the national interest

Trump Didn’t Have Secret Contact With Russia — It Was Done in Plain Sight

Photo: Guido Bergmann/Bundesregierung via Getty Images

In the middle of January, the Russia investigation as we understand it ceased to be merely an inquiry into “collusion.” It was revealed as something far more portentous: an inquiry into whether President Trump, as the New York Times put it in one of the more breathtaking clauses it has ever published, “had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests.”

The discovery that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had opened a counterintelligence investigation into the president of the United States did contain a caveat: “No evidence has emerged publicly that Mr. Trump was secretly in contact with or took direction from Russian government officials.” Yet, the very next day, the Washington Post reported that Trump had gone to extraordinary lengths to keep his discussions with Vladimir Putin secret. Trump may not have been “secretly in contact” with the Russian leader — the whole world knew they were meeting — but nobody outside the Russian government and Trump himself knows what they discussed. Trump’s efforts to conceal discussions with the Russian president went to almost comically suspicious lengths. He excluded any foreign-policy advisers, failed to debrief anybody in the U.S. government, and even confiscated his translator’s notes. American intelligence and foreign-policy officials — who, in theory, are supposed to implement the president’s agenda — have been reduced to spying on Russian communications about the meetings to attempt to suss out what their own president said.

Trump’s private meetings with Putin are an apt metaphor for the entire bizarre relationship. The secret contacts are lying around in plain sight.

As for whether Trump “took direction from Russian government officials,” we don’t know what directions, if any, Putin might be giving Trump in their secret meetings. But here, too, the indirect evidence is sitting right before us: Trump has said he takes Putin at his word that, contrary to the findings of U.S. intelligence, Russia did not hack Democratic emails. He has repeatedly asked his advisers about pulling out of NATO, questioned whether he would defend a NATO ally that faced an attack, and picked fights with leaders of Canada, Britain, France, and Germany. The splitting of the Western alliance would fulfill a strategic goal generations of Russians could only dream of.

These comments have often been explained away as idiosyncratic crankery. Trump resents questions about the legitimacy of his election so he absolves Russia of hacking; he instinctively trusts authoritarians over democratically elected leaders and views international relationships as business deals. It just so happens, according to this line of thinking, that Trump’s peculiar stubbornness on these issues lines up with Russian foreign-policy goals.

But Trump’s credulous acceptance of Russian views on other issues defies the search for an innocent explanation. Trump touted offers by Putin to form a joint U.S.-Russian cybersecurity unit and to interrogate various American critics. He canceled a joint defense exercise with South Korea at Putin’s suggestion. Trump has made several other weirdly Russophilic comments. He called Montenegro, a tiny NATO ally with a population smaller than Washington, D.C., a “very aggressive people” and warned it might attack Russia. He called the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a justified defensive act against terrorists.

Obviously, the president has the right to change American foreign policy, and steering the United States closer to Russia and away from its long-standing partners is not a crime. The question is why he does these things. While Trump’s fans may reluctantly follow his lead on these issues, they have never demanded he embrace Russia, nor have they rewarded him for his pro-Russian riffs the way they cheer “Build that wall” or “Lock her up.” Trump’s displays of submission to Putin cut against his normal preferred posture of dominance, deepen his legal exposure, and raise the suspicions of Republicans in Congress.

At his summit with Putin in Helsinki last summer, Trump actually acknowledged the political cost of his persistent Russophilia. “Nothing would be easier politically than to refuse to meet, to refuse to engage, but that would not accomplish anything,” he told reporters. While it’s common for politicians to boast of bravely flouting public opinion, it’s not common for Trump to do so. His willingness to bleed political capital for a position that gains him nothing among either his base or the party elite stands out conspicuously.

The attempts to form innocent accounts of Trump’s bizarre relationship with Russia keep foundering. Trump’s gravitation toward Russia does not reflect a fleeting instinct, nor mere wounded pride at the insinuation his campaign victory had an asterisk attached to it. It appears to be a deep commitment for which he is uniquely willing to absorb political costs. BuzzFeed News reported that Trump directed his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about a building project in Moscow he tried to negotiate during the campaign. Why would Trump commit the grave offense of suborning perjury rather than admit he was trying to make a business deal? Such a risk would only make sense if there was more going on than just a business deal.

New revelations about Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, underscore the same conclusion. Trump’s defense has always maintained that Manafort’s crimes have no bearing on Trump himself. “The main charge against Donald Trump is poor judgment for hiring the notorious Beltway operator,” editorialized The Wall Street Journal. It has grown all the more necessary to sever Manafort’s culpability from Trump after Manafort’s lawyers accidentally disclosed that their client had passed private campaign polling information to his business associate and suspected Russian spy Konstantin Kilimnik. But it has also become more difficult to do so: New court filings from the special counsel, Robert Mueller, allege that Manafort kept in contact with Trump well after his time in the campaign ended. Files on Manafort’s computer show he had been in contact with an administration official as recently as May 2018, months after he had been indicted.

If Manafort was just a sleazeball who attached himself to absentee boss Donald Trump for his own ends and was cut loose when his Russian ties came to light, why did he maintain communication with the administration for years afterward? Why does his legal team have a joint defense agreement with Trump’s? And why has Trump floated a pardon for him?

It would make no sense for the president to handcuff himself to a crook who was just short-term hired help. It would make a lot more sense if Manafort’s dealings with Russia also implicate Trump. And this in turn suggests it might not be a coincidence that Manafort’s last big job before running Trump’s campaign was running the presidential campaign of a Ukrainian stooge who was taking money and orders from Moscow.

What we have learned in recent weeks is that whatever lies at the bottom of the Trump-Putin relationship likely goes beyond the two parties’ mutual interest in defeating Hillary Clinton. “Collusion” is a relationship with a defined chronological end point: November 8, 2016. A counterintelligence investigation presupposes furtive connections that may have compromised not only Trump’s election but also his presidency.

The prospect that the president of the United States is being handled by Vladimir Putin also happens to be one of the few Trump-induced calamities to have inspired genuine alarm among Republicans in Congress. In the week after the revelations in the Times and Post, 11 Senate Republicans and more than 130 House Republicans voted with Democrats to disapprove of Trump’s relaxation of sanctions on Russian oligarch and former Manafort benefactor Oleg Deripaska. This hardly proves that an incriminating conclusion to Mueller’s investigation will lead them to impeach Trump. But perhaps it shows that their patience is finite and is slowly wearing thinner.

*This article appears in the January 21, 2019, issue of  New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Trump’s Contact With Russia Was Done in Plain Sight