Were Trump's Russia Connections Hiding in Plain Sight?

Were Trump's Russia Connections Hiding in Plain Sight?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (L) speaks during a campaign event September 6, 2016 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Trump participated in a discussion with retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (R).

SourceAlex Wong/Getty

Why you should care

Because the true nature of the president’s relationship with a foreign power has likely been hiding in plain sight.

We’re proud to feature a vibrant collection of voices from across the political spectrum. Today: OZY’s own Sean Braswell argues that we should have seen the Flynn scandal coming.

We are undoubtedly going to learn much more about the relationship between Russia and President Trump’s campaign in the weeks ahead, especially in light of the recent bombshell revelations that now former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn discussed hacking-related sanctions with the Russian ambassador before the president’s inauguration, and that Trump aides had constant contact with Russian intelligence during last year’s campaign.

But you don’t have to wait until more news breaks, or be a conspiracy theorist, to be suspicious that President Trump has not been coming clean with what he really knew about the Russian hacks, and when. The White House did not respond to a request for comment, though you merely have to go back to the record itself — to Trump’s own public statements and tweets, which have been leaving a remarkably clear trail of breadcrumbs leading right up to the Kremlin’s door all along.

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“The Good News” (June 2016)

It was Donald Trump’s 70th birthday, and he was celebrating it on the campaign trail. Supporters at a rally in Tampa, Florida, a few days earlier had erupted into a chorus of “Happy Birthday,” which the presumptive Republican nominee waved off. “I feel like I’m 35,” he joked. “That’s the good news.”

The real good news — about what would ultimately be the best birthday present a presidential contender could hope for — had come that morning, June 14, 2016, from the Washington Post, the “phony and dishonest” news organization whose press credentials the Trump campaign had revoked the day before. According to the Post, the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee, including its database of opposition research on Trump, had been hacked by Russian spies. At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin had complimented the “bright and talented” Trump during the Republican primary, and the presidential contender had returned the praise, but not many saw the relationship as anything more than a budding bromance between two powerful men. A Kremlin spokesman denied Russian involvement in the hacks, and the Post speculated that if Russia were the source of the hacks, the country was likely targeting the DNC’s Trump file because it was “playing catch-up” on a political novice.

That was just the beginning of a litany of bizarre obfuscations and evasions that Trump would provide regarding Russian hacking.

Then things started to get stranger, beginning with Team Trump’s response to the alleged hacking. “We believe it was the DNC that did the ‘hacking,’” the campaign claimed in a statement issued the following day, “as a way to distract from the many issues facing their deeply flawed candidate and failed party leader.”

Stop and think about that response for a moment. They just received news that a major American foe had gained access to what might be damning opposition research on your candidate, and someone may even have accessed your own computer systems as well, and your initial reaction is to ignore the likely culprit entirely and blame the victim — the DNC did it to themselves! Perhaps you can explain this as some shortsighted piece of partisan opportunism in the heat of a campaign, but that June 15 reaction was really just the beginning of a litany of bizarre obfuscations and evasions that Trump would provide regarding Russian hacking.

“The System Is Totally Rigged!” (July 2016)

In retrospect, June 15 also represented another key moment in the Trump campaign. As Democrats, including Bernie Sanders supporters, started to line up behind Hillary Clinton and a divided Republican Party prepared for what could be a contested convention in July, Trump started to fall in the polls, hitting what would be rock bottom (38 percent) for his entire campaign in the Real Clear Politics polling average on that day.

Five days later, Trump fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, and with the help of his new campaign head — Paul Manafort, who had his own ties to Russia — and major assists from WikiLeaks and Russian hackers, the businessman mounted a tremendous comeback in July amid what will likely go down as one of the most remarkable months in presidential campaign history. The month started with FBI Director James Comey’s announcement on the Fourth of July weekend that no charges would be brought against Clinton in connection to her use of a private email server. In response, Trump began his “rigged” election theme, tweeting:

The Clinton campaign let out a sigh of relief, but just days later, on July 7, WikiLeaks would first reference its upcoming release of Clinton-related emails obtained from the DNC hacks.

Waiting for maximum effect until July 22 — the week after the Republican National Convention, and before the Democratic one — WikiLeaks released private emails from DNC officials, including ones showing said officials conspiring to sabotage Sanders’ campaign. WikiLeaks refused to reveal the source of the leaks and pushed back on claims that it was Russia, saying the media was “pushing a discredited conspiracy theory.” Meanwhile, Trump began a weeks-long effort to divide Democrats and cleave off Sanders supporters based on the WikiLeaks revelations and his “rigged” theme.

On July 25, as the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia opened, Trump pulled even again with Clinton in the polls, and he finally addressed the source of the leaked material he had been using to hammer Clinton.

Trump tweets that the day before the New York Times reports that U.S. intelligence agencies have “high confidence” the Russian government was behind the DNC hack, and, as usual with unfavorable news coverage, Trump diminished the information by attempting to deflect attention to the other party, the DNC.

But as the Democratic Convention ended, Trump again fell in the polls, failing to convert Sanders supporters to his cause. He also got increasingly frustrated that the media was focusing more attention on the source of the leaked DNC emails, and less on the substance of what was contained in those emails. At this point, it became pretty clear that Russia was behind the hacking and selectively releasing information to damage Clinton. Trump could have benefited from the leaks and still pointed the finger at Russia, but he didn’t. Was it just because Putin “likes” him that he stayed silent? Did he feel some deep-seated insecurity that his campaign was being helped by outside forces? Trump didn’t seem shy about embracing WikiLeaks’ help at all.

Even if you don’t believe the Russian “golden showers” story from that leaked dossier (Trump seems pretty unblackmailable to me), Trump didn’t act the way that you might expect of someone who is just a bystander or an unwitting beneficiary of a foreign power’s scheme. In fact, the party whose statements Trump’s most resemble in nature during this period — from blaming the Clinton camp for pushing Russia as a distraction to downplaying Russian involvement, against all evidence — is a participant, not a bystander: WikiLeaks.

Time and time again, Trump has proven himself to be a master of what psychologists call “projection” — whether by design or defense, he often just can’t help but project onto others the actions he stands accused of, whether it’s sexual assault, being a bigot or running a corrupt foundation. “Trump’s accusations against Hillary and now against intelligence agencies are projections, to be sure,” says Justin Frank, a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University and the author of Obama on the Couch, “but they are also his masterful ability to take the offense whenever there is the possibility of threat.”

And when one looks back at July 2016, it’s hard not to believe that one of the reasons Trump started inveighing so much about a system being “rigged” against him was that he knew the very opposite to be the case.

“Who Knows Who It Is?” (Aug. 2016)

Where does a compulsive projectionist go next? In late July, as it became increasingly clear that Russia was involved in the hacks and as the New York Times and others started digging into Paul Manafort’s ties to the country, Trump accused Clinton of having … Russian ties. “The fact is she’s the one involved with Russia,” he told a CBS reporter at his golf resort in Doral, Florida, on July 27, regarding Clinton’s alleged ties to Russian oligarchs. That same day, however, Trump does finally recognize the possibility of Russian involvement in the hacks, but in a way that painstakingly avoids singling out the country.

“They have no idea if it’s Russia, if it’s China, if it’s somebody else,” Trump also informs reporters that day. “Who knows who it is?