On Friday, the New York Times reported that “in the days after President Donald Trump fired James Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests.”
That investigation may well be continuing under the auspices of special counsel Robert Mueller III. We don't know what Mueller has learned. But we can look at the key, publicly available evidence that both supports and undercuts this explosive allegation.
Here is some of the evidence suggesting "Individual 1" could be a Russian "asset":
* Trump has a long financial history with Russia. As summarized by Jonathan Chait in an invaluable New York magazine article: “From 2003 to 2017, people from the former USSR made 86 all-cash purchases - a red flag of potential money laundering - of Trump properties, totaling $109 million. In 2010, the private-wealth division of Deutsche Bank also loaned him hundreds of millions of dollars during the same period it was laundering billions in Russian money. ‘Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,’ said Donald Jr. in 2008. ‘We don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia,’ boasted Eric Trump in 2014.” According to Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s guilty plea of lying to Congress, Trump was even pursuing his dream of building a Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign with the help of a Vladimir Putin aide. These are the kind of financial entanglements that intelligence services such as the FSB typically use to ensnare foreigners, and they could leave Trump vulnerable to blackmail.
* The Russians interfered in the 2016 U.S. election to help elect Trump president.
* Trump encouraged the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails on July 27, 2016 (“Russia, if you’re listening”),on the very day that Russian intelligence hackers tried to attack Clinton’s personal and campaign servers.
* There were, according to the Moscow Project, “101 contacts between Trump’s team and Russia linked operatives,” and “the Trump team tried to cover up every single one of them.” The most infamous of these contacts was the June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower between the Trump campaign high command and a Kremlin emissary promising dirt on Clinton. Donald Trump Jr.'s reaction to the offer of Russian assistance? “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
* The Trump campaign was full of individuals, such as Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and Michael Flynn, with suspiciously close links to Moscow.
* Manafort, who ran the Trump campaign for free and was heavily in debt to a Russian oligarch, now admits to offering his Russian business partner, who is suspected of links to Russian intelligence, polling data that could have been used to target the Russian social media campaign on behalf of Trump.
* Trump associate Roger Stone, who was in contact with Russian conduit WikiLeaks, reportedly knew in advance that the Russians had hacked Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails. (Stone has denied it.)
* Once in office, Trump fired Comey to stop the investigation of the “Russia thing” - and then bragged about having done so to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister while also sharing with them top-secret information. Later, Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions because he would not end the special counsel investigation that resulted after the firing of Comey. As Lawfare editor Benjamin Wittes argues, “the obstruction was the collusion” - Trump has been effectively protecting the Russians by trying to impede the investigation of their attack on the United States.
* Trump has refused to consistently acknowledge that Russia interfered in the U.S. election or mobilize a government-wide effort to stop future interference. He has accepted Putin’s protestations that the Russians did not meddle in the election over the “high confidence” assessment of the U.S. intelligence community that they did.
* Like no previous president, Trump attacks and undermines the Justice Department and the FBI (“a cancer in our country”) - two institutions that stand on the front lines of combatting Russian espionage and influence operations in the United States.
* Again, like no previous president, Trump attacks and undermines the European Union and NATO - he has suggested that France should leave the E.U. and that the United States should leave NATO, reportedly saying, “NATO is as bad as NAFTA.” The E.U. and NATO are the two major obstacles to Russian designs in Europe.
* Trump supports populist, pro-Russian leaders in Europe, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary and Marine Le Pen in France, just as the Russians do.
* Trump has praised Putin (“a strong leader”) while trashing just about everyone else from grade-B Hollywood celebrities to leaders of allied nations. Trump even praised Putin for expelling U.S. diplomats and, notwithstanding instruction from his aides (“DO NOT CONGRATULATE”), congratulated Putin on winning a rigged re-election.
* Trump was utterly supine in his meetings with Putin, principally in Hamburg and Helsinki. Even more suspicious, according to a Washington Post article on Saturday, Trump “has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with ... Putin, including on at least one occasion taking possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instructing the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials ... Several officials said they were never able to get a reliable readout of the president’s two-hour meeting in Helsinki.”
* Trump defends the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and repeats other pro-Russian talking points.
* Trump is pulling U.S. troops out of Syria, handing that country to Russia and its ally Iran.
* Trump has effectively done nothing in response to the Russian attack on Ukrainian ships in international waters, thereby encouraging greater Russian aggression.
* Trump is sowing chaos in the government, most recently with a record-breaking partial government shutdown and “acting” appointees in key posts such as the Defense Department and Justice Department, thus furthering a Russian objective of undermining its chief adversary.
Now that we've listed 18 reasons Trump could be a Russian asset, let's look at the exculpatory evidence...
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I can't think of anything that would exonerate Trump aside from the difficulty of grasping what once would have seemed unimaginable: that a president of the United States could actually have been compromised by a hostile foreign power.
In his own defense, Trump claims he has been tougher on Russia "than any other President," but literally in the next sentence he says, "getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing." When the United States actually has taken steps to get tough with Russia in the past two years, it has usually been the work of Congress (the 2017 Russia sanctions bill) or Trump aides (expelling 60 Russian diplomats). The Post reports that Trump was "furious" when his administration was portrayed as being tough on Russia, and NBC News reports that he instructed subordinates never to publicly discuss plans to sell weapons to Ukraine.
This is hardly a “beyond a reasonable doubt” case that Trump is a Russian agent - certainly not in the way that Robert Hanssen or Aldrich Ames were. But it is a strong, circumstantial case that Trump is, as former acting CIA director Michael Morell and former CIA director Michael Hayden warned during the 2016 campaign, “an unwitting agent of the Russian federation” (Morell) or a “useful fool” who is “manipulated by Moscow” (Hayden). If Trump isn’t actually a Russian agent, he is doing a pretty good imitation of one.
Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. He is the author of “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right."