Frida Ghitis: Trump is the first president to suggest adjusting American policy to suit Russian interests
Gen. Michael Flynn's contradictory statements about what was discussed with a Russian ambassador offers more proof , she says
Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
New reports from the Washington Post and the New York Times, citing interviews with multiple current and former senior government officials, directly contradict statements by President Trump’s national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, and others in the administration, including Vice President Mike Pence, about what exactly transpired during conversations between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak as the administrations made their transition.
As CNN reported last month, US counterintelligence agents monitoring Kislyak discovered that Flynn had been in contact with the ambassador. But Trump’s people strongly rejected suggestions that Flynn promised Russia that Trump would lift the sanctions then-President Obama was about to impose after US intelligence concluded that Russia interfered in the US election. If Flynn had such discussions, that could amount to a violation of the Logan Act against interference in foreign diplomacy by non-government officials, although prosecutions over violations of that act have never happened.
Flynn and others claimed the phone calls dealt only with arrangements for a call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Last month Pence went on CBS’s Face the Nation and repeated that story.
But in light of the new revelations, senior White House officials have started walking back Pence’s assertions, telling CNN that the vice president only knew what Flynn told him and didn’t know that Flynn had discussed sanctions and acknowledging that he believes, “it’s a problem.” Pence, sources said, is trying to “get to the bottom of it.”
Perhaps Flynn should have planned his answer better, considering he has a background in intelligence. It turns out the calls were not just monitored, they were recorded and transcribed. Federal officials told the Times that they read the transcript and Flynn did discuss lifting sanctions. Flynn appears to have lied and may have lied to Pence, who repeated it. Now Flynn is backtracking on his version of events, saying he cannot rule out having spoken about sanctions in his talk with the Russian ambassador, according to an aide to Flynn.
Flynn, in fact, had at least five calls with Kislyak. His ties with Russia have remained a controversial part of his resume. He sat next to Putin at a dinner in Moscow in 2015, and he has long-standing ties to Russian intelligence dating to before the Trump presidential campaign.
As the evidence against Flynn mounts, entangling others officials up to the vice president, it seems likely that the Trump administration will throw him overboard. But sacrificing Flynn will not remove the cloud of suspicion hanging over the Trump administration and Russia.
Even before America’s 17 intelligence agencies concluded that Putin had ordered Russian intelligence to launch a campaign to influence the American election and help Trump win; even before we learned about a secret dossier put together by a respected former British intelligence agent claiming (without confirmation) the Russians had compromising information on Trump – long before that, Trump’s statements and his campaigns actions regarding Russia ranged from startling to shocking.
He started with high praise of Putin in 2015, followed by stunning suggestions that he might recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and lift sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies after Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine, annexed Crimea and sent Russian troops to fight alongside separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Then Trump campaign officials scrubbed the Republican platform at the convention, removing criticism of Russia and statements of support for Ukrainian independence that had been uncontroversial before Trump’s candidacy.
Trump is not the first president to want to improve relations with Russia, but he is the first to suggest doing it by adjusting American policy to suit Russian interests. And he is the first to offer effusive praise of an autocratic ruler (whose critics frequently turn up dead) by smearing his own country.
Why is Trump so committed to a radical recasting of America’s Russia policy? His knowledge of Russia and bilateral ties is hardly sophisticated. He didn’t know Russian troops were in Ukraine, and leaked reports reveal he paused a recent phone call with Putin to ask an aide about a major treaty. That’s not unexpected for a newcomer to foreign policy, but his lack of knowledge makes his early determination to overhaul relations even more curious.
As the media and the public try to keep up with an incessant barrage of lies, controversies, foreign policy missteps, and ethical violations, the Trump administration may hope that the Russia question will go away. But few issues are more important.
The lingering questions is whether this administration colluded with the Kremlin in its campaign to interfere with the US election, and whether Trump’s decisions on Russia are guided by anything other than what he perceives as America’s best interests.
Moscow’s recent arrests of the Kremlin’s own cyber-spies, possibly in connection with the US election, and the death of a top former KGB/FSB official add mystery to the case.
The President could go a long way in lifting suspicions if he released his tax returns, as every president since Richard Nixon has done, but he won’t do that. Why? His argument, that IRS audits prevent it, are plainly false. We don’t even know if he is being audited.
With government officials, even inside the White House, leaking information with extraordinary frequency, and with news organizations bolstering their operations, we are learning a bit more every day. The telephone calls, for example, were discovered as part of a larger US investigation into Russian activities in the US, sources told CNN.
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Americans can only hope that law enforcement and intelligence agencies follow the trail wherever it may lead. After all, we saw the FBI’s involvement in the last election, and we have also seen how willing Trump is to try to intimidate civil servants.
Committees in both houses of Congress are launching investigations into Russian interference in the election, but it is unclear how far most Republicans will be willing to dig when it comes to exploring possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
The question of Trump and Russia is so sensitive, so consequential, that Americans should demand that a select bipartisan panel of Congress look into the issue. Without a credible investigation, doubts about Russia policy will persist as long as Trump is President.