The Trump/Putin Connection: To Russia With Love!

The characters could star in a James Bond movie or a John Le Carre spy novel.  The setting is Washington D.C. at the highest levels of government.  A central figure is Sergey Kislyak , who has been the  Russian Ambassador to the United States  since 2008. He had served in the Washington embassy from l985 to 1989 during the late Soviet period.  Kislyak, 66,is a career diplomat who has become a gregarious fixture during the past nine years in political circles.  He speaks fluent, accented English and often advocates Russia’s assertive policies.  Last April, Kislyak was introduced to Donald Trump in a receiving line at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. Trump would be giving a foreign policy speech and Kislyak was one of four ambassadors seated in the front row.  The evening was sponsored by The Center for The National Interest, whose president,  Dimitri Simes, is a supporter of closer Russian-American relations.

Several United States officials starred in a complex web of  meetings, conversations and communications that occurred during the 2016 presidential campaign and after the election.  They included:  Retired General Michael Flynn , a vigorous surrogate for Donald Trump during the campaign who became his National Security Adviser.  Senator Jeff Sessions who was a loyal surrogate during the campaign, often at Trump’s side wearing the ubiquitous “Make America Great” cap.  Paul Manafort, Trump’s second campaign chairman, had regular communications with a former Russian military translator in Kiev.  Manafort’s  history and contacts in Ukraine led to his replacement as campaign head. J.D.Gordon  a former pentagon official on Trump’s national security team, met with Ambassador Kislyak in July at the Republican Convention. Gordon was trying to keep tough language about Ukraine out of the party platform at the time. Jason Greenblatt, a special representative for international relations at the White House, met in the summer of 2016 with Rabbi Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia and an ally of President Putin.

During the campaign, Donald Trump shared his opinions and feelings about President Vladimir Putin, President of Russia with the huge cheering crowds at his rallies.  He was clear in wanting to develop a reset with Russia where the adversarial relationship of past years would be replaced with one of cooperation toward common goals.  He also expressed these ideas during media interviews when he praised Putin as a “strong leader” contrasting him with President Obama  “leading from behind.”  Trump particularly basked in the fact that Putin had called him “brilliant”.   He did not know the exact translation of that word in Russian.  It does not refer to exceptional mental capacity; it translates as “flashy” or “showy”.

Key events related to Russia unfolded during the 2016 campaign. On June 14, the Democratic National Committee revealed that Russian hackers had penetrated their computer system.  On July 25, the F.B.I. announced it had begun an investigation into the D.N.C. hacking. On July 27, candidate Trump during a news conference, said, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you are able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” in an obvious reference to Clinton’s deleted emails.   On October 7, the Obama administration accused the Russian government of interfering with the United States election process.  In early December the U.S. Intelligence agencies concluded the Russia was behind the D.N.C. hacking and that it took the action in favor of Donald Trump.   It became known that Michael Flynn had five telephone conversations with the Russian ambassador on the same day President Obama had levied sanctions against Russia and expelled their diplomats from Washington.  On February 13, Flynn resigned as national security adviser after reports that he misled Vice President Pence about talks with Kislyak.

Jeff Sessions was nominated by Trump to head the Justice Department as Attorney General of the United States.  He was a controversial candidate with a background of racism that led to his being denied a federal judgeship in the 1980’s.  At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 10, 2017, Senator Al Franken, a Democrat, asked Sessions what he would do if “there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the  Russian government in the course of the campaign.” Sessions replied, ‘I have been called a surrogate a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians,  and I’m unable to comment on it.” On January l7, Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat asked Sessions in a written questionnaire whether he had been “in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election either before or after Election Day.”  Sessions replied, “No.”

On March l, 2017 The Washington  Post reported that Sessions had met twice with Kislyak.  A firestorm erupted in D.C. and on TV cable news.  There were demands for Sessions to recuse himself from any investigation, as well as calls for his resignation from Democratic leaders, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.  They stressed his lying under oath to the Judiciary committee.  Darrel Issa, Repulican, called for a Select Committee to investigate.   Sessions issued a statement in the late evening, “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign.  I have no idea what this allegation is about.  It is false.” By the next day, March 2, Sessions held a brief press conference.  He denied that any conversations with Russian officials were related to the presidential campaign. Then, he recused himself from any current or future investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Donald Trump was unhappy that Sessions had recused himself, and blamed members of his staff for advising him to do so.  He was also very frustrated and angry that Russian interference in the U. S. election was the top news story once more, overshadowing his speech to Congress  earlier in the week. After six a.m. Saturday morning, March 4, Trump tried to change the subject. He fired off  a barrage of  shocking tweets accusing President Barack Obama of having his phones tapped at Trump Tower the month before the election. In one tweet, he declared, “How low has President Obama gone to tap (sic) my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick)guy!”

This bizarre charge was the big story all day. TV commentators and newspaper reporters  described it as a “false accusation” with “no proof or evidence.”  Trump  did not give the source of his information, although it had been carried on  Breitbart news.  Barack  Obama issued a statement saying that neither he “nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen.”  On Sunday,  March 5, James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence, denied that the government had wiretapped Trump Tower before the election.  He added there was no knowledge of any effort to do so before Obama left office.  The headlines were that F.B.I. chief James Comey had asked the Justice Department on Saturday to publicly reject and refute Trump’s unproven wiretapping assertion against Obama.

Epilogue:  Trump’s attempt to change the subject had not worked.  CNN issued their timely public opinion poll on Monday morning, March 6. Their findings:  55% of the American people were “ very concerned or concerned”  about Russian interference in the 2016 election. 65% wanted a Select committee similar to the 9/11 Commission to investigate the  Russian connection.

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Joyce S. Anderson

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