Terry Schwadron

Jan 15, 2019

4 min read

Has Trump Put Russia First?

Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 15, 2019

Okay. We’ve reached a remarkable point where news media, the FBI, pundits and we citizens are questioning out loud and directly whether President Trump has been acting at the behest or to support the Russians — not just any coordination with election interference. It seems a moment for a deep breath.

The president used a friendly interview with Fox’s Jeanne Pirro to call news articles “insulting” for quoting FBI transcripts that say officials were so concerned after Trump fired former FBI head James B. Comey Jr. as to have started a counterintelligence investigation about the relationship with Russia. It is that initial counterintelligence report that merged with criminal and civil probes of Trump campaign officials that merged as the ongoing Special Counsel investigation.

Outraged as he may have been by the disclosures, Trump’s tweets and statements did not offer initial denials. Instead, Trump merely rejected as “fake news” that the The New York Times reported on the FBI action, and an article in The Washington Post about how Trump basically has concealed notes of his private meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, however classified, even from members of his administration. On Monday, CNN reported that transcripts from closed-door congressional interviews with two FBI officials detail that the agency debated whether Trump was “following directions” of Russia.

Scrape away all the obfuscation, and we are left with the utter astonishing question being said aloud: Is Trump a tool, whether intentional or unwitting, for Russian interests?

Trump seemed to criticize that the news was negative about him, rather than a statement about how FBI leadership was so rocked as to launch the investigation. Egotism aside, it was taking days for the President of the United States to digest the idea that this news might be shocking to wide parts of the country.

It moves the all-things-Russia investigations from the possibility of specific potential crimes into a wider national security concern, something that is more than ironic given the president’s maintenance of the government shutdown over border “national security” issues. It makes my head spin.

Finally, yesterday, Trump spoke to the base question directly: “I never worked for Russia. Not only did I never work for Russia, but it is disgraceful that you ask the question. It’s a big, fat hoax.” He then attacked the FBI officials who were in charge after Comey’s dismissal as “dirty cops.”

In other words, he is silent as to whether or why the FBI opened a counterintelligence effort to explore the question, just that he is insulted by the question. Indeed, he should be congratulating The Times for learning of the FBI actions.

You can only take the pushback so much about a cantankerous “deep state” and the appearance of anti-Trump operatives in every corner.

The airwaves since the weekend’s revelations have been dominated by the question, along with the White House-Congress intransigence about putting furloughed and unpaid federal workers back to work over the Wall dispute. The talk among former government and intelligence officials was complete astonishment that we have reached this point, and there were all kinds of attempts to connect the various dots of the last three years of Russia contact, policy and positions.

Every publication around is taking a swing at the question, mostly listing the number of known contacts and policy changes since Trump’s inauguration in which Russian interests and adventurist activities have advanced, from continuing incursions into Ukraine territories to U.S. withdrawal in Syria, leaving Russia the major influence there. Publications are sifting through the court filings from the special counsel probe to re-list the various high-level contacts with Russians thought to be linked to Putin.

In Congress, some Republican senators including Ted Cruz, R-TX, noting that Trump has been “tough” on Russia, with sanctions, and trade policies. Of course, the sanctions were voted by Congress over the objection from the president. Still, the long-term strategic policies of U.S.-Russia relations and world power alignment stand separately from the shorter-term tactical decisions that face the government on a daily basis.

Democrats heading congressional committees already were talking about demanding the interpreter’s notes from Trump-Putin meetings. It was not clear whether such notes actually still exist.

From around the world, there was a lot of scurrying to avoid public comment on such reports of private concern. For this news to emerge now, in the midst of a U.S. government shutdown, must alarm other world leaders about trusting Trump.

Clearly, the questions raised are taking any intrigue about Trump and Russia to a new level, even a surreal level, even after two years of special counsel investigation.

What seems scary to me is that the administration — and the country — is flying blind without the full ability to decode what the president has or has not agreed to with Putin, how to communicate diplomatically in an accurate reflection of U.S. policy.

At heart, there is obvious concern about what is happening.