Russia mystery threatens to consume Washington

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Story highlights

  • For several reasons, the White House is unlikely to shake off the Russian drama in the short term
  • The White House has often seemed unable to coordinate its efforts to limit damage

(CNN)The mystery over Donald Trump and Russia is taking a corrosive hold on his presidency, fanning media coverage and sowing accusations that threaten to overwhelm his White House and drain his credibility.

Washington has become something of a hall of mirrors, where it's difficult to distinguish between rumor and fact as conspiracy theories and partisan paroxysms rage. Fifty-five percent of Americans say they are at least somewhat concerned by reports that some connected to the Trump campaign had contact with suspected Russian operatives, a new CNN/ORC poll shows.
Further, the poll shows two-thirds of Americans say a special prosecutor should investigate contacts between Russians and Trump campaign associates, including 43% of Republicans, 82% of Democrats and 67% of independents.
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    The White House is finding it impossible to put to rest claims that it has had improper ties to Russia. Often, Trump himself reignites the drama, as with his sensational claim Saturday that his predecessor, Barack Obama, tapped his phones.
    Congress, meanwhile, is becoming consumed by gossip and hearsay, while a constant stream of disclosures about Trump associates' contacts with Russian officials feed high-wattage news stories.
    The Senate Intelligence Committee will gain access this week to the "raw intelligence" relevant to Congress' probe of Russia's role in the presidential election, Sen. Chris Coons said Monday.
    The Delaware Democrat told CNN's Alisyn Camerota on "New Day" that he did not expect the information to become public but that it is a welcome step for members who had asked more than a dozen agencies, organizations and individuals to preserve communications related to the investigation into Russian interference.
    With the intrigue over Russia, the election and the new administration only deepening, it has the potential to distract the White House and the machinery of the US government for months.
    Furthermore, ethical, political and personality dynamics at play at the top of the administration -- and incentives for Trump's enemies to prolong the sense of scandal -- are complicating the White House's effort to move on.
    Only one thing is clear in the fog of accusations and allegations: If the goal of Russia's alleged intelligence swoop was to pit Washington's centers of power against one another, to foment political chaos and to cast doubt on the functioning of US democracy itself, it is working better than anyone in Moscow likely hoped.
    "We are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust," Republican Sen. Ben Sasse said in a statement on Saturday.

    Questions focus on Russia meetings

    Questions clouding the White House revolve around extensive meetings between prominent Russian officials and members of the Trump orbit and whether there was coordination between them at a time when US intelligence agencies assessed the Kremlin was trying to interfere in the election.
    As it stands, an FBI probe into whether such contacts were improper is under way. Several congressional investigations into alleged Russian hacking operations designed to influence the election are also being conducted.
    Attorney General Jeff Sessions announces his recusal.
    In the latest developments, the position of Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been called into question after he failed to disclose to Congress two contacts he had with the Russian ambassador to the US.
    The former Alabama senator said, however, that the meetings took place in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, not his role as an adviser to the Trump campaign.
    On Thursday, Sessions recused himself from oversight duties related to investigations into the Trump campaign involving the Department of Justice.
    White House spokesman Sean Spicer insists that there is "no there there" in the Russia intrigue. But the conduct of the President himself often undercuts that message.
    The White House called Sunday for an investigation into "reports" that Obama ordered wiretaps on Trump. But other than an opinion piece on the conservative website Breitbart, it was not clear what reports it was referring to.
    On ABC News "This Week," White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders appeared to suggest that the BBC and The New York Times had reported on charges that Obama had ordered wiretaps on Trump Tower phones.
    On Sunday, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that no intelligence agencies he supervised wiretapped Trump, nor did the FBI obtain a court order through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor Trump's phones. Still, Trump's claims, delivered via Twitter early Saturday morning, appear to have given the Russia controversy new legs.
    "He just put another quarter in the conspiracy parking meter, they have extended this story for a week, two weeks," former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday.
    US Presidnet Donald Trump at his February 16 press coneference
    Trump's credibility -- a precious commodity for a president -- has also taken a hit after some of his statements on the issue. "Russia is a ruse, I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does," Trump said during his news conference on February 16.
    Since then, details have emerged of repeated meetings between Trump aides and Russian officials, casting doubt on the President's words.
    In addition to the two Sessions' meetings during the campaign with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, it emerged this week that the President's son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner, and his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had talks with Kislyak in December at Trump Tower. Flynn had to resign after not being truthful about phone calls with the ambassador.
    Others associated with the Trump campaign, including J.D. Gordon, Walid Phares and Carter Page, have also disclosed meetings with the Russians.
    The fact that the meetings occurred does not mean that anything inappropriate was going on. Ambassadors meet with campaign officials frequently as they try to get a read on potential new administrations. The Trump campaign had meetings with representatives of several other countries, diplomats have said.

