A Primer on What We Know and Don’t Know About Trump and Russia

As information continues to be released, it is important to keep in mind what we know/don’t know about the relationship between Donald Trump and Russia. What we know is that Vladimir Putin and his Russian operatives attempted to interfere in the 2016 election in an effort to discredit Clinton and elect Trump. That is a fact that even the current president has had to reluctantly acknowledge.

What we don’t know is whether or not the Trump campaign was aware of these attempts and coordinated with their efforts. Stories about past business dealings between Russian oligarchs/mafia and the Trump organization provide a backdrop of the opportunity and possible motive for coordination. The long-term relationships of so many staff involved in the Trump campaign with Russian business and politics does the same.

Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s assurances to the Russian ambassador that a Trump administration would likely reverse the sanctions President Obama had imposed for interference in the election demonstrate a willingness to coordinate with the Russians in an attempt to sweep all of this under the rug.

Beyond the important question of whether or not AG Sessions should resign or recuse himself from the ongoing investigation about all of this, possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia is why his two meetings with their ambassador are significant. It is also the most likely explanation as to why he lied about them during his confirmation hearings.

Recently the New York Times reported that members of the Trump campaign and other associates had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election. Last night, they added this to the mix:

American allies, including the British and the Dutch, had provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officials — and others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — and associates of President-elect Trump, according to three former American officials who requested anonymity in discussing classified intelligence.

Separately, American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates.

If we were preparing a case for trial, what all this demonstrates is that, on the question of whether or not the Trump campaign directly coordinated with the Russians in their attempt to elect Donald Trump, we have plenty of evidence to show motive and opportunity.

What we don’t know is whether American intelligence officials have anything to prove that the Trump campaign cashed in on those opportunities. But as the latest New York Times report shows, they were spooked about something.

As Inauguration Day approached, Obama White House officials grew convinced that the intelligence was damning and that they needed to ensure that as many people as possible inside government could see it, even if people without security clearances could not. Some officials began asking specific questions at intelligence briefings, knowing the answers would be archived and could be easily unearthed by investigators — including the Senate Intelligence Committee, which in early January announced an inquiry into Russian efforts to influence the election.

At intelligence agencies, there was a push to process as much raw intelligence as possible into analyses, and to keep the reports at a relatively low classification level to ensure as wide a readership as possible across the government — and, in some cases, among European allies. This allowed the upload of as much intelligence as possible to Intellipedia, a secret wiki used by American analysts to share information.

There was also an effort to pass reports and other sensitive materials to Congress…

The opposite happened with the most sensitive intelligence, including the names of sources and the identities of foreigners who were regularly monitored. Officials tightened the already small number of people who could access that information. They knew the information could not be kept from the new president or his top advisers, but wanted to narrow the number of people who might see the information, officials said.

Where we stand at this point is that the intelligence community has gotten enough of this information out there that any direct attempts to interrupt the investigation (i.e., when Priebus went to the FBI and individual members of Congress to discredit the leaks) will likely not only backfire, but could be interpreted as obstruction of justice. But we’re still awaiting a “smoking gun” that could prove that any of these contacts/meetings were about coordinating efforts with the Russians.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.