Sometimes I ignore a political story because it’s just so dumb, so nonsensical, or so irrelevant that it just isn’t worth the effort. Most of the time, stories like that just fizzle out and die . . . and giving them the validation of serious analysis just makes them linger longer than they otherwise would. There have been thousands of stories like this since I started writing about politics. They are the meaningless gaffes that get blown far out of proportion, or innocuous policy changes that get treated as if they are national catastrophes, or fringe conspiracy theories churning in the bizarre corners of the Internet that take small bits of truth and distort them into falsehood.
But sometimes one of these stories sticks in the public consciousness. When it does, I try to ignore it, because it is still not a real story. But then people just keep talking about it. The press won’t let it go. The politicos and partisans keep bringing it up. It becomes the subject of late-night comedians’ jokes, social media innuendo, and heated conversations around dinner tables. And still, I hold out. Surely people don’t really believe this, right? But eventually, if it continues, I have to chime in . . . even if just to declare that nonsense is still nonsense no matter how long it simmers.
The last time I had to do this was in 2011, and the topic was President Barack Obama’s (D) citizenship status and religion. Questions about whether Obama was a “natural born citizen” and whether he was a Muslim had been circulating on the fringes of the right-wing since he had first declared his candidacy for the presidency. By 2011, this “birtherism” had somehow become a “serious” topic of discussion. It was getting attention from major public figures, not least of which being then-businessman and reality-TV star Donald Trump (R). Read that article for the details, but my well-supported, bottom-line conclusions were that “Obama is a natural born citizen of the United States” and “Obama is not a Muslim” (unless you believe in Sharia law, which I don’t).
That reality-TV star has since become President of the United States. . . .
Somewhat ironically, Trump himself has now become the subject of his own baseless conspiracy theory. Those on the far-left (along with too many in the press and the moderate/centrist left) seem to think that Trump is a Russian agent intent on turning us into a Soviet-style totalitarian country . . . or something. It’s starting to sound like the second coming of McCarthyism out there.
In Obama’s case, there were small nuggets of truth behind the “birther” conspiracies, even though the conspiracy itself was embarrassingly wrong. Under the traditional strictures of Islamic Sharia law, Obama, as the son a Muslim, is himself Muslim, whether or not he rejects that faith (apostatizes). A 1991 literary promotional booklet by his agency erroneously claimed that he had been born in Kenya. He did not provide a copy of his long-form birth certificate until 2011, even though he could have obtained and released it long before. The meaning of the constitutional requirement that somebody be a “natural born citizen” to be president is not crystal clear to the modern layman. And Obama, though he claims to be a Christian, has shown little evidence that he actually practices any faith at all.
These small nuggets of truth, however, got mangled and corrupted into a lie. Valid questions (which had valid answers) got turned into baseless and breathless accusations, and any analyses that attempted to answer those valid questions were dismissed as the work of conspirators or dupes.
Now, with regard to Russian involvement in the 2016 election and Trump’s connection to it, this same dynamic is repeating itself. There are valid questions, but most of them have answers, and there is no evidence of any grand conspiracy. Let’s dig into the facts.
First and foremost, it is clear that the Russian government, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin (United Russia), did attempt to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. There is some evidence that Russian intelligence services were behind the unauthorized release of Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails, although this has not been proved. There is also evidence that the Russian government attempted, without success, to hack into various state electoral systems, and that the Russians were behind some of the “fake news” that circulated as the election approached. (Though who can tell; the “real” news outlets have also peddled a depressing amount of “fake news” over the last few years.)
What is not clear, however, is what side—if any—the Russians were on. The main driver of speculation that the Russians wanted Trump to win is the fact that embarrassing DNC emails were released, but no similar release of Republican National Committee (RNC) emails occurred. It is quite a leap to assume that this represents partisan intent; it may just mean that the RNC’s servers were better secured against hackers. And let’s not forget the infamous “dossier” of embarrassing (and false) revelations about Trump. These were based on information from Russian government sources. And so it seems that the Russians were playing both sides . . . the DNC was just an easier target.