    White House unlikely to shake off drama

    There are several reasons why the White House is unlikely to be able to shake off the Russian drama in the short term.
    The first is the most serious: if the rumors prove to be true and the Trump administration was an intended beneficiary of a Russian espionage operation.
    If so, it might not be the first time. Russia is reported to have tried to influence key electoral moments in several Western democracies -- such as the forthcoming French and German elections.
    CNN, meanwhile, revealed earlier this year that US intelligence agencies presented Trump with evidence that Russian spy services tried to compromise him. And the Obama administration issued an unclassified report in January alleging that hackers linked to Russian intelligence services penetrated the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign in an operation that eventually looked to boost Trump's electoral hopes.
    Another reason why questions about Russia will linger is because of the President's unorthodox approach to the traditional US adversary. While Trump has uttered harsh words about many US allies, President Vladimir Putin is one of the prominent world figures he has not criticized. And during the campaign he criticized NATO -- the cornerstone of the Western alliance and an organization that Russia sees as detrimental to its geopolitical interests.
    Trump also called on Russia to release former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's emails at a press conference at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July. He made the comment after US officials said that there was "little doubt" that Russia was behind hacks of DNC servers.
    "I can't figure out why the administration is taking the position on Russia that it is," said Kori Schake, a senior National Security Council and State Department official during the George W. Bush administration.
    "It doesn't make sense to me for all sorts of reasons: the obduracy with which they are committed to it; the kind of weird connections and weird answers that they keep giving. Something doesn't feel right."
    It also seems curious how many of Trump's comments about Russia seem to line up with Russian foreign policy goals.

    Trump's personality gives oxygen to story

    Trump's personality has also at times appeared to be exacerbating the sense of crisis fostered in Washington.
    In theory, he could flush away questions about whether undeclared links with Russia are influencing his attitude to Moscow by releasing his tax returns, for example. His refusal to do so gives oxygen to claims that he has some has some secret business or creditor relationships with Russia that compromise him.
    Similarly, the White House decision to not simply list all the meetings top Trump aides have held with Russians allows for continual damaging disclosures.
    Trump's refusal to cede an inch to critics may also be deepening his vulnerability over Russia. His praise for Putin and vows to revive relations with Moscow exposed him to fierce criticism during the campaign. A decision to walk back that position could be humbling.
    Beyond Trump's rhetoric, there are apparent alignments between the foreign policy priorities of some top Trump aides and those in power in Moscow.
    White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
    Russian hostility to Western institutions like the European Union seems to be echoed by Trump aides like Stephen Bannon, who has laid out a deeply nationalistic vision for the administration.
    And then there's the sharp learning curve for the new White House, which has often seemed unable to coordinate its media message to help with damage control.
    Both Trump and Spicer said last week that Sessions didn't need to recuse himself. But within hours, he did just that, raising questions about the level of coordination within the administration.
    And then there are the Washington power brokers that Trump has pointed to as arrayed against him, some of whom clearly have motives to keep the Russia links high on the news agenda.
    Inside the White House and among Trump supporters outside, there is a strong belief that the President is the victim of an orchestrated campaign of leaks to undermine his authority and discredit his election victory.
    Given his feud with the intelligence agencies since he won the election, it's not far-fetched to think that disgruntled members of the intelligence community sense an opportunity to hurt the President by cooperating with journalists, though the sources of information across the capital mean the leaked information could come from many sources.
    And then there's the classic inside-the-Beltway motivation: politics.
    Democrats have a clear political incentive to prolong a situation which is helping to unify them, to slow Trump's agenda by bogging the White House down with investigations and to present the commander in chief in an unsettling light.
    CNN's Theodore Schleifer contributed to this report.