Americas: United States
Special Report on Trump administration’s Russian connections:
- National Security Adviser Flynn resigns due to misleading VP Pence on Russian meetings
- Attorney General Sessions under fire due to misleading Congressional testimony on Russian contact
- Trump accuses Obama of wiretapping him due to Russian connections and allegations of collusion
- Obama administration spread intelligence across agencies due to anxieties over Trump's ties to Russia
-- FBI Director Comey confirms FBI inquiry into Trump's Russia connections and rejects the claim that Trump was wiretapped by Obama
On Feb. 13, 2017, Michael Flynn — national security adviser to President Trump — resigned from office. At issue were reports that he misled White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
Of concern was the matter of whether or not Russian sanctions were discussed during a conversation with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016 -- prior to Donald Trump taking office as president in early 2017. Flynn had earlier denied that such issues were discussed but he now acknowledged that the nature of the Kislyak conversation conveyed to the White House was “incomplete.”
Earlier on the same day of Flynn’s resignation, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said that the national security adviser had the full confidence of the president. Then, only hours later, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the president was “evaluating the situation.” Later that night, Flynn was reported to be on his way out. Indeed, the resignation occurred so quickly that members of the National Security Council staff apparently heard about Flynn’s exit via the news. The official stance from the White House was that the Flynn situation had become a distraction to the Trump administration.
The scenario, though, was likely more complicated as news reports had emerged covering the fact that the Justice Department had warned the White House that Flynn was not being completely transparent about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. The Justice Department also warned that Flynn would be vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians due to his multiple conversations with Kislyak. A further issue was the fact that such contacts, if conclusively verified, would be in violation of the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from engaging in foreign policy.
It should be noted that Flynn’s contact with Russia was already an issue of concern, particularly since revelations emerged that he had at least five conversations with a Russian envoy. Concerns over that matter had already led to a Senate inquiry. Now, however, his failure to be forthright with Vice President Pence regarding those conversations were yielding real consequences.
In his resignation letter, Flynn said he had many calls with foreign officials and that contributed to the problematic account of his conversation with the Russian ambassador. He said, “Unfortunately, because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador. I have sincerely apologized to the president and the vice president, and they have accepted my apology.” Flynn continued, “I am tendering my resignation, honored to have served our nation and the American people in such a distinguished way.”
It should be noted that the Justice Department had warned the White House weeks ago that Flynn could be vulnerable to blackmail due to his multiple conversations with Kislyak. A further issue was the fact that such contacts, if conclusively verified, would be in violation of the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from engaging in foreign policy.
Of significance — and, indeed concern — was the notion of a representative of Trump's discussing a potential deal to reverse the sanctions put into place by the serving President Barack Obama. Those sanctions had been implemented in response to United States’ intelligence findings that the Russian government, under the direction of President Vladimir Putin, had interfered with the 2016 election in order to advance Donald Trump’s chances against Hillary Clinton.
In addition to the violation of protocol, Flynn’s attempt to cover up the sanctions portion of his conversation with the Russians would present a potential blackmail risk. As noted above, it was that particular angle that spurred the Justice Department to issue its alert.
A further wrinkle for Flynn was the fact that the Army was looking into whether or not he received payments from the Russian government during a visit to Moscow in 2015. That trip involved Flynn’s attendance at an anniversary dinner for the media outlet, Russia Today, which has been generally understood as a Kremlin propaganda outfit. During that dinner, Flynn was seated next to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There were suggestions that Flynn was paid to attend this event. Should that prove to be the case, Flynn would be in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits former military officers from receiving compensation from a foreign government without prior consent from Congress.
The White House released a statement noting that in the interim, Gen. Joseph K. KelloggJr., function as the acting national security adviser. Soon thereafter, Robert Harward, a former deputy commander of United States Central Command was offered the position on a permanent basis, but ultimately declined to serve. Days later, Lieutenant General Herbert Raymond McMaster was named to be the new national security adviser.
It was to be seen how McMaster would work with Trump on national security given to his hardline view of Russia as a security threat to the United States. To date, Trump has telegraphed that he does not view Russia in this same light, and instead as a potential global security partner.
The White House was very likely hoping that the resignation of Flynn would bring an end to that particular scandal. However, such a tidy conclusion was unlikely given the eagerness of Democrats to go after the Trump administration.
To this end, the leading Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee,Representative Adam B. Schiff said the although Flynn’s resignation was inevitable, it was not the end of the road. He declared, “General Flynn’s decision to step down as national security adviser was all but ordained the day he misled the country about his secret talks with the Russian ambassador” and then warned that further inquiry would be in the offing. Meanwhile, Representative John Conyers Jr. and Representative Elijah E. Cummings — both Democrats — demanded a briefing by the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation over what they characterized as the “alarming new disclosures” of Flynn being a blackmail risk. “ Conyers and Cummings further alluded to other questionable Russian connections emanating from within the White House as they added, “We need to know who else within the White House is a current and ongoing risk to our national security.”
