It’s tough to keep abreast of the near-constant stream of alarming developments emerging in recent days with regard to the Trump administration and its connections to Russia. One by one – and far too rapidly for the comfort of many citizens of the US and the democratic world at large – information has been leaked to the media incriminating cabinet members and top aides and advisors in a complicated web of Washington-Moscow interplay.
KEY PLAYERS: Here are the main actors in the Russia situation, and where they stand.
Jeff Sessions (Attorney General): Attorney General Sessions previously said in his confirmation hearing that he ‘did not have communications with the Russians.’ Yet now, Sessions has admitted that he had two meetings with Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. Sessions claims that the Trump campaign was not discussed during these meetings. Nonetheless, Sessions has recused himself from the Russia probe following intense pressure to do so from both sides of the Congressional aisle.
Michael Flynn (former National Security Advisor): Flynn resigned from his post on 13 February ‘amid revelations he misled then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence about the nature of his own calls with Kislyak.’ Just one day after Flynn’s resignation, leaks reached CNN that ‘high-level’ Trump advisors had ‘constant communication with Russians known to US intelligence during the campaign period,’ naming Flynn along with Paul Manafort, who declined to comment and denied claims, respectively. In breaking news on 7 March, it became clear that Trump was ‘unaware’ of Flynn’s history as a foreign agent doing paid work with his firm, Flynn Intel Group Inc, for a Turkish-owned company – possibly having aided the Turkish government.
Paul Manafort (former Trump campaign manager): Manafort was fired as Trump’s campaign manager in August 2016 after a tumultuous tenure. Yet by December 2016 he seemed to be on the then-president-elect’s good side again, making trips to Trump Tower and advising on cabinet appointments. Like everyone else in this story, Manafort has a dirty secret linking him to Russia: a classified ledger in Ukraine lists ‘$12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments designated for Manafort from [former Ukrainian president] Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party from 2007-2012, according to Ukraine’s newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau.’
Carter Page (former member of national security team): Page put in time at Merrill Lynch’s Moscow office before going independent with a consulting business. Being named to Trump’s national security team boosted him out of obscurity, and elevated his status in Russia to the big leagues, ultimately becoming a liability to Trump, who quickly severed ties and has since sought to minimise the narrative of his involvement with Page.
Roger Stone (senior Trump advisor): The Republican strategist recently admitted that he did in fact have contact with the ‘anonymous figure,’ who calls himself/herself Guccifer 2.0, who claims to have been responsible for the Russian hacking of Democratic emails during the US presidential campaign season. Stone, who was part of the Trump campaign until 2015 but remains a valued confidant of the president, told The New York Times that the interaction was brief, ‘innocuous,’ and occurred after the hacking took place, though it is as yet unclear why the interaction ought to have occurred at all. Stone has a reputation for underhand manipulations, a tendency that has garnered him the nickname ‘the dirty trickster’ in Beltway circles, and took heat during the campaign cycle in 2016 for his use of an offensive racial epithet to describe an African American journalist.
President Donald J Trump: Trump has been deriding the entire Russia situation as ‘fake news’ intended to discredit his administration; he says he hasn’t ‘called Russia in 10 years’ – though the truthfulness of this statement is dubious even on the most superficial level, given that he visited Moscow in 2013 for the Miss Universe competition. Trump’s categorical dismissal of the controversy is in line with statements made by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who has criticised it as a ‘witch hunt’ and ‘hysteria.’
Others in the administration: Trump’s campaign exhibited a provocative open-mindedness toward reconsideration of the US’s current sanctions on Russia, but lately administration officials have been vocal in disavowing this notion. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has stated that ‘Russia today poses a danger’ to the US, and that the US needs to be ‘clear-eyed’ with regard to Putin and Russia. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis has been quoted as saying that ‘There’s a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively, and an increasing number of areas where we’re going to have to confront Russia,’ and CIA director Mike Pompeo has commented on the impact of Russian hacking on the election: ‘It’s pretty clear about what took place here, about Russian involvement in efforts to hack information and to have an impact on American democracy.’ Even Flynn’s replacement at the NSA, H.R. McMaster, has taken a markedly different tone from that of his predecessor, saying: ‘Russia wants to ‘collapse the post-World War II, certainly the post-Cold War, security, economic, and political order in Europe and replace that order with something that is more sympathetic to Russian interests.’
SO WHAT HAPPENS NOW? As per constitutional law experts, it is unlikely that there will be any legal ramifications at this juncture; rather, any fallout from the situation is likely to be political. Trump’s credibility has been shaken, with Russia proving ‘a major distraction to Trump’s policy agenda’ – an agenda which is already challenged due to splits amongst Republicans on issues like tax reform and healthcare reform. The last thing that a megalomaniac like Trump wants is to appear cowed or cuckolded by Russia. Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Institute in Moscow goes further with this, noting that, far from the hyped-up ‘bromance’ between Trump and Putin presented by the media in recent months, ‘what Russia wanted from the US ideally would have amounted to a foreign policy revolution in the US — something not to be had.’ Perhaps the most pressing manifestation of the Washington-Moscow drama will play out in the embattled Black Sea peninsula of Crimea. Russia is keen to see the US relax its sanctions, put in place after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, on Russian companies and individuals. As of mid-January, Trump told the Wall Street Journal that he was open to the idea of lifting said sanctions in the eventual future if Russia and the US ‘get along.’ Yet Trump contradicted this just a month later when he tweeted on 7 March that ‘Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama administration… For 8 years Russia “ran over” President Obama, got stronger and stronger, picked-off [sic] Crimea, and added missiles. Weak!’ These dramatic words corroborate the forceful sentiment put forth in early February amidst a week of renewed fighting in the region by US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley in a Security Council meeting, in which Haley stated that ‘Crimea is a part of Ukraine. [The US’s] Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.’
50 days into the Trump administration, there are more questions than answers with regard to Russia. Will Trump continue to harden his stance against Russia as a show of his own strength and to combat accusations of political impotence? Or will the media-driven Trump/Putin bromance of the campaign cycle be resurrected in time? And crucially, will Russia continue to maintain its chokehold annexation of Crimea, and will the US continue to uphold its sanctions against Russia? It remains to be seen whether the relationship between the US and Russia will be newly friendly or revert to tenseness in the coming months and years – and, frighteningly, it remains to be seen which of those possibilities is worse. The only thing that is certain is the fact that the secretive communications which so many top Trump players have had with Russia both during the campaign and the presidency are unprecedented and have shaped, and will continue to, the course of US and global politics far beyond what is normal and right.