The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Are there too many Russia connections to be coincidences?

During an interview with The Washington Post's editorial board on March 21, 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump named Carter Page as one of his forei (Video: The Washington Post)

The Post reported:

The FBI obtained a secret court order last summer to monitor the communications of an adviser to presidential candidate Donald Trump, part of an investigation into possible links between Russia and the campaign, law enforcement and other U.S. officials said.
The FBI and the Justice Department obtained the warrant targeting Carter Page’s communications after convincing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge that there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case Russia, according to the officials.

Meanwhile, former campaign manager Paul Manafort, whose name appeared in a payments ledger in Ukraine, has returned to the headlines: “Financial records newly obtained by the Associated Press confirm that at least $1.2 million in payments listed in the ledger next to Manafort’s name were actually received by his U.S. consulting firm. They include payments in 2007 and 2009, providing the first evidence that Manafort’s firm received at least some money listed in the so-called Black Ledger.” But there is more: Manafort has been reported to have carried out “a covert Washington lobbying operation until 2014 on behalf of Ukraine’s pro-Russian Party of Regions.” Now he is going to retroactively register his work, thereby “acknowledging that he failed to properly disclose his work to the Justice Department as required by federal law.” He, of course, has been under investigation by the FBI for contacts with Russian officials during the campaign.

And let’s not forget former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, who received a $50,000 payment from the Kremlin propaganda TV outlet RT and was purportedly caught up in surveillance of the Russian ambassador.

No other presidential campaign of which we are aware had any association with one, let alone three, people who allegedly have ties to foreign adversary of the United States. All of these people coincidentally wound up on one campaign, for a candidate who refused to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin and who publicly invited Russian hacking into his opponent’s email, in an election in which the Russians were trying to tip the race against Hillary Clinton? It’s possible this is mere happenstance but very, very unlikely.

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Carter Page, Manafort and Flynn have every incentive in the world to cooperate now with the FBI. Investigators will want to know, among other things, how they all came to work for Trump, what Trump knew of their Russian connections, what contacts they and others might have had with Russian officials and how the Republican National Committee platform on Ukraine got changed. It’s hard to imagine a whole lot more won’t come out as cooperative witnesses add to whatever intelligence is already in the FBI’s hands.

Beyond all these threads and the potential for confirming secret collaboration between Trump’s team and the Russians, one uncomfortable truth remains: Overt, blatant and ongoing synchronization between Trump and Russian propagandists seems to have occurred throughout the general election. Ben Wittes, Jordan Brunner and Quinta Jurecic of the Lawfare blog write:

It included open encouragement of the Russians to hack Democratic targets; denial that they had done so; encouragement of Wikileaks, which was publicly known to be effectively a publishing arm of the Russian operation, in publishing the fruits of the hacks; and publicly trumpeting the contents of stolen emails. . . . After the Russian government had already been publicly associated with the hack, Trump urged it to conduct further hacking. . . .
Trump and his associates were collaborating with the operation. That they were doing so publicly and lawfully does not make their activity any less collaboration — just, perhaps, more honest and open. And it doesn’t make it less bad.

As the authors argue, we need to know if “any laws were violated and whether anyone in the Trump orbit may be compromised by Russian intelligence.” The intelligence investigation — which FBI Director James B. Comey says includes examination of potential criminal activity — goes on. However, for those who think accepting help from and working in tandem with a foreign power to undermine U.S. democracy renders the results inherently illegitimate, no smoking gun is needed. All the information necessary to determine the moral legitimacy of this president already is known. That Trump engaged so many people with Russian sympathies doesn’t mean those people were spies or engaged in illegal activity; it simply confirms he was an easy mark, someone willing to accept help from anyone, no matter how shady or tainted.