Rarely the crime; invariably the cover-up. So it has been since long before Richard Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate break in. And so it is today. President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, Mike Flynn, lasted just 24 days before resigning over a conversation he had denied. Now, Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, stands accused of lying to Senators about contacts he, too, had during the election campaign. It is not at all clear that he will be able to tough it out.
One conclusion that could be drawn is that Trump’s associates are prone to the same casual attitude to the truth as he appears to be. But this is not what the charges of concealment are really about: would either man have been called to account as he has if the contacts in question had not been with Russians? Would a call to a British diplomat, for instance, have been so suspect – or thought so problematical as to be glossed over by the American concerned? I doubt it.
Indeed, the UK ambassador in Washington came in for criticism back home for errors of almost the opposite kind: for failing to cultivate the Trump team. At least the Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, can’t be accused of that. All other things being equal, he would be in line for a medal recognising his stellar contribution to bilateral relations.
But all other things are not equal. The reason why first Flynn and now Sessions are in anyone’s sights is that their supposed misdeeds feed into a theme that unites a very broad Washington coalition. Democrats, anti-Trump Republicans, members of the outgoing Obama administration, and sections of the diplomatic, law enforcement and intelligence establishment all agree that Trump is vulnerable, even culpable, on Russia.
Their motives are mixed and overlap. There is the belief that Russia used nefarious means to help Donald Trump to power. Not to the point where the election was actually subverted by Russia. Oh no, the US electoral process, the actual voting and the count, retained its integrity. But Russian interference, including the hacking of the Democrats’ computers and ensuring anti-Clinton material reached the public domain, tipped the balance in favour of Trump. Or so the story goes.
And it suits a lot of people. Democrats find it easier to blame Russia than accept that they lost in a fair fight. There is still a large US constituency that sees Russia as Enemy Number One – and a smaller section whose jobs actually depend on the continued perception of Russia as a threat. They saw Trump’s campaign pledge to try to improve relations with Moscow as a betrayal of the national interest and their own. Then there are those who regard any avenue that might lead to Trump’s removal as worth pursuing, and at the moment the most promising avenue leads through Russia.
Thus far, six weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, the anti-Trump, anti-Russia alliance has notched up some successes. It saw off Mike Flynn, regarded as the chief advocate for Russia in Trump’s administration, largely by virtue of his attendance at a dinner with Vladimir Putin. It may have encouraged cabinet nominees to be harsher on Russia at their confirmation hearings than they would otherwise have been – which may be why Sessions went wrong.
Its most conspicuous success, though, was Trump’s decision to omit Russia completely from his address to the joint chambers of Congress earlier this week. After a campaign in which relations with Russia had been one of his few consistent pitches, this omission was glaring. Was it a policy change, or a tactical retreat?
There will be those – a relatively small part of specialist opinion in Washington, but probably more in the country at large – who will hope that it is only a tactical retreat. I have to agree. Not only because a US-Russia thaw could help solve some of the most intractable problems around the globe, but because the actual evidence against Russia is so thin and some of the methods used against the Trump camp smack of a witch hunt.
Let’s take a few of the claims. Did Russia try to manipulate the US election? The intelligence services’ report, in its declassified version at least, reveals only how ill-informed US intelligence appears to be. It also fails to make a crucial distinction. Every intelligence service worth its salt would have tried to probe behind the scenes of this unusual campaign. Trying to manipulate the result is something different, but Russia seemed as unprepared for a Trump victory as anyone.
Did individuals around Trump make or maintain links with Russia? Some, such as Sessions as a member of the Senate armed services committee, and Rex Tillerson as CEO of Exxon-Mobil had professional reasons for their Russia contacts, which predated any association with Trump. Given, however, that a shift in Russia policy was a headline of the Trump campaign, it would make sense for one or more of those close to him to sound out the possible reception in the Kremlin. If they talked to the Russian ambassador, why not? He was doing his job, and they theirs.
No, no, say Trump’s accusers, any such contacts would have broken the (1799) Logan Act, which makes it illegal for a private citizen to negotiate with a foreign power. It hardly needs to be said that the circumstances in 1799 were rather different, or that low-key contacts between trusted associates and foreign diplomats have not featured in every US presidential transition to date. This seems one of the more trivial charges.
Then there was the way Mike Flynn was trapped – by the leak of material from tapped phone calls and emails – to prove that he had spoken to the Russian ambassador. Is this a justified use of state power – not the bugging, but the leak for this particular purpose? Trump described it as criminal, and I tend to agree. It looked very like payback by the CIA and others for Trump’s scepticism about their hacking accusations against Russia.
With hindsight, Trump may wish he had not sacrificed Flynn so soon. His enemies smelled blood and hastened their pursuit. Amateur sleuths are now trying to track contacts of Trump allies with Russians around the world. And Chris Steele – the British ex-spy who compiled the dossier on Trump’s supposed Kremlin links – is being rehabilitated via social media in an effort to expose Trump as financially, or by reputation, in hock to the Kremlin.
What does all this say? Those hostile to Trump would like it to show that he is essentially a rogue president who must be de-fanged if he cannot be deposed. Perhaps, though, it shows something else: that there interests feeling so threatened by this unorthodox president that they are prepared to use all the resources of the state against him? It may be too early to decide. But you have to delve back to the early Cold War for a time when Americans could be branded traitors merely for their associations. Just now, that infamous question – are you now or have you ever been…? – seems uncomfortably close.