The latest story about Trump-Russia links comes from the New York Times and says that according to anonymous “current and former American officials”, “at least three” “members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates” “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election. Sounds very alarming, but the lack of any real information, the anonymous sourcing, and the minimal digging from the NYT means that it is all terribly insubstantial. It could be a massive story, it could be a trivial nothing (or a smear) – as is, we do not yet know enough to say. The result is that this is another one of those stories that really tell us more about ourselves than anything else, as we see in it what we expect or want to see.
To reach any serious conclusions, we need to know the answers to at least three basic questions:
Did the Trump associates know they were dealing with Russian spooks? They could have been Russian embassy officials, journalists, businesspeople, even non-Russians. It makes a huge difference. After all, one would expect spooks to be trying to gather information on the campaign, likely future policy trends, etc – it’s what spooks do.
Are these associates of any real substance? The only one cited is the usual Paul Manafort, who seems to have been of only brief and slight importance. Are these close aides or simply someone who raised funds in New Jersey for a few months?
Is there any suggestion they were told what to do or otherwise tasked or rewarded by the Russians? In other words, were they made active assets, or did they simply have a few conversations with someone who wanted to hear their views?
Based on the answers to these questions, we might begin to know whether there is evidence of a long-term conspiracy or simply the inevitable sniffing around of foreign intelligence officers, especially with an essentially unprofessional and inchoate campaign. Finding that out needs to be the focus of a serious and unbiased enquiry. But how possible is that in the current environment?
The NYT’s sources “spoke on the condition of anonymity because the continuing investigation is classified.” In other words, they leaked a current intelligence investigation. One can hardly claim that this is whistleblowing in the public interest, because the enquiry is ongoing; it is not a matter of exposing a cover-up or the like. Instead – and I say this as someone with absolutely no liking for the Trump regime – this is essentially a political hit. As the US intelligence community, or at least parts of it, increasingly appears at war with the White House, this is inevitably going to have a corrosive effect for years to come.
Whether or not the Kremlin was trying to suborn the Trump campaign, this crisis within the US ‘silovik’ community, this opening rift in Washington, cannot help but be useful to them. All they need do is buy popcorn and watch the show.