Blog No. 124. Trump and Russia (and questions not asked)

Much of Donald Trump’s press conference and the attendant media commentary were taken up with the controversy over a dossier of memoranda that purported to detail Trump’s activities in Russia. Some of material, including a particularly unsavory episode in a Moscow hotel room, was said to be “compromising” and a basis for exerting pressure over Trump. Other material purported to describe extensive communication between Russian operatives and the Trump campaign.

The memoranda had been prepared by a British security firm hired by a Washington consulting firm on behalf of political opponents of Trump. In due course, however, the documents had been turned over to United States intelligence agencies. The intelligence agencies have thus far been unable to substantiate the allegations in the memoranda, but took them seriously enough to summarize them in a two page synopsis appended to the classified report of the intelligence community on Russian interference with the election that was provided to the President and to the President-elect.

The existence of the synopsis was reported by CNN without publishing the underlying memoranda. But disclosure of the synopsis was enough to give the latter documents some claim to legitimacy and, as a result, the website BuzzFeed was emboldened to publish the memoranda. (Neither CNN nor BuzzFeed published, or appeared to have a copy of, the synopsis.) At his press conference, Trump lashed out against both BuzzFeed and CNN, accusing them of purveying “Fake News” and loudly refused to take any question from a CNN reporter at the conference. The charge of fake news, however, appears misguided. When CNN reported the existence of the synopsis and its delivery to Trump, it was not fake news but real news. Even publication of the memoranda by BuzzFeed may have been poor editorial judgment, but the memoranda, factual or false, were documents that were being given serious attention by the intelligence agencies.

On Twitter and at his press conference, Trump has claimed that the memoranda had been leaked by the intelligence agencies and likened their conduct to “Nazi Germany.” There is, however, no evidence that intelligence officials leaked the dossier of memoranda. The dossier appears to have come from the Washington consulting firm that had commissioned them and it had been in the hands of the media for some time. On the other hand, Trump does have a legitimate complaint against the “multiple US officials with direct knowledge of the briefings” whose leaks concerning the synopsis were the basis of the CNN story.

On Wednesday night, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued an unusual statement:

This evening, I had the opportunity to speak with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss recent media reports about our briefing last Friday. I expressed my profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press, and we both agreed that they are extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security.

We also discussed the private security company document, which was widely circulated in recent months among the media, members of Congress and Congressional staff even before the IC became aware of it. I emphasized that this document is not a U.S. Intelligence Community product and that I do not believe the leaks came from within the IC. The IC has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions. However, part of our obligation is to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.

President-elect Trump again affirmed his appreciation for all the men and women serving in the Intelligence Community, and I assured him that the IC stands ready to serve his Administration and the American people.

Clapper’s statement conspicuously made no mention of the leaked disclosure of the synopsis. While Trump’s comparison with Nazi Germany was irresponsible hyperbole (a genre to which he is no stranger), disclosure of the synopsis was clearly improper. It should be the subject of investigation and those responsible should be disciplined or possibly even prosecuted.

At the same time, the attempt to determine whether any of the major allegations in the memoranda have a basis in fact should not be abandoned. Apart from the element of supposedly compromising material, the alleged coordination between Russian officials and representatives of the Trump campaign would, if true, be a matter of grave concern. Although one particular claim in that vein, a meeting in Prague involving Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, appears to have been effectively refuted by Mr. Cohen, one or more errors do not necessarily discredit the entire document.

Toward the end of the press conference, a reporter asked:

REPORTER: Mr. President-elect, can you stand here today, once and for all and say that no one connected to you or your campaign had any contact with Russia leading up to or during the presidential campaign. And if you do indeed believe that Russia was behind the hacking, what is your message to Vladimir Putin right now?

Unfortunately, by asking two questions, the reporter gave Trump an opportunity to ignore the first and answer only the second:

TRUMP: He shouldn’t be doing it. He won’t be doing it. Russia will have much greater respect for our country when I’m leading than when other people have led it. You will see that. Russia will respect our country more. He shouldn’t have done it. I don’t believe that he will be doing it more now.…

Presumably the investigation of alleged contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia will continue, but how robust or credible that investigation will be is open to serious question. In an op-ed column in the New York Times, Max Boot addressed the problem:

There is only one way to get to the bottom of this tawdry affair: Appoint a bipartisan, 9/11-style commission to investigate all of the allegations and issue a public report. The former C.I.A. directors Leon E. Panetta and Michael V. Hayden, among other possible choices, would provide instant credibility if they were appointed to lead such a panel.

