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Take a Breath: So Far, Trump/Russia Stories Are Less Explosive Than Headlines Suggest

They rocketed across social media last night: Headlines blaring that members of the Trump campaign and other "associates" were in frequent contact with Russian intelligence figures throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. Add that revelation to the Flynn affair, the established Russian efforts to meddle in our election through selective leaks and hacks (though not of actual votes), and continued whispers about the Kremlin's outsized influence in Trump's circles (to put it mildly), and it's easy to understand why the situation is so disquieting to so many Americans. There is no question that thorough investigations into this overarching theme are appropriate -- and, indeed, are underway. Foreign influence in American elections is unacceptable, as is a global adversary burrowing its way into a US presidential administration. With those points firmly in place, a few words of caution, the first of which Matt got at in his earlier post:


(1) Both the New York Times and CNN have reported that in spite of the attention-grabbing underlying story, there remains no evidence of actual collusion between Trumpworld and Moscow. That's important:

Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials. American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said. The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election. The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.

They have intercepted communications, and we know that they were monitoring calls, thanks to the details surrounding the Flynn resignation. So they've been looking at quite a lot of evidence, but apparently haven't turned up proof of coordination.  That matters.  (2) Both outlets also mention that interactions between US businessmen or political figures with Russian intelligence are hardly unusual unto themselves.  Here's the Times:

The officials said the intercepted communications were not limited to Trump campaign officials, and included other associates of Mr. Trump. On the Russian side, the contacts also included members of the government outside of the intelligence services, they said...Several of Mr. Trump’s associates, like Mr. Manafort, have done business in Russia. And it is not unusual for American businessmen to come in contact with foreign intelligence officials, sometimes unwittingly, in countries like Russia and Ukraine, where the spy services are deeply embedded in society. Law enforcement officials did not say to what extent the contacts might have been about business...It is also unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Mr. Trump himself.

Those relevant qualifiers appear in the tenth and eleventh paragraphs of the story.  And that last bolded sentence seems rather important, doesn't it?  Anyway, here's CNN:

Among several senior Trump advisers regularly communicating with Russian nationals were then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and then-adviser Michael Flynn. Officials emphasized that communications between campaign staff and representatives of foreign governments are not unusual. However, these communications stood out to investigators due to the frequency and the level of the Trump advisers involved. Investigators have not reached a judgment on the intent of those conversations.
(3) The president is furious about the leaks, and is using his bully pulpit to make that angle the primary story. It's not the story, but it's a story, for reasons Eli Lake laid out yesterday (and 
we quoted this morning):
It's very rare that reporters are ever told about government-monitored communications of U.S. citizens, let alone senior U.S. officials. The last story like this to hit Washington was in 2009 when Jeff Stein, then of CQ, reported on intercepted phone calls between a senior Aipac lobbyist and Jane Harman, who at the time was a Democratic member of Congress. Normally intercepts of U.S. officials and citizens are some of the most tightly held government secrets. This is for good reason. Selectively disclosing details of private conversations monitored by the FBI or NSA gives the permanent state the power to destroy reputations from the cloak of anonymity. This is what police states do.

Nevertheless, it's quite rich to hear Trump whinging about selective leaks, given his outright enthusiasm about them when they were damaging his general election opponent last year:

Bottom line: Investigate the Russian angle. Fully.  Follow the truth wherever it leads.  But let's not freak out over conjecture -- especially when there's absolutely no evidence of improper coordination -- and let's not avert our eyes from the unusual nature of some of these leaks. And as we cover these issues, let's not lose sight of the previous administration's fanatical commitment to ferreting out leakers and whistleblowers.


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