On Thursday, at an impromptu press conference after his spectacular near-derailing of the NATO summit, Donald Trump was asked about next week’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. How did he think they would get along?
The president declined to identify Putin as either a friend or enemy, but as a “competitor.” Still, “he’s been very nice to me,” and “the couple of times that I’ve gotten to meet him, we got along very well,” and, you know, “hopefully, someday, maybe, he’ll be a friend.”
“I think I would have a very good relationship with President Putin if we spent time together,” Trump mused the next morning at a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May. He would, that is, were it not for “the rigged witch hunt.” By which he meant the investigation, under special counsel Robert Mueller, of possible collusion between the Russian government and members of the Trump campaign to throw the 2016 election to the Republicans.
These are familiar Trump themes: his strange crush on Putin, as much as his hatred for Mueller. Only this time Trump was speaking knowing something the rest of the world did not: that Mueller was about to bring charges against 12 Russian military intelligence officers for interfering in the 2016 election by various means — among them, hacking into Democratic Party and Clinton campaign computers and sharing the contents, via third parties (hello, WikiLeaks!), with the outside world.
Trump had been briefed on the charges earlier in the week. Yet here he was, in possession of detailed evidence that the Russian government had orchestrated an attack on the American democratic process, speaking of his fond hopes that Putin would one day be his friend and denouncing Mueller’s inquiry as a witch hunt: a hunt, that is, for something that does not exist.
An indictment is not a conviction, and Russian interference does not prove the Trump campaign had anything to do with it. But Muller’s indictment only confirms what U.S. intelligence agencies have long believed and Trump has always been strangely reluctant to concede: that Russia hacked the election, with the express purpose of helping him win.
A thought experiment. Let us suppose the Trump administration were entirely blameless. How would an entirely blameless government ordinarily be expected to react at even the first whiff of suspicion that a foreign power, let alone an acknowledged adversary, had tampered with U.S. elections? It would be leading the charge. It would have ordered its own inquiry. It would have demanded answers from the Russian government. And the more evidence it had that its suspicions were true — long before the laying of actual criminal charges — the more ready it would be to impose penalties of some kind.
Yet at every turn the Trump administration and its supporters have done the opposite. They have not just been stunningly incurious about the worst American intelligence debacle since the Rosenbergs — they have been actively hostile to any attempt to get to the bottom of it.
The president fired the head of the FBI for pursuing the investigation, after his initial attempts to interfere in it were rebuffed. Since Mueller was named special counsel he has continually attempted to discredit, impede and otherwise obstruct his work.
And, far from calling Putin on the carpet, Trump has given him every benefit of the doubt — not just on the specific charge of interference in the election, but on everything: Ukraine, Crimea, the Baltics, Syria, the works. It was Trump, not Putin, who asked for the summit.
Even the latest revelation has produced no change. A Trump spokesperson issued a statement afterward that declined to denounce any Russian interference, but merely noted the indictment contained no allegation of collusion with the Trump campaign. Which was the cue for Trump surrogates like Rudy Giuliani to demand that Mueller wrap up his investigation.
Again: is this the behaviour one would expect of a government that had nothing to hide? It would be bizarre enough on its own: if a passel of Russian spooks were going to such great lengths to tilt the election in Trump’s favour, it is surely worth asking why, and at whose behest, and whether they had domestic help.
But the Trump administration’s behaviour looks even stranger in light of the many contacts between members of Trump’s circle and Russian officials. In particular, the latest indictment mentions an unnamed “person in regular contact with senior members of (Trump’s) presidential campaign” who was also in regular contact with “Guccifer 2.0,” one of the aliases the Russian hackers used.
At least eight members of the Trump team are known to have had contacts with Russian intelligence officials, on 82 separate occasions, according to The Moscow Project website; the number of Trump officials who knew about these contacts stands at 26. They have, moreover, shown a persistent tendency to lie about them — either flatly denying them, notably in the case of former national security advisor Michael Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or offering shifting explanations of what was discussed, as in the notorious June 2016 meeting with Donald Trump Jr. at the Trump Tower.
So far, Mueller’s “witch hunt” has indicted 32 people, including three Trump associates, on more than 100 criminal counts. Five have pleaded guilty. Again, there is no proof as yet of any collusion. But to conclude from the evidence collected to date that there’s nothing further to investigate requires a heroic effort of wilful blindness. Whether there’s a fire remains to be seen, but there’s sure as hell a lot of smoke.
In light of the latest indictments, there are increasing demands that Monday’s summit be cancelled — or, at the very least, that Trump should not be allowed to meet alone with Putin. As Democratic Senator Mark Warner put it, there should be “other Americans in the room.” Just think about that for a second.
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