If Mr. Trump is genuinely innocent of any untoward connections with the Kremlin, wouldn’t he want a full investigation to clear his name? That he so adamantly opposes any such inquiry speaks volumes.

As Boot surely knows, however, Trump has no interest in creating such a commission and, with both houses of Congress under Republican control, there would be no political will to do so. Perhaps that might change if there are stunning new revelations, but not otherwise.

Despite the controversy, Trump made it plain that his affection for Vladimir Putin is undiminished. While he expressed a pro forma disapproval of hacking, he did his best to downplay it and even suggested that it had the benefit of disclosing negative information about Hillary Clinton:

We talk about the hacking and hacking’s bad and it shouldn’t be done. But look at the things that were hacked, look at what was learned from that hacking.

That Hillary Clinton got the questions to the debate and didn’t report it? That’s a horrible thing. That’s a horrible thing. [Note: “The debate” was during the Democratic primaries and there is no evidence that Clinton was personally aware the Donna Brazile had provided three or four questions in advance.]

Another reporter inquired:

On that intelligence report, the second part of their conclusion was that Vladimir Putin ordered it because he aspired to help you in the election. Do you accept that part of the finding? And will you undo what President Obama did to punish the Russians for this or will you keep it in place?

Trump declined to answer either question directly, but gave his answer by implication:

Well, if — if Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia. Russia can help us fight ISIS, which, by the way, is, number one, tricky. I mean if you look, this administration created ISIS by leaving at the wrong time. The void was created, ISIS was formed.

If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That’s called an asset, not a liability.

It would be fair to interpret Trump as saying that  that sanctions against Russia will not last long because if the Russians did interfere in the election, it was because Putin “likes Donald Trump”–and how can that be a bad thing?

Trump also attempted to minimize his own financial involvement with Russia. A reporter inquired whether Russia had any financial leverage over Trump and, if not, whether he would release his tax returns to prove it. Trump replied:

So I tweeted out that I have no dealings with Russia. I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we’ve stayed away. And I have no loans with Russia.

As to his tax returns, Trump repeated his familiar mantra that he could not release them because they are being audited.

On the whole, I sympathize with members of the media who attempt to question Trump, an exercise that must feel something like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. Nevertheless, there are two points on which I admit to impatience and frustration with them:

  1. Why did no one among the gaggle of reporters present ask Trump to explain the statement by his son Donald Jr. at a real estate conference in 2008: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
  2. There is clearly no legal impediment to disclosing tax returns that are under audit, but no one, so far as I know, has ever asked Trump to explain just why he believes the existence of an on-going audit is a reason for not disclosing them. If the returns were disclosed, it is possible that ensuing comments and questions, might raise issues that the auditors hadn’t thought of, but isn’t that a risk he should be prepared to accept?

On a positive note, Trump’s nominees for Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and Director of the CIA each appear to have confidence in the assessment of the Intelligence Community with respect to Russian interference in the election. More broadly, they each appear to have a far more realistic picture of Russia and Vladimir Putin, and the threat they pose to the United States, than does their boss. Whether they will be able to educate Trump sufficiently, remains to be seen.

14 thoughts on “Blog No. 124. Trump and Russia (and questions not asked)

  • Like almost all elected first time Presidents… a honeymoon or a period of grace of 100 days in office has been the norm. Is this too much to ask of from the “Doom and Gloomers”?
    It sounds to me that the ” Anybody but Trumpers” are wishing for the failure of Mr. Trump.

    Regarding Ms Streep. She has a part time residence in Manhattan that has a value in excess of Twenty Million dollars. That means she is well qualified to be the voice of the disenfranchised and down trodden. Perhaps as a first step, she could allow this space to be used as a haven for the homeless, when she is not in residence.
    A bit smarmy on my part, I confess…but then I am a “Deplorable”.

  • Sorry, Messrs. Curry and Ebert, if Mr. Trump’s bizarre behavior during this transition is any indication of how he will conduct the Presidency, we may well indeed be facing “the most serious problems faced since World War II.” But we’re not there yet. Seems to me Mr. Obama was greeted with the “most serious problems faced since World War II” and handled them reasonably well.

