Executive Branch Civil War Casts Doubt on Recent Russia Leaks
Trump hasn't even finished the first full month of his presidency, and his administration is already reeling under a gravely serious crisis. The issue is potential collusion with Russia during and after the campaign. This crisis has already felled Trump's national security adviser, Michael Flynn, when it was reported that he lied to Vice President Pence about discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Trump took office. The scandal became a full-blown media feeding frenzy when The New York Times reported leaks from intelligence officials alleging that the Trump campaign had repeated contact with Russian sources even before the election.
There are a couple caveats to consider in the New York Time's "bombshell." According to Matt Apuzzo, one of the reporters on this piece, the officials interviewed noted that no "evidence of collusion" has been found yet. The concern for intelligence officials is the volume of contact between the Trump campaign and senior Russian intelligence officials. It's very tempting to conclude that untoward acts were committed by the campaign; but that simply can't be said at this time.
Although these allegations of Trump's campaign colluding with Russia lack physical evidence, they are consistent with a narrative that Trump himself created. In July of last year, his campaign lobbied successfully to remove an anti-Russia plank from the 2016 Republican platform. Later, he directly asked Russia to hack and release Hillary Clinton's emails during a press conference. During the presidential debates, he repeatedly scorned the allegation that Russia was behind hacks of Clinton's emails, despite being briefed that it was.
After winning the election, Trump spoke favorably of relaxing sanctions on Russia. He even appointed Michael Flynn as national security adviser. Flynn, who is notably sympathetic to Russia, once attended a dinner celebrating Russia Today at which he sat right next to Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. Trump also tapped Rex Tillerson for secretary of state. Tillerson, of course, was CEO of ExxonMobil, a company with billions in oil leases in Russia locked up behind sanctions.
Throughout all this, Trump has lavished glowing personal praise on Putin (a trend which actually started years before the campaign). Among many, many examples, he boasted about befriending Putin backstage at a 60 Minutes interview and later said that Putin was "a leader far more than [President Obama] has been." Trump has also repeatedly downplayed Putin's authoritarian tendencies (like how his political opponents often end up poisoned or murdered).
Now, many conservative media sources have long had a huge crush on Putin precisely because he is an authoritarian strongman. It could be that Trump was just following the general line of right-wing propaganda and opportunistically lauding anyone that had reportedly helped him politically. ("I love WikiLeaks!" he said in October).
The recent allegations of Trump's campaign possibly working hand-in-glove with the Russians is consistent with the narrative Trump himself has built. As a result, many are treating the allegations very seriously, and Trump has no one to blame for the public's confidence in these allegations but himself.
However, it is important to remain skeptical. It would be tremendously bad if the president was discovered to be working on behalf of any foreign power, much less a merciless quasi-dictator like Putin—it would certainly be the most significant political scandal in American history. But on the other hand, the intelligence community has its own agenda, which is now almost certainly motivated by their antagonistic relationship with Trump. Therefore we should remain skeptical of the motivations and accuracy of these allegations.
An investigation is needed to root out what exactly happened. Flynn must be called to testify before Congress under oath, and the intelligence oversight committees must begin an immediate examination of the intelligence data on Trump-Russia connections.
Only the truth of the matter can cut through the current funk of paranoia and partisanship. We can't just immediately take the words of anonymous intelligence officials as fact.
Matthew Sporn is a Senior Editor at Sojourn Review. You can follow him on Twitter here.