Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a senior political analyst at CNN. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Reports that the Russians bribed the Taliban with bounties for killing US service members were stunning – and not just because of the alleged targeting of American soldiers, but because the Trump administration apparently did nothing to retaliate against Russia.
The White House insists that President Donald Trump was never briefed on the intelligence reports – begging the question why, if true, that could be the case. However, on Tuesday night, the New York Times reported that President Trump had, indeed, been briefed on the Russian bounties in February – three months before he unilaterally offered to invite Russia to the G7 meetings.
At the very least, it fits a long pattern of Trump and his team avoiding confrontation with Vladimir Putin, despite constant provocations.
It also provides just the latest, most urgent, example of why so much rides on the Supreme Court’s decision on whether Trump’s taxes and business records can be turned over to members of the House of Representatives and the New York district attorney. The ruling is expected this week.
This is perhaps the most closely watched Supreme Court decision of this session, with massive implications for the separation of powers and the ability of American voters to make a fully informed decision in the November presidential election.
Trump has, of course, broken with decades of precedent in refusing to release his tax returns, often making up phony excuses for why he can’t do it (among them, that he is subject to what would be the longest tax audit in recorded history). The truth is that he’s done everything possible to avoid showing his finances to the American people, with Attorney General Bill Barr’s Department of Justice now acting like the President’s personal lawyer.
As CNN legal analyst Elie Honig points out “In total, six different federal courts – three district courts and three courts of appeals panels – have heard these cases, and all six have ruled against Trump.” Moreover, court cases stemming from corruption in the administration of Warren G. Harding – known as the Teapot Dome scandal – would seem to directly apply. A subsequent 1924 law states that the Treasury Secretary “shall furnish” such tax information requested by relevant congressional committee, which Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin refused to do, citing no “legitimate legislative purpose.”
But there is a clear public and legislative interest in finding out whether Trump has hidden business dealings with the Russians, which might explain his strange but persistent reluctance to confront Vladimir Putin on clear matters of US national interest.
Before Trump’s political career, his son Eric repeatedly bragged about being able to bypass American banks – many of which refused to do business with the Trump organization – because the company could get all the money it needed from Russia. In 2008, his son Don Jr. told a real estate conference “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets … we see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” And Reuters has reported that 63 Russians invested nearly $100 million in Trump buildings.
Russia has a notorious reputation for money laundering and two frequent destinations are luxury real estate and casinos – both of which the Trump organization has operated in the past.
This is far from an academic concern. CNN has tallied no less than 25 times President Trump has been strangely soft on Russia – from denying Moscow interfered in US elections to his benefit, to suggesting it could keep the conquered Ukrainian province of Crimea, to undermining Obama-era sanctions, to withdrawing US troops from Syria, to praising pro-Russian leaders in Europe, to railing against NATO.
In addition, we’ve seen a pattern of administration officials being told not to bring up Russia and allegations of election interference to the President. The former Department of Homeland Security head Kirstjen Neilsen was told not to bring up current concern of 2020 election meddling by the Russians to the President because he would react badly. The former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told another senior administration official that it “wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below his level.”
True to form, when news of the Russian bounties erupted, the White House ignored the substance and declined to speak of retaliation against Russia. Instead, as CNN’s Marshall Cohen pointed out in a Fact Check analysis of the White House press secretary’s comments: “Throughout her news conference, (Kayleigh) McEnany spent more time criticizing American journalists than condemning Russia for its aggressive moves against US interests, which includes the bounties in Afghanistan, election interference in 2016, and military actions in Syria and Ukraine.”
“This smells like the WH trying to mislead the public,” added CNN national security analyst Susan Hennessey regarding the administration’s pushback. “It is common for different intel agencies to attach different degrees of confidence based on the manner on underlying intel; that isn’t the same as there being disagreement over whether something happened.”
Court-watchers caution that there is no guarantee that President Trump’s business records or taxes will be viewed by the public any time soon even if he loses both cases in the court decision. New York District Attorney Cy Vance, for example, has issued subpoenas for Trump’s taxes in the context of a Grand Jury investigation and that information would be closely held by the court. But accountability will lead to more transparency than we’ve had in the past on an urgent matter that continues to confound even some Trump allies: why does Trump keep praising Putin despite constant provocations?
The American people deserve to know the truth about Trump and Russia. And to find the truth we need to follow the money. The Supreme Court could soon decide whether the truth – or partisan politics – will win out before the American people go to the polls this November.