That reference to other inhabitants of the White House being national security risks by Conyers and Cummings may have been an intimation of United States intelligence findings that Russia also possessed blackmail-quality information about President Trump.
A month earlier in January 2017, CNN reported that classified documents presented to both then-President Barack Obama and Donald Trump included allegations that Russian operatives had compromising personal and financial information about the president-elect. The report also included an explosive suggestion of an exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.
These allegations outlined in the intelligence report given to Obama and Trump were derived partially — but not completely — from memos of a former credible British intelligence operative. However, there were indications that there were other sources of the “kompromat” leak.
It was unknown if the salacious details of the “kompromat” leak constituted the reference point for then-Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who dispatched a letter to Director James Comes of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in October 2016 that read as follows: "It has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government -- a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States." Reid urged Comey to release this information, which the FBI director clearly opted not to do.
For his part, Trump dismissed the claims that Russia had compromising information about him. Via the social media outlet Twitter he declared, "FAKE NEWS - A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT."
But Trump would have a difficult time maintaining the claim that the allegations outlined by CNN were fake once the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), James Clapper, acknowledged it on the record on Jan. 11, 2017. The outgoing DNI head released a statement that read: "This evening, I had the opportunity to speak with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss recent media reports about our briefing last Friday. I expressed my profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press, and we both agreed that they are extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security." In so doing, Clapper was essentially confirming that the “kompromat” information did exist and had circulated through the government, the intelligence agencies, and the media.
Meanwhile Trump was embroiled in a public fight with the head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Director John Brennan. The conflict was sparked when Trump accused Brennan of leaking the “kompromat” information, detailing tawdry sexual activities in Moscow, to the public. For his part, Brennan not only dismissed those charges. The reality of the situation was that the Flynn situation was now sparking new questions about the “kompromat” information and the potential blackmail risk posed by the president himself.
Then, at the start of 2017, a declassified report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded that Russia undertook an effort sought to help elect Donald Trump by undermining the credibility of Hillary Clinton.
Key points of that report were as follows:
"Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow's longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations."
"We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”
"We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
"We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
Read the full report here: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf
For his part, Trump has dismissed such suggestions, at one point suggesting a technologically savvy teenager may have been responsible for cybersecurity violations, or even China, which was blamed for previous hacking operations. But throughout, Trump has been reluctant to place the blame on Russia, and instead referred to the entire line of inquiry as “a political witch hunt.’
Following a briefing from United States intelligence, Trump continued to downplay the role of Russian actors in his election, declaring instead: "There was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election, including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.”
But with questions continuing to arise about the Trump circle’s connections to Russia, it was unlikely that questions over Russian interference into United States affairs would dissipate anytime soon. Indeed, the unfolding drama regarding Flynn’s Russian ties in the earlier part of February 2017 suggested that the issue of United States interests and the country’s relationship with Russia would be at the forefront of the political landscape.
In a bombshell development during the third week of February 2017, it was reported by the media that Trump knew for weeks that Flynn was being misleading over his Russian contacts, but yet refused to cut him loose. In fact, it was only when Flynn’s irregular communications with Russia over sanctions was leaked to the press that the president was moved to act. As noted by Congressman Schiff in an interview with MSNBC News, “The reason they lost faith or trust in General Flynn only last night when they knew for weeks that he had been lying was that it became public.”
Meanwhile, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer demanded an investigation into potential criminal violations associated with the resignation of Flynn. However, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, has shown little eagerness to inquire into the circumstances surrounding Flynn’s Russian communications. The lack of bipartisan concurrence on the issue of investigations opened the door for accusations of a partisan cover-up benefiting the Trump administration in its very early days.
Such sentiment was not likely to be helped by the news that intercepted calls and telephone records indicated that members of the Trump presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election. The timing of these contacts was alarming as they occurred just as U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies were finding evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election. This discovery triggered an investigation into whether the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia in a well known hacking operation of the Democratic National Committee. While there was no immediate evidence to that end, the frequency of the contact was notable.
Note that these intercepted communications are to be distinguished from wiretapped conversations Flynn as Kislyak, as discussed above. They involved several other of Trump’s associates including Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman for several months in 2016 who also worked as a consultant to the former pro-Russian leader of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych, and another policy consultant to Trump with Russian ties, Carter Page.
By the start of March 2017, questions about the Trump regime's ties to Russia were sparked again - this time surrounding Attorney General Jeff Sessions. At issue were reports that Sessions met with aforementioned Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak twice over the course of the previous year. The contact contradicted Congressional testimony provided by Sessions during his confirmation hearing at the start of 2017.
