Three Questions Blustering Trump Must Answer on Russia (But Cannot)
When Michael Flynn the president's National Security Adviser resigned, Donald Trump’s first response was bluster. He tweeted that “fake news” media was going crazy with conspiracy theories; he tweeted that the story was actually just one made up by sore losers who had not gotten over Hillary Clinton’s unexpected November defeat; he tweeted that the real story was, in fact, the illegal leaks coming out of Washington.
A senior aide resigns over links with Russia but apparently that is not a story.
At first, Flynn denied discussing sanctions with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador to the US, during the transition then he admitted he could not be certain the issue did not come up. The official reason given for Flynn’s resignation was that “eroding trust” made his position untenable. The actual reason was that he had committed a potentially treasonable act and that he had then apparently given “incomplete information” to Vice President Pence about it.
Evasion and chaos were the hallmarks of Trump’s presidential campaign. It is no surprise that they have become the hallmark of his nascent presidency. Especially where his relationship with Vladimir Putin is concerned.
He has misled the American people. His team have misled the American people. To claim the issue is one of trust not legality stretches even the definition of “alternative facts”.
What is happening at the moment is unprecedented. Trump’s administration is less one month old and already it is engulfed in a scandal. It is also a scandal that will not go away.
They are serious allegations. Trump cannot bluster forever
Watergate was a third-rate burglary whose bungled cover-up brought down a president. There is nothing third-rate about Trump’s Putin connections. What Flynn did was possibly illegal. His contact with ambassador Kislyak opened him to potential blackmail. His crime is a scandal about a campaign, then transition that put their own interests ahead of the nation’s.
The day after Flynn’s resignation the New York Times reported intelligence claims that several Trump campaign aides had "repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election." This affair does not stop with Flynn. Nor does his resignation draw a line under the matter.
There is a need for a full and independent investigation. The Trump administration must also fulfil its duty to its voters and address the matter. It is not enough for Trump to answer when he himself knew that Flynn had misled officials about his communications with Russian officials. It is also not good enough that he has avoided answering why he was not fired earlier.
Flynn’s phone call with the Russian ambassador came after Obama’s announcement of Russian sanctions. There were also numerous meetings that took place when it was alleged that Russian agents were hacking Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Indeed Trump himself called for them to do just that. Therefore - at the very least - whoever among Trump’s staff met with these officials had every reason to suspect - at a minimum - that they were meeting with a government that was interfering with a democratic election. Not only that but they were meeting regularly.
There are three questions that the president and his staff must address:
Who in the campaign, Trump’s businesses or transition met with Russian officials?
Why were Trump’s staff meeting Russian officials?
What was discussed at these meetings?
His firm supporters are less concerned with the allegations levelled against him: the media did not support him during the campaign, it is not surprising they are not supporting him after the campaign. Yet there were many voters who reluctantly supported him as marginally better than the alternative. It is these voters whom he will lose unless he begins to answer the allegations made.
The thing is, they cannot answer them.
THE RULES OF POLITICS ARE NEVER BROKEN FOR LONG
When it was reported that the CIA had confirmed long-alleged Russian cyber attacks during the campaign, Trump’s first response was to attack the intelligence services. He only belatedly accepted the evidence though was unable to follow through logically: Russian hacking was intended to disrupt the election in his favour.
At his press conference with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, Trump was asked about the reported rise in antisemitic attacks following his election. His incoherent reply referenced his electoral college win but made no mention of antisemitism.
He is inordinately proud of his election victory. And he knows that any admission of collusion, however tenuous, between his team and the Russian government will taint that win. The moment he gives any answer, he becomes an illegitimate president.
So the probability seems to lie that he cannot answer them truthfully without jeopardising his presidency which is why he will not answer them at all. All he has is bluster, distraction and evasion. He calls it “fake news” not only because that pleases his small, far-right constituency but because if he even admits it is legitimate, he is lost.
There are FBI and congressional inquiries already underway. Democrats have called for a full inquiry. A few honourable Republicans have done the same. Yet the same party which subjected Hillary Clinton again and again seems strangely reluctant to investigate Flynn and Trump. The clamour will become greater the further Trump falls. There will come a point when this unpopular leader can no longer demand obedience to him over the public. The stench of Trump’s swamp will become too great.
Trump’s election saw a wave of articles about how he had broken the rules of politics. Yet he now appears like a character from Greek tragedy: fate is catching up with him.
The rules of politics are never broken for long.
The president is in a bind. And either way he loses.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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