Russia has become the slow burn of President Trump’s administration. It is the issue that he and his team cannot get beyond. They cannot get beyond it because they are skittish about accepting what is already known. They cannot get beyond it because they have not been as forthcoming as they could be about what they did. They cannot get beyond it because they don’t know what they don’t know.
It’s important to remember that much isn’t yet known about the whole controversy, particularly the contacts between Trump campaign officials or advisers and the Russians. That there were contacts is not in dispute. Some appear routine, but the circumstances and the content of all those contacts is far from fully known. It’s possible they will add up to little or nothing. It’s also possible they will add up to something significant.
The controversy involving Attorney General Jeff Sessions provides the latest example of why the issue won’t go away soon. Sessions failed to tell the truth during his confirmation hearings about meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and allegedly no one in the White House knew of those meetings until The Washington Post broke the story last Wednesday.
During his confirmation hearing, Sessions was asked one question but answered another, and in so doing, did not tell the truth. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked Sessions, “If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”
This was a prospective question, with Franken asking the likely next attorney general how he would handle such allegations if intelligence officials produced such evidence. Sessions chose to answer it this way: “I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
Sessions was neither responsive to Franken’s question nor was he forthcoming about having met with Kislyak, first in passing at the Republican National Convention last July and then for a fuller conversation in September in his Senate office. It was a double error. When the real story came out, he announced that he would recuse himself from any investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election.
Something similar happened Thursday night. Sessions was asked by Tucker Carlson of Fox News, “Did the [Trump] campaign believe that the Russian government, the Putin government, favored Trump over [Hillary] Clinton?” Sessions replied, “I have never been told that.” Carlson then asked, “Do you think they did?” Sessions responded: “I don’t have any idea, Tucker. You’d have to ask them.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman said that Sessions was answering to the literal question, by saying that no one in the Trump campaign had ever told him anything like that and that he didn’t know whether anyone in the campaign thought the Russians were favoring Trump over Clinton. But when he said, “You’d have to ask them,” was the “them” in reference to Trump campaign officials, of which he was one, or the Russians?
Whichever, that answer was not adequate, given the supercharged nature of the situation and the controversy he had created by not having volunteered that he had met with Kislyak. Sessions easily could have said that, while no one in the campaign had told him that they thought the Russians were trying to help Trump, the intelligence community in fact had reached that conclusion and that he accepted those findings.
After all, the FBI, which Sessions now oversees, was one of three main signatories, along with the CIA and the National Security Agency, on that January intelligence document. Sessions also could have added that he did not think that Russian interference changed the outcome of the election and that Trump was duly elected president.
This is a pattern that has compounded the administration’s problem. Trump apparently sees the entire issue as an attempt to delegitimize his presidency. The president also has continued to equivocate on the question of whether he truly believes the intelligence community’s findings. As a result, he and others have tried to wish away that something significant happened.
With Sessions under fire and more reports about contacts between Trump officials and Russians, the president on Thursday labeled calls for further investigation of the Russia issue a “witch hunt.” On Saturday, in classic fashion, the president sought to create a new controversy. In a tweet, he accused the Obama administration of a plot to wiretap Trump Tower. He cited no evidence to back up the accusation.
There are several elements to the Russia investigation. The overarching issue is the attempt by a foreign government to disrupt an American election and thereby undermine confidence in the world’s leading democratic government. Just as important is answering the question of whether there was any collusion or cooperation between the Trump campaign and the Russians in attempting to undermine Clinton’s campaign.
Ambassadors routinely meet with elected U.S. officials. They are especially keen to learn as much as they can about someone who could become president and about the people around the candidate. Sessions’s meeting with Kislyak last September easily falls into that category. Similarly, the more recent meetings between Kislyak and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner could be seen in that way as well, or as an effort during the transition to develop necessary contacts.
But Flynn was never forthcoming about his conversations until revelations by The Post, and he was forced to resign after misleading Vice President Pence.
Just as Sessions was unwilling to volunteer his contacts with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearings, the administration has rarely volunteered who met with whom and what was discussed. That’s fed suspicions that have intensified calls for more investigation.
The president could begin by ordering an internal investigation, led by someone not now in the administration, of all those contacts. This could force every member of his team to come clean. The administration’s credibility on all this, however, has been weakened because, as one Republican put it, “They keep fanning those flames by denying it so vociferously.” That means any such public report would be viewed with some skepticism, but at a minimum it would provide an inventory that doesn’t exist and the appearance of cooperation.
One vulnerability for the president is his own role in stirring up questions. His posture during the campaign of embracing policies that were in Russia’s interests and his positive comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin put him at odds with Republican orthodoxy and raised questions about his motivations and possible business links with Russia. He has denied having any.
Another vulnerability comes from the nature of the Trump campaign, which for much of the election cycle was loosely structured. A variety of people claimed access or influence. The full extent to which Trump advisers, associates or even campaign hangers-on were in contact with Russians remains a mystery. All are legitimate questions aimed at trying to understand whether there was cooperation or collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign writ large.
As much as Trump would like to wish all this away, he can’t. The reality is that the investigations are at an early stage. Congress hasn’t even begun to call witnesses. The prospect of a special prosecutor looms. This, with health care and tax policy and other initiatives, is now part of Trump’s first-year agenda. The president needs a new strategy, one that treats the Russia issue as the serious problem that it is.