At that time, Sessions said he “did not have communications with the Russians" in response to a question posed by Minnesota Senator Al Franken. Less than two months later in early March 2017, a Justice Department official confirmed that Sessions had two conversations with Kislyak when he was still a senator. These occurred at the Republican National Convention and during an office visit respectively. These meetings would present a clear contradiction of Sessions' testimony during his confirmation hearing that there had been no contact with the Russians. Indeed, Sessions at the time declared, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have -- did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it."
In response, Democrats in both house of Congress issued scathing condemnations of Sessions -- the person responsible for overseeing justice in the United States -- being caught in an apparent violation of the code of justice via perjury. Some Democrats initially called for Sessions to recuse himself from all decisions pertaining to prevailing Russian investigations, but those calls quickly escalated to demands that the attorney general resign. Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said: “It is essential that he recuse himself from any role in the investigation of Trump campaign ties to the Russians.” Schiff added, “This is not even a close call; it is a must.” Meanwhile, Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House, demanded that Sessions resign, as she asserted via the social media outlet Twitter: “He is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country.”
For his part, Sessions on March 2, 2017, announced that he would recuse himself from any investigations into Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.
By March 4, 2017, attention switched to President Donald Trump himself as he took to his favorite mode of communication -- Twitter -- to accuse former President Barack Obama of ordering a wiretap of his phone prior to his election as president. One such tweet read as follows: “I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!”
The accusations by Trump were made without providing credible evidence -- a point emphasized by reporters, journalists, and legal experts of record. In fact, it appeared that Trump was relying on questionable information sources, such as Breitbart News, to make his accusation.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence under President Obama, issued a categorical denial that such a FISA warrant ever existed. As well, Kevin Lewis, a spokesperson for President Obama, characterized the accusation by President Trump as completely false, emphasizing that the former president never ordered the wiretapping of a United States citizen. Lewis also said, “A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice." But Ben Rhodes -- President Obama's foreign policy adviser -- delivered a far more scathing and personal rebuke of President Trump as he declared via Twitter: "No president can order a wiretap. Those restrictions were put in place to protect citizens from people like you."
It should be noted that by March 6, 2017, James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), had entered the fray. Comey made clear that Trump's claim was spurious and urged the Justice Department to publicly reject the president's allegation. Comey noted that a statement was necessary since wiretapping of that type ordered by Obama would be illegal. In this way, Comey's stance could only be interpreted as an unprecedented and remarkable rebuke of Trump -- essentially questioning his truthfulness.
To be clear, all such wiretapping requires a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, independent of the White House. Indeed, the only way a president of the United States could order such surveillance without going through the FISA route would be if there was no American citizens involved.
Undeterred, the Trump administration has maintained its shocking accusation of Barack Obama, even demanding that Congress to investigate whether the Obama administration abused its powers. Indeed, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on March 5, 2017: “President Donald Trump is requesting that as part of their investigation into Russian activity, the congressional intelligence committees exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016.”
Of significance was the fact that the FBI and Congress were already investigating contacts between the Trump election campaign and Russian officials, as well as collusion between the Trump regime and the Russians over the 2016 election. As such, the consensus from many was that Trump was attempting to deflect attention away from himself and redirect inquiries to Obama instead.
But the accusation against President Obama was noteworthy for several particularly alarming reasons. First, it was in keeping with other spurious claims made by Trump, such as the suggestion that millions of voters had cast ballots illegally. To date, no such evidence has ever materialized to support such a view; however, it appears to have been expressed for the purpose of explaining why Trump lost the popular vote. As well, the accusation that a sitting president would illegally wiretap a United States citizen and presidential candidate could serve to instill mistrust in United States institutions, feed conspiracy theories about "deep state" tactics and ultimately help to destabilize the country.
By mid-March 2017, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned that he would "flex Congressional muscle" in order to compel the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to say whether former President Obama wiretapped Trump. To this end, Graham said that he was prepared to issue a subpoena to force Comey to reveal wiretapping details, should such details actually exist.
Meanwhile, it was reported that during the waning days of the outgoing Obama administration, White House officials worked to disperse information about Russian efforts to undermine the presidential election across departments of the government. Of particular concern to the Obama officials was information pertaining to possible contacts between associates of President-elect Trump and Russians. These officials were aiming to ensure that there was a discernible trail of intelligence for investigators to pursue.
Also of note was the intelligence provided by British and the Dutch allies covering meetings between Trump and Putin associated that took place in various European cities. Another consideration were intercepted communications by United States intelligence of Russian officials discussing contacts with Trump associates. Overall, there was a grave suspicion that the Trump campaign may have colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
Because Trump had repeatedly dismissed suggestions of Russian interference into United States affairs, there was a sense of mistrust from the outgoing Obama White House. To that end, some Obama administration officials feared that these key findings might either be concealed or utterly destroyed. Another possibility was the exposure of key sources and assets.
