Nicholas Kristof has written a valuable column in The New York Times, “Connecting Trump’s Dots to Russia,” in which he lists 10 “crucial” pieces of information that may indicate that Donald Trump’s inner circle colluded in some way with Moscow’s interference in the U.S. election.
I agree with most of what Kristof writes, with some significant exceptions. I also agree with his bottom line to resolve this morass: “What is desperately needed is an independent inquiry modeled on the 9/11 Commission.” (See Just Security’s Andy Wright’s work for some of the finest analysis of that point.)
Because I take Kristof’s call for a sober, level-headed analysis to heart, I want to assess carefully some issues on both sides of the ledger.
I. Dots aligned with Trump’s exoneration
1. Kristof writes that Trump has “appointed officials also friendly to Moscow.” That’s true with respect to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn. It may also be true with respect to Steve Bannon in so far as his interests align with Vladimir Putin’s (from stoking the alt-right in America to destabilizing the EU).
But it is not true for a host of other important administration positions, many of which I have tracked, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland, plus the nominee for director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, and the possible White House senior director for Russia and Europe, Fiona Hill.
Those dots do not neatly align with the others. They require, at least, a more complicated explanation.
2. Kristof wisely cautions Democrats not to descend into unfounded conspiratorial thinking (though I’m not sure why he focuses just on them since leading Republicans, including Senator Lindsey Graham, Senator John McCain and Evan McMullin, are also deeply concerned about the Russia ties).
It’s important to add a similar caution to news media. For example, David Corn, who has written some of the best pieces on the Russian scandal, also published a story on Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s connections to Russians: “Here’s Another Trump Cabinet Pick With Close Financial Ties to Russians—Wilbur Ross joined with a Russian oligarch and a former KGB official to run a troubled bank in Cyprus.”
That article (plus Rachel Maddow’s coverage) now seems in need of significant qualification in light of more recent extraordinary reporting by The New York Times: “New Commerce Secretary Was No Friend to Russians at Cyprus Bank.”
This does not mean that reporters should stop inquiring into what role Wilbur Ross may have played in various aspects of Trump’s finances and connections back through to Russia, but it does mean: Don’t discard information that does not fit into one’s story.
3. It should be acknowledged that former and current U.S. officials have stated that there is not (at least not yet) evidence of collusion between Trump’s circle and Russia.
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Meet the Press that by the time he left office, the DNI had “no evidence of such collusion.” The mid-February blockbuster New York Times report of repeated contacts between Trump’s campaign team and Russian intelligence also had this important caveat:
The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election. The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.
II. Dots aligned with Trump’s incrimination
1. With respect, I disagree with Kristof’s view of the overlapping interests between Trump and Putin during the campaign. He underestimates them.
Kristof writes that there would be enough of a momentous scandal “if the Trump team engaged in secret contacts and surreptitious messages, and had advance knowledge of Russia’s efforts to attack the American political process.” He and I agree on that.
But Kristof writes that he doesn’t think there was “a clear-cut quid pro quo…partly because Putin intended to wound Clinton and didn’t imagine that Trump could actually win.” That seems very wrong.
According to the publicly released intelligence report on Russia, our intelligence community wrote that it has “high confidence” that “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump” and that Russia’s goals included defeating Clinton during a significant part of the campaign in which they thought that was possible.
What is more debatable, but I believe also correct, is that Trump and Putin coincidentally shared another goal outlined in the intelligence report—undermining confidence in the election process as a whole. As I wrote before:
Mr. Putin’s second ambition [sowing doubt about the election process as a whole] was fully consistent with Mr. Trump’s repeatedly calling the election “rigged,” and refusing to state that he would accept the election results if Ms. Clinton won. There was a stage in which Mr. Trump thought he might win, and there were long stretches in which he seemed dead set on undermining the public confidence in the election results.
3. One of the reasons that we may not have more data points—or “crucial dots”—to connect Trump to Russia is that the Justice Department and FBI reportedly decided to slow-roll the investigation of Russia and the Trump circle until after the election.
One could imagine that many leads were no longer fresh, and other clues were missed by a decision “not to issue subpoenas or take other steps” during those crucial months. For a deep dive on this issue, read an essay by me and Richard Painter, “Real Questions Include FBI Inaction and Action on Russia: Only Independent Investigations Can Resolve.”
Here’s one snippet of what we wrote:
The Justice Department and FBI may have decided to do the opposite of what [Senator Harry] Reid wanted: wait out the clock. A passage in a Reuters story on Nov. 3, 2016, now seems even more significant in retrospect: “The FBI has made preliminary inquiries into Clinton Foundation activities and alleged contacts between Trump and associates with parties in Russia, according to law enforcement sources. But these inquiries were shifted into low gear weeks ago because the FBI wanted to avoid any impact on the election.”
That statement by Reuters is also consistent with a New York Times report that the Justice Department and FBI very deliberately decided to put on a “low simmer” both the inquiry into the Clinton Foundation and specifically an investigation into Paul Manafort’s financial dealings with Ukraine.
One other implication is that people like Clapper may not have seen evidence of collusion before they left office in part because of the controlled pace of the FBI investigation.
4. Finally, other dots should be on the list. Ten is a nice round number, but…
First, it is important to recall that despite the Trump team’s denials, Russian officials acknowledged that they had repeated contacts with the Trump campaign.
Second, in the annals of quid pro quo, one of the most important and conspicuous pieces of the puzzle was the Trump campaign’s very specific intervention in changing the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) platform on one issue: the U.S. provision of weapons to Ukraine to fight Russian-backed forces. Just Security’s Kate Brannen tracked Trump’s and his circle’s denials of their involvement—in the face of significant evidence to the contrary.
(Also see recent admissions by a former Trump team member about his involvement in the RNC platform change. And, as Politico reported overnight, a Paul Manafort protégé, who had suspected connections to Russian intelligence, told his operatives in Kiev, Ukraine, that he played a role in changing the platform.)
5. Finally, I agree with others, such as Julian Sanchez, who suggest that we should not be looking for a specific smoking gun, and that the quid pro quo transaction between Trump’s circle and Russia was largely conducted out in the open. Both sides knew what the other wanted and, to some extent, what each side was capable of, and engaged in efforts to help each other.
Kristof might not disagree with this point, but we should not lose sight of it as congressional and media inquiries continue to focus, in more granular detail, on all the available dots.
Ryan Goodman is co-editor-in-chief of Just Security. Ryan is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz professor of law at the New York University School of Law. He served as special counsel to the general counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-16).