Based on what we know so far, it seems most likely that the Russian government was trying to destabilize the United States by introducing a mix of embarrassing facts, false innuendo, and general uncertainty into our entire electoral process. There is no strong indication that their behavior was intended to benefit Trump, or to harm Clinton. After all, Putin’s Russia benefited from the ineptitude of the Obama administration in dealing with the crises in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria. A good argument can be made that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D), who had been part of that administration, would have been the most logical candidate for Putin to to support.
It is true that Putin has a well-documented personal dislike for Clinton. Putin may also have felt some personal affinity for Trump, as the two leaders have some similarities in personality and approach. But in the end, Putin probably didn’t care very much who won our election. Influencing the outcome was never the goal; Russia wanted to weaken us by sowing chaos and mistrust. And now that this “Russiagate” controversy is itself contributing to undermining our political system, Russian officials are quietly fanning its flames even though it hurts Trump and benefits the Democratic opposition. So much for that supposed Trump/Putin alliance!
Several members of the Trump campaign did meet with Russian officials and operatives during the campaign.
Some of these meetings were perfectly normal and innocuous. For example, Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R) was accused of lying to a congressional committee because he did not report meetings that he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign season. But, at the time of those meetings, Sessions was a U.S. Senator. Senators meet with ambassadors regularly. One of Sessions’s critics, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), embarrassingly claimed in a Tweet that she had never had a call or meeting with the Russian ambassador in her ten years on the Armed Services Committee . . . but then photos of her with Kislyak emerged, and Internet sleuths discovered an earlier Tweet where McCaskill said she was heading “off to meeting [with the] Russian Ambassador.”
Sessions was right to amend his testimony to clarify the matter, but his original testimony was not actually inaccurate. Sessions acted as a part-time “surrogate” for the Trump campaign, but he was still a sitting senator, was not in a campaign leadership role, and did not meet with Russian officials on behalf of the campaign. He met with them, among hundreds of other domestic and international officials, in the course of his work as a senator.
Other meetings were less normal, but still within the confines of the law and not a sign of conspiracy. For example, the much-discussed meeting between Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya (believed to be associated with the Russian government) and Trump campaign officials Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Peter Manafort, in which Veselnitskaya offered potentially damaging details about Clinton. Having the meeting was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a crime. Even if they had accepted the information (they didn’t), that still would not have been a crime. Foreign nationals cannot donate money to federal political campaigns, but they can volunteer for them, and they can share information with them. If they couldn’t, we would need to prohibit all foreign nationals (including journalists) from discussing or writing about presidential campaigns, or talking to campaign officials. That would be silly.
Do you really think that any political campaign would decline to meet with a prominent foreign lawyer who claimed to have useful information on the opposition? Seriously? It’s a good bet that the Clinton campaign had similar meetings, likely with Ukrainian officials who actively supported her campaign.
There were, however, some things that raised serious questions. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (D) lied about meetings with Ambassador Kislyak, and lied about his past ties to the Russian government. For this, Trump asked for his resignation, and his tenure became the shortest of any National Security Advisor since the office was established in 1953. Also, Paul Manafort (R), who served as Trump’s campaign chairman between March and August of 2016, has ties to Putin and the Russian government. His role in the campaign was significantly reduced on the same day that Trump began receiving official national security briefings, and then he resigned two days later. It is unlikely that this timing is just coincidence.
Flynn and Manafort might have committed crimes, although it has not yet been proven. There is enough evidence to warrant a serious investigation . . . especially since Flynn lied about his meetings. No administration is competent to investigate itself, so it was right for the Department of Justice to appoint former FBI Director Robert Mueller (R) as an independent special council. Mueller is responsible for looking into whether any crime was committed at all, and, if so, determining who was involved.
Unless new evidence is brought forward, these appear to be isolated incidents. There has been no bombshell accusation from anybody in a position to make one that would lead us to believe that the Trump campaign, or Trump himself, ever broke any laws or coordinated any campaign activities with the Russian government. A good indication that whatever this was didn’t go all the way to the top is the fact that the people involved were asked to resign, which is a nice, euphemistic way of saying they were fired.
