There has always been a relatively innocent and eminently plausible interpretation for why Donald Trump’s presidential campaign had so many suspicious ties to Russia. Let’s review:
First, the candidate himself took an indulgent view of Vladimir Putin. This was naïve, but it was no crime: Barack Obama also sought rapprochement with Moscow in 2008, despite Russia’s invasion of Georgia that year and the Kremlin’s notorious human-rights abuses.
Second, Trump had extensive business ties to Russians, both as customers and partners. This, too, isn’t criminal, even if some of those customers and partners were.
Third, Trump ran a chaos campaign. It lacked the kind of vetting procedures that might have excluded political grifters like Paul Manafort or Carter Page. Trump hired Manafort in part because he owned an apartment in Trump Tower and promised to work for free. Page came aboard on the casual recommendation of Ed Cox, chairman of the New York Republican Party.
Fourth, Trump talks (or tweets) a lot of trash. When, at a rally in October 2016, he said “I love WikiLeaks!” because of its publication of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s hacked emails, did the candidate even understand that the U.S. government saw WikiLeaks as a vehicle for Russian political interference? Perhaps not.
Finally, Trump was ill-served by his inept son, Don Jr., whose bungled efforts to solicit damaging information on Hillary Clinton from a Russian lawyer would have constituted collusion, if anything had come of it. But Trump himself claims to have been unaware of the infamous Trump Tower meeting at the time.
All of this might make for a compelling case that there’s not much to L’Affaire Russe, as the president never tires of averring. Or it might not. That’s what we have Robert Mueller for: To lay the question to rest, if only the president and his congressional muppets will let him.
But that’s not what we’re debating today. Instead, the president’s apologists insist the real story is the genesis of the investigation, supposedly a Deep State smear job by the F.B.I. against an anti-establishment candidate they feared and loathed. Or, as Trump tweeted Wednesday morning, “SPYGATE could be one of the biggest political scandals in history!”
So let’s review again:
Beginning in 2014, the Obama administration began receiving urgent warnings that Russia planned to interfere in U.S. politics. “You have no idea how extensive these networks are in Europe … and in the U.S.,” a Russian source told a U.S. official that year, according to an investigation by Politico’s Ali Watkins. “Russia has penetrated media organizations, lobbying firms, political parties, governments and militaries in all of these places.”
As early as 2013, the F.B.I. had concerns about Paul Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, regarding their “offshore consulting activities,” and interviewed the pair repeatedly. At the time, Manafort was working for Ukrainian President (and Putin puppet) Viktor Yanukovych, from whom he allegedly received more than $12 million in secret payments.
The bureau also had long been interested in Carter Page, an obscure energy consultant whom it had first interviewed in 2013 in connection to his contacts with Victor Podobnyy, a Russian spy based in New York. Page’s chief distinction was his willingness to recite Kremlin talking points on foreign policy.
Manafort joined the Trump campaign in March 2016. Page was named to Trump’s foreign policy team that same month. So was George Papadopoulos, another nonentity with pro-Russian views. Within two months, Papadopoulos was getting word of Russia’s hacking ops via a Kremlin-connected source, which he passed along to former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer that May. The Australians later related this to the F.B.I.
Retired Gen. Mike Flynn, the future national security adviser, had his own financial ties to Russian companies and organizations that would stand to benefit from the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Russia. Flynn’s sudden advocacy for lifting sanctions was especially odd given that he was previously on record as an anti-Russia hawk.
All of this is independent of Christopher Steele’s notorious Russia dossier. Some pundits on the right are now breathlessly trying to claim that the bureau was spying on Page, and thus the campaign, via an informant before the formal investigation began, as if this is an outrage of the first order.
But the significant question is whether any competent counterintelligence officer would not have seen, in this constellation of facts, serious reason to believe that the Trump campaign was profoundly vulnerable to Russian manipulation, even (or especially) if the candidate himself didn’t know about it. Just imagine if Manafort or Flynn hadn’t had their Russia ties exposed and now occupied positions of trust in the White House. The Kremlin would surely know how to leverage their secrets.
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Trump is now taking his usual unbridled umbrage at comments by former National Intelligence Director James Clapper, which the president then misquoted, that he should be glad the F.B.I. was looking into potential Russian infiltration of his campaign. Of course he should be glad: The Bureau has now twice rescued him, first by reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails on the eve of the election, and then by clearing out the Russian stooges in his employ.
That Trump won’t acknowledge this means he’s either profoundly foolish or, in ways we don’t yet understand, dangerously complicit. I still lean toward the former interpretation — just.