Remember Donald Trump’s alleged Russia connection? That scandal has faded into the background in the last two weeks since Trump ordered airstrikes in Syria against the forces of Kremlin ally Bashar Assad and a new big chill between the United States and Russia set in. Nonetheless, the Trump-Russia story has not gone away. And while it almost certainly won’t develop the way Trump critics hope, it will probably cause the Trump White House more headaches.
The narrative of Trump as Vladimir Putin’s puppet is difficult to sustain today, with the United States accusing the Kremlin of abetting Assad’s chemical attack on civilians and indicating that it might seek new sanctions against Russia. Some Trump foes, such as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), have suggested Putin and Trump might be staging a quarrel. That’s far-fetched — and ironic, considering how much ridicule has been directed at Trump’s and his supporters’ penchants for conspiracy theories.
Some also have pointed to the fact that Trump has not personally criticized Putin and has expressed hope for better relations as evidence that he is beholden to the Kremlin after all. But that, too, is a stretch. Trump did say Putin was “backing a truly evil person” in Syria, which is about as harsh as American presidents generally get toward Russian leaders.
While the administration has given mixed signals on Syria — including whether the United States is committed to Assad’s removal — its tough stance vis-a-vis Russia seems real. Trump’s newfound affection for NATO is probably not a coincidence.
Yet there is evidence of extensive contacts during the election campaign between Trump’s advisers and Russian officials and business people connected to intelligence services and to the Kremlin.
We have learned that the FBI monitored former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, known for Kremlin sympathies and financial interests in the Russian energy sector. We have learned about large payments former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort — now belatedly registering as a foreign agent — got several years ago from pro-Russia clients in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the British media have reported that British intelligence warned U.S. agencies about communications between Trump staffers and Russian officials as early as 2015. Some details in the infamous Trump dossier compiled by a former British spy and suggesting that Trump was personally compromised on a trip to Moscow are checking out, though not in relation to Trump himself.
Unless there’s a trail leading directly to Trump, impeachment talk from the Democratic “resistance” will remain a fantasy. Still, if it is shown that close Trump aides promised the Russians Trump would pursue policies favorable to the Kremlin — and knew about Russian hacking intended to damage Hillary Clinton — this will ensure a scandal-plagued administration for the foreseeable future. If the Trump campaign was crawling with Russian stooges, and he knew nothing about it, that hardly makes the president look good.
As for the Russians, they seem genuinely shaken by Trump’s hawkish drift (foreshadowed weeks ago by the hiring of Kremlin-critical advisers such as the Brookings Institution’s Fiona Hill). Pro-Putin pundits in Moscow who sometimes referred to Trump as “our candidate” now lament that Trump has been co-opted by the establishment. At the UN, the Russian representative went on a rant, blaming Britain for subverting the chances of a U.S.-Russian partnership. It sounds like Russian officials are reeling from the loss of the friendship they hoped for.
If so, they can join the club of people fooled by Trump’s campaign promises.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.