As such, an unusual effort of preserving evidence and intelligence was undertaken -- albeit without the explicit direction of President Barack Obama. This effort included not only dispersing the information across agencies, but also lowering the security clearance levels, and asking key questions during briefings that would be archived and reconsidered during Congressional investigations. Indeed, a cache of sensitive materials was passed onto members on Congress, such as Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. That particular information detailed Russian efforts to intervene in elections across the globe.
Also of note was President Obama's intelligence review -- discussed above -- which sought to detail and record the extent of Russian hacking and interference into the United States election.
Note: As of mid-March 2017, pressure was intensifying on Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey to either confirm or deny the existence of an inquiry into Trump's Russia connections, particularly with regard to interference into the 2016 election.
On March 15, 2017, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a Democrat, said that Comey failed to meet the agreed upon deadline to confirm the existence of a FBI inquiry. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican, disclosed the same failure to meet the March 15, 2017 deadline, saying, "He needs to answer the letter and give the nation some information about what's going on here."
Of significance was the rare bipartisan concurrence by Whitehouse and Graham -- both members of the Judiciary Committee -- on the matter.
However, later in March 2017, it was reported that Comey was sighted headed into a Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCIF) with Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican, and Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat. Other Senators were reported to have also entered the SCIF. Typically, SCIFs are used for Senate intelligence briefings.
On March 21, 2017, FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election.
In that committee hearing, Comey confirmed that the FBI was investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with a covert Russian operation to interfere with the United States presidential election, which would ultimately see Trump benefit as the winner. It was the first public confirmation of the FBI's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians in an effort to influence the election.
Comey issued a clear confirmation that the inquiry existed and that the Trump campaign was being targeted, as he stated: "I've been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of its counter-intelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election." He continued, "That includes investigating the nature of any links of people associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts."
It should be noted that Comey declined to disclose details about the probe. That being said, his acknowledgement that it existed could vitiate Trump's claims that "the Russian story" was a fiction fabricated by Democrats and bereft of serious consideration.
During his testimony, FBI Director Comey also dispelled the notion advanced by President Trump that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, wiretapped his communications. To this end, Comey noted he "has no information that supports" Trump's allegation that President Obama ordered surveillance of his communications during the 2016 election campaign.
Comey did not merely assert that he had no information or evidence to sustain Trump's wiretapping accusations of Obama. He also went the extra mile to assert: “The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components. The department has no information that supports those tweets.”
In this way, Comey was making clear that Trump's accusation -- delivered via the social media outlet Twitter, were entirely baseless. And as such, Comey delivered a stinging blow to the sitting president's -- Trump's -- credibility.
Comey underlined his stance as he noted that only courts (as discussed above) grant permission for such surveillance. To this end, Comey said, "No individual in the United States can direct electronic surveillance of anyone." That being said, Comey would not comment on actual FISA court orders, which would allow the FBI to conduct surveillance of individuals suspected of acting as agents of a foreign power. New media outlets, though, have reported that the FBI did, in fact, intercept some Trump campaign aides' communications with the Russians during the campaign.
Of significance was the fact that Republicans on the intelligence committee had little to say about the Trump-Russia angle. Instead, they directed their attention to the leaking of sensitive classified materials by certain individuals with that type of access. A measurable amount of time during this hearing was spent making the case for journalists who publish classified information to be prosecuted. This positioning by the Republicans appeared to run in tandem with the White House's claim that entrenched government players and institutions -- so-called "deep state" -- was operating against the president's interests.
In truth, however, leaking of classified information was not an unprecedented event in political life. Possible collusion with a foreign antagonistic power to influence an election, however, was a different matter entirely. And as such, during his testimony before the intelligence committee, Comey managed to inflict serious political damage to Trump.
In an interview with the Washingtom Post, presidential historial Douglas Brinkley said: “To be as low as he is in the polls, in the 30s, while the FBI director is on television saying they launched an investigation into your ties with Russia, I don’t know how it can get much worse." Brinkley -- the author of several biographies of Presidents Gerald Ford, Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt -- exclaimed, “This is the most failed first 100 days of any president.”
Perhaps more damning was the following suggestion posed by Brinkley: “There’s a smell of treason in the air. Imagine if J. Edgar Hoover or any other FBI director would have testified against a sitting president? It would have been a mind-boggling event.”
Of course, despite this political turbulence, Trump remained popular with his base. Most of his conservative supporters have looked at his measures to squash Obamacare, to build a wall to keep illegal immigrants from Latin America out, and to implement a Muslim ban as Trump keeping his promises. It was to be seen if sustaining the support of that base would be enough to fortify Trump's presidency, which was faltering after only 100 days in office.
-- March 21, 2017
Written by Denise Youngblood Coleman, Ph.D.
President and Editor in Chief