    The notion of “accept(ing) reality and mov(ing) on” was plausible during the early days following the election, especially in view of his sober countenance after his meeting with Obama. But since then, really. His hysterical denunciations of the intel community and the press do not bode well. I, for one, would like to see his tax returns, if only to see his sources of income (and how much of it ultimately traceable to Russian sources) — and the same in the future years of his presidency, as they may encounter the now trending “emoluments” prohibition in the Constitution.

    “There will not be an impeachment”? Don’t bet on it.

  • Trump’s possible collusion with the Kremlin (and the FBI through Rudy Guiliani) to win the presidential election by discrediting his opponent is indeed a fit subject for serious inquiry. His dalliances in Russian hotel rooms would not surprise anyone and are therefore far less important. What concerns me, however, is the man himself and his impending presidency.

    It is very scary to imagine a government under the control of Donald J. Trump, a man who is totally unfit to be president of our country for even one day. Nothing he says can be taken seriously because he is a fundementally dishonest and vulgar person. His actions as president will undoubtedly embarrass our country and possibly do serious harm both here and abroad. One can but hope that most Americans will take his proper measure after his first month or two in office, and that his tenure will accordingly be very brief.

    Like every demagogue in history, Trump will attempt to punish anyone who disagrees with him or his policy prescriptions, including responsible journalists and public figures, e.g. Meryl Streep. Fortunately, he will never be able to crush criticism and dissent in a free country like ours, and his efforts to do so will contribute to his downfall. That can’t happen too soon.

  • Have to side with both Ebert and Curry on this one. Doubtless, many will keep the pedal to the metal. Trump won! He hasn’t even been sworn in yet, but the move to impeach is evident. Sour grapes? Lets dispel any doubt — it is sour grapes. From another who shared similar insights, ‘rather than reflecting on somber and sordid matters, let us be more expedient simply to move on’. Hey! Trump has found some scary smart guys. Lets not be so scared even before Jan. 20th.

    • Dear Messrs Peffers, Curry and Ebert,
      Sour grapes? Do you genuinely think that’s the only reason Doug or anyone else would express serious concerns about Trump? Really? Methinks you might be sipping something much stronger than grapes, sour or otherwise, but whatever it is, please let me know…because I want to get me some!

        • I think your reference to “not taking long to look at a horseshoe” may constitute a mis-use of that folksy metaphor when applied to people like Doug (and me)….i.e., people who do not question the “legitimacy” of Trump’s election, but nevertheless continue to be concerned about Trump’s character, temperament, qualifications, motivations, etc. and etc.
          But, if I’m wrong, please enlighten me!

  • Paul Ebert,
    I share your thoughts and stand four square behind your wish to move on.
    The election is over. There will not be an impeachment.
    Donald Trump will be the next President for four years, hopefully.
    Move forward accept reality. The time for citizenship is now. Rather than attack repeating tired , old, rumors, innuendoes and smarmy carpings, let us all ask of ourselves to pull together as proud citizens.
    I swear by all that I hold dear, if Mrs Clinton had been the choice of the electoral college, I would pray for and support her and hope for her to be the best President ever to serve.
    Sour grapes will never be appetizing
    Accept reality and move on.
    B. Curry

    • How can anyone possibly be proud of the odious man who is about to become
      POTUS? He high-jacked the presidency, with help from the Kremlin and the FBI, and soon will be ripping off the country — just as he has many people throughout his life.

      All true patriots must be extremely vigilant lest the despicable Donald J. Trump attempt to rob and discredit our country.

  • Doug,
    Please explain your persistence on the need for Trump to release his tax returns. The early Trump returns leaked by one of your favorite press sources showed the basic theme. A Real Estate developer has many legal tax benefits that any smart businessman would avail himself of, so Trump is likely not a large Federal direct tax payer. The hostile media and Hillary’s campaign operatives extracted all they could get out of that fact by frequently stating in rallies he is not paying his fair share and not as much as the deplorables. His various charitable contributions to the extent he has any, would likely not be shown as individual contributions, but buried in his foundation or other tax entities. None of that is important. When will his critics put their energy into helping this country dig itself out of the most serious problems we have faced since WWII, and stop trying to bring down a man who admittedly has many flaws and shortcomings, but has the balls to shake up the Washington establishment that has accomplished almost nothing positive in decades, and let our place in the world diminish to the point that all the rogue regimes are able to advance their evil causes with no opposition.

Comments are closed.