimir Putin’s regime are the ones likely to be audited by Russia’s version of the IRS, or worse. In other words, one does not randomly end up on Putin’s bad side; neither does one “just happen” to get on his good side.
The Ukraine connection.
The most obvious example is Paul Manafort. The former Trump campaign manager worked for years as an advisor to Ukrainian Prime Minister Victor Yanukovych. The blatant corruption of Yanukovych’s administration and his shameless preference for Moscow’s interests over those of his own country led to the Euromaidan revolt, which ended with him exiled to Russia in 2014. Manafort’s five years on Yanukovych’s payroll prove he has no qualms about carrying out the bidding of a Putin ally.
Another Putin associate who retained Manafort’s services was Oleg Deripaska, a high-profile billionaire in Russia’s oligarchy. The American worked with Deripaska-funded ventures for several years before being accused of stealing $19 million in 2014. The accusation was mysteriously dropped a year later with no apparent repayment of the debt. There are several other instances of suspicious loans from Deripaska to offshore companies linked to Manafort.
As campaign manager in July, Manafort sent word via an intermediary to the oligarch that he would be able to have “private briefings” with Trump. (This never materialized, supposedly because Deripaska never got the message). And that’s just what we know publically. Now that Manafort has been indicted, for things mostly unrelated to Russia, he could turn witness against other former campaign officials to avoid doing time, much in the way that campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos did. This would be quite the catch, should Manafort choose to cooperate. Regardless, his ties to the Kremlin are clear, though it remains to be seen the influence this had on the campaign.
“I love it especially later in the summer.”
Trump Jr. has also been indirectly linked to a figure with “ties to Russia.” Over the summer, a series of revelations about his meetings with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer, raised concerns about the Trump campaign’s tendency to seek the help of an adversarial foreign government to degrade a domestic political rival – concerns that originated from candidate Trump’s invitation to Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email server. Veselnitskaya promised information that would be damaging to the Clinton campaign, known in Russia as kompromat, or compromising materials.
Though she claims to have been acting on her own, she is close with Russia’s Prosecutor General, Yuri Chaika, who is – you guessed it – another important Putin ally. Chaika, whose past exploitation of kompromat helped usher in the Putin era, was reportedly the source of Veselnitskaya’s information on Clinton. The lawyer’s dubious claims of independence from the Kremlin simply don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
That being said, there are perfectly legitimate reasons for Americans to have connections to Russian citizens and businesses. Carter Page, a former foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign, worked in Russia for years. This involved cultivating contacts inside and outside government, particularly from his time in the energy industry. He gave numerous commencement addresses and paid speeches at events, mostly in Moscow. Unfortunately, this is about as far as Page’s legitimacy extends.
On top of these events being for government-controlled media outlets like Sputnik, which is currently being investigated by the FBI for failing to register as foreign propaganda, Page was himself being watched by the FBI in 2016. Though it’s unlikely his communications are still being monitored (the Bureau wouldn’t acknowledge an ongoing wiretap), he was at the time suspected of being a Russian agent.
Last week the House Intelligence Committee released the transcript of his testimony and emails he sent to the campaign, in which he admits to meeting Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich on multiple occasions, at least once privately. This contradicts previous statements by both Page and Attorney General Jeff Sessions that no one on the campaign interacted with Kremlin officials.
In very few cases does concern over “ties to a foreign country” stem from something other than xenophobia. However, the preponderance of connections between Trump campaign officials and representatives or agents of the Russian government is, at best, highly suspect. The intelligence community released findings in January with the highest degree of certainty that Russia purposefully attempted to interfere in our election with “a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” After a thorough investigation, we will know if in fact the Russians succeeded. Calls for impeachment now are naïve and – for those in the anti-Trump camp – counterproductive, only adding to the appearance of partisanship. For now, there are ties, but they are not the ties that bind.