“Trump is totally not Putin in a face mask lol nah” – James Comey
by Declan Murphy
In the days following James Comey’s testimony before Congress, there has been increasing evidence of communication between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. While the link has been far from conclusively proven, evidence has been piling up of meetings between Trump staffers and Russian officials which generate suspicion.
This is far from a new story. The main allegation that has been made is that Trump’s campaign conspired with Russians to facilitate the leak of Democratic National Committee (DNC), which were released (via WikiLeaks) last July. In December, outgoing President Barack Obama imposed sanctions against Russia for their suspected interference in the election.
Notably, two Trump officials have left prominent positions because of improper ties to Russia—Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn. One more—former Senator and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions—is still the subject of inquiry. Manafort resigned in August because financial records indicate he had received money to promote Russian interests while working in Ukraine.
More recently, in January, the Wall Street Journal uncovered records of contact between Michael Flynn and Russia. Flynn had been Trump’s pick for National Security Advisor. Shortly after being confirmed, it was revealed that Flynn had spoken with Russian officials about the sanctions imposed by Obama. More specifically, it is believed that Flynn was reassuring Russians that the sanctions would be lifted. Again, this is not conclusive, but it certainly could indicate a quid-pro-quo relationship. In other words, Flynn’s phone calls support the narrative that Russia hacked the DNC in order to install Trump as President and therefore benefit from a more sympathetic administration. Flynn resigned after these allegations, while not admitting any wrongdoing.
Another storm of controversy arose over meetings between Jeff Sessions and the Russian ambassador. Sessions had previously testified in his confirmation hearings that he “did not have communications with the Russians.” Yet in the weeks following his confirmation, it was revealed that Sessions had met with the Russian ambassador twice. Sessions maintained that he was doing so in his capacity as a Senator, not as a Trump surrogate, but the timing is suspect. One of Sessions meetings with the ambassador was during the Republican National Convention—in other words, right as the Republican Party formally rallied around Trump. Sessions eventually recused himself from the ongoing investigation of the rest of the Trump administration.
Others with ties to Trump have come under suspicion. Of particular note, Roger Stone, who had been an advisor to the Trump campaign, continually tweeted about the DNC leaks, in one instance seeming to know in advance that a leak was coming. Also, unsubstantiated claims of widespread contact between Russia and the Trump campaign formed the majority of the so-called “Trump dossier” that leaked earlier this year.
That brings us to this week. The Senate held hearings to investigate these ties to Russia, and at the center of this was FBI director James Comey. Comey made headlines for admitting that the FBI was in fact investigating the possible influence of the Trump administration on the Russian election interference. The admission came as a shock to many, who expected Comey to adopt a much more neutral stance on the Trump allegations. Instead, Comey’s statement proves that the probability of corruption is high enough to merit attention by the intelligence community.
That alone is concerning enough. Indeed, the sheer fact of Russian interference in the Presidential election is itself highly troubling. But it remains to be seen how far these ties go. Flynn, Sessions, Manafort—these are only the officials where there is evidence of colluding with Russia. Add in the fact that Trump openly called for Russian to continue hacking the Hillary campaign (in what he later would claim was only a semi-serious statement), and you have a troubling picture of Russian sympathy on the Trump side.
Again, there has not been conclusive evidence that the Trump campaign coordinated any of these activities. The problem is that the cloud of illegitimacy still hangs over the Trump presidency. Until the Trump campaign can prove that it did not work with Russians to sabotage Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump’s presidency will rest on uncertain grounds. An election unfairly won is no legitimate basis for power—it’s the sure sign of a failure of democracy.
On the other hand, should it prove that the Trump campaign did, in fact, conspire to delegitimize the Clinton campaign, the implications are even more troubling. Were it true, we must confront the reality that our democracy no longer functions independently. If Trump were indeed installed by Russia, not only would it threaten the integrity of our system, it would pose a substantial security risk to United States/Russia bilateral relations.
The facts are not quite settled. But this ongoing story is of vital importance to the continuation of our democracy—if it has not been threatened already.