President Trump’s Russia problem becomes more distracting and disturbing each day. Who do we find out today has lied? Who actually did speak to Russian officials? And what about Trump’s finances?
Within 24 hours of The Post’s story on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s undisclosed meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Sessions recused himself from the multifaceted Russia investigation and faced calls to step down from his job altogether. His problems are far from over.
He first will need to go back before the Senate Judiciary Committee and be grilled under oath about his testimony, both oral and written. Senators will want to know how Thursday morning he could disclaim that he had meetings and by the afternoon be describing Kislyak’s mood (“testy”) during a discussion about Ukraine. They will want to take him line by line through his testimony, pushing him to explain how he left the impression that he had no contacts with any Russians during the campaign.
“There really ought to be a higher standard for the attorney general of the United States than whether he violated the letter of the law in his testimony to Congress,” says Matthew Miller, who was the Justice Department’s director of public affairs for the Obama administration. “Even if you take Sessions at his word, which many people don’t, he still had ample opportunity to correct his initial statement in his follow-up answers. And not only did he not correct his statement, he misled the committee, and it’s hard to conclude that was anything other than intentional.”
Several parts of Sessions’s story simple do not add up. At his Thursday news conference, for example, he noted he had been at his job for three weeks and did meet with ethics officers: “In fact, on Monday of this week, we set a meeting with an eye to a final decision on this question. And on Monday, we set that meeting today. So this was a day that we planned to have a final discussion about handling this,” he said. “I asked for their candid and honest opinion about what I should do about investigations, certain investigations. And my staff recommended recusal. They said that since I had involvement with the campaign, I should not be involved in any campaign investigation. I have studied the rules and considered their comments and evaluation. I believe those recommendations are right and just.”
That opens up even more questions. When did Sessions first meet with ethics officials, and why did he announce a decision only after The Post’s story broke? It should not have taken this long for him to recuse himself; the conflict was obvious. “The rules are clear as day and it shouldn’t have taken more than five minutes to conclude he needed to recuse himself,” Miller observes. “What he needs to answer now is whether he was briefed on the substance of the underlying investigation, and, if so, did he discuss it at all with the White House?” (If he took any action on the investigation or conveyed any information to the White House, the investigation is tainted.)
Taking a step back from Sessions, the number of connections between the Trump team and the Russians that we now know about increases daily. Beyond Michael T. Flynn and Sessions, we now know, according to USA Today, that two other Trump advisers, J.D. Gordon and Carter Page, spoke to Kislyak at a diplomatic conference in connection with the Republican National Convention in July. (“The newly-revealed communications further contradict months of denials by Trump officials that his campaign had contact with officials representing the Russian government.”) The report also seems to cast doubt on the claim that Page wasn’t part of the Trump team. The connection also re-raises the question as to how the RNC platform was changed to delete support for supplying Ukraine with weapons, something for which the Trump team falsely denied responsibility.
That’s not all. The Wall Street Journal reports:
President Donald Trump’s eldest son was likely paid at least $50,000 for an appearance late last year before a French think tank whose founder and his wife are allies of the Russian government in efforts to end the war in Syria.
Donald Trump Jr. addressed a dinner on Oct. 11 at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, hosted by the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs. Its president, Fabien Baussart, and his Syrian-born wife, Randa Kassis, have cooperated with Russia in its drive to end the Syrian civil war, according to U.S., European and Arab officials.
In December, Mr. Baussart formally nominated Russian President Vladimir Putin for the Nobel Peace Prize.
This only underscores how little we know about the Trumps’ personal and financial ties to Russia. We are in the dark because Trump refuses to release his tax returns and/or end ownership of his businesses. His sons continue to run his businesses, including international opportunities. Trump keeps insisting that he has no dealings or financial activity “in” Russia, but we know he sought out deals. Moreover, back in 2008, Donald Trump. Jr. was quoted as saying, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” As late as 2015 Trump lawyer Michael D. Cohen was still looking for deals for his client. The potential for corruption, influence-peddling and financial impropriety — even if nothing untoward has already occurred — is real.
Congress should demand three things: full disclosure of Trump’s tax returns and all financial dealings with Russian players (in or outside Russia); a complete list of all contacts and financial arrangements of Trump family members and campaign associates with Russian officials (before and after the inauguration); and appointment of a special prosecutor with full subpoena powers. Without these basic steps, the Trump presidency will operate under a cloud of suspicion, and Republicans will be seen as enabling corruption and foreign interference in our government. How do we know whether Trump or his advisers are compromised without these three essential items? We don’t. The longer Trump and the Republicans hide the ball, the more Americans will conclude that Russia has “something” on the president and/or someone on his team.