The NYT story on “Trump associates” and Russian spooks: some questions

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.

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  1. Hear, hear Professor. I could not agree more:

    “Instead – and I say this as someone with absolutely no liking for the Trump regime – this is essentially a political hit…”

  2. The NSA/CIA had better topple Trump because if they don’t the purge will be massive.

    • LOL (OR: LOsadness), and do note the Professor’s words above:

      “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…”

  3. jcsahnwaldt

     /  February 15, 2017

    Thanks for the analysis. Minor correction: The “at least three” (in addition to Paul Manafort) are named in the article: Carter Page, Roger Stone, and Michael Flynn. They were examined by the FBI, but “it is unclear if their calls were intercepted”. The main story is based on intercepted calls, but the sources “declined to identify the other Trump associates on the calls” or “how many of Mr. Trump’s advisers were talking to the Russians”.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  February 15, 2017

      No, the story explicitly separates Page/Stone/Flynn from the associates subject to the main investigation

  4. Besides, Professor, it seems that the NYTimes is now moving so far left w/their coverage and opinions, that they may, one day soon, be seen as the Liberal version of Fox News.
    How sad is that?

    • I think that the current political climate has tightened the necessary divide between editorial work and news coverage. It’s unfortunate that the NYT is in their coverage seeming more and more distant from objectivity, essentially echoing their editorials, this is also happening with the WSJ it seems but in the other direction. I don’t find issue with either editorial board being partisan or advocating specific policy stances and so on, but it’s good that you pointed out the influence personal politics has been having on news coverage (it’s always been there but it’s growing) — like we see at Fox.

      • Indeed Mohamed, and well said.
        Exactly what I meant with: “How sad is that?”.
        I mean we are talking about the NY Times here: The “Gray Lady”, and the supposed US “national newspaper of record”…?

  5. Reasonable take about a story with almost no details.

    Here is my working hypothesis about nature of leaks and motive: IC leakers are deeply concerned about material uncovered in ongoing investigation, but no obvious mechanism for such information to reach public other than congressional hearings. They see congressional GOP sandbagging that process by dragging heels and opposing select committee formation, so they dribble out some minimal information to put pressure on congressional GOP to conduct a real investigation.

  6. I do agree greatly with the fact that it isn’t productive or in the public interest for leaks that appear so political, leaks that in the grander scheme will only dilute the effect greater findings may have. But I don’t think the idea that anyone knows they were contacting spooks, or members the government is of focus — of course you can infer that if information is going back and forth where that information is coming from — and more so on if there were any tangible exchanges for political or personal favor between these parties.

  7. The author’s points are relevant. But I also agree with Sam Handlin above that “IC leakers are deeply concerned about material uncovered in ongoing investigation.” I would add they are also deeply troubled by Trump’s insistence that NATO is obsolete, which fits perfectly with the foreign policy objectives of the Russian Federation. We have to see this from the perspective of rank and file IC warriors. Russia/Putin want their own Monroe Doctrine east of Poland- “If U.S. can have their playground, so can we.” (There are many reasons for this relevant to Russian internal politics as well as international policy.)

    In this context- a) Trump’s statements about NATO, b) his aides and associates w/ties to Russia, c) material currently being uncovered (in the vein of the Steele dossier) and d) Trump’s refusal to say anything critical of Putin, are all of great concern when seen through the lens of U.S IC.

    Lastly, what raises the hackles of the IC is what they already have deemed to be fact: Russian hacking of the DNC for the purpose of effecting the 2016 election, a Russian operation, which will probably go down as one of the largest and most successful intelligence missions in modern history.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  February 18, 2017

      All true enough, but the bottom line is that to break the law and convention and leak is also a very corrosive act. It reminds me of the rationales I have heard from cops who plant evidence of people they just know to be bad guys. Sure, I can fully understand the impulse to take these guys off the street – but what is the long-term damage done to the rule of law?

  1. The NYT Story on “Trump associates” and Russian Spooks: Some Questions

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