We know from history that if the president benefits from or is involved with a conspiracy, he doesn’t fire the conspirators, he protects them until he can’t any more. There’s a reason why President Richard Nixon (R) didn’t fire the Watergate conspirators until the jig was already up. There’s also a reason why Obama never fired the people involved in the IRS targeting scandal. If you fire them, they’ll go straight to the press or to investigators with every bit of evidence they can produce, because they want immunity from prosecution.
Donald Trump is a businessman. He owns and operates the Trump Organization, which is a large, privately-owned conglomerate that is involved in many lines of business, including “real estate development, investing, brokerage, sales and marketing, and property management” (Wikipedia). When he was elected president, he turned over the day-to-day operation of the company to his sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, along with Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg. President Trump still owns the company.
It is not unusual for a president to have the opportunity to parlay the political office into personal monetary gain. Obama, for example, saw his book sales increase exponentially as a result of his political ascendancy. Any president could orient their decisions toward personal gain. Trump is unusual among modern presidents in that he retains ownership of a large corporation even as he serves as president, so there is more potential for conflicts of interest, but potential is not act.
Having business holdings is not, in and of itself, sufficient reason to condemn the president. The first man to hold the office, President George Washington (I), also owned and operated a large, successful business during his presidency: the Mount Vernon plantation. Washington, unlike Trump, did not turn over the day-to-day operations of his business to others. Washington is estimated to have spent 434 days of his eight year presidency at Mount Vernon, and presumably spent at least part of that time tending to the business. Trump, so far, does not appear to have spent any of his time managing the Trump Organization.
Trump—like Washington and others—certainly could let his personal financial interests guide his political decisions. If he does, we should seriously consider that when we make our voting decisions in 2020. But the fact that the president has financial interests beyond the presidency is not troubling. Everybody has financial interests beyond their current job. Trump is somewhat unusual in that he is wealthy, so he has more to lose or gain from his political decisions than others, but are we really prepared to declare that anybody with wealth or assets or corporate interests can’t serve as president? Because, if we are, we would have to disqualify Hillary Clinton too . . . and Obama . . . and Reagan . . . and Kennedy . . . and Roosevelt . . . and countless others.
The Trump Organization has made efforts to do business in Russia over the last twenty years, but it has been unsuccessful. Currently there are no Trump hotels or properties in Russia. If a bunch of new Trump hotels opened up in Moscow over the next few years, that might warrant serious investigation . . . but the hypothetical possibility of Trump making money from presidential policy on Russia is not evidence of anything. No evidence has been produced to show that Trump is engaged in any collusion with Russia to benefit himself or the Trump Organization.
We can reach a few conclusions based on what we know so far:
- The Russian government likely interfered in the 2016 election by attempting to introduce generalized chaos and uncertainty. There is no evidence that these efforts were intended to benefit the Trump campaign or harm the Clinton campaign; they targeted the whole system.
- There is no evidence that there was any collusion or coordination between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. In the first place, there is no reason why the Russians would have preferred Trump over Clinton. There is also no reason why Trump or his campaign would engage in risky criminal activity that could have completely demolished the campaign.
- There is enough evidence against Flynn and Manafort to warrant an independent investigation, but, so far, these appear to be isolated cases. In both cases, they were removed from leadership positions or asked to resign, which likely would not have happened if there had been a conspiracy.
- There is no evidence that Trump is using the presidency to directly benefit the Trump Organization. We should watch this closely, because there is in fact the potential for serious conflicts of interest . . . but Trump is not the first president to have outside financial interests, and the existence of those interests is not in-and-of-itself evidence of wrongdoing.
It should go without saying that these conclusions could change if new information comes to light, but, in the mean time, let’s not get wound-up in speculation, exaggeration, and nonsense. There are plenty of good reasons to criticize President Trump, and plenty of good debates to have about his policies and proposals. Stay focused. Until somebody produces some actual evidence, this Russia stuff is just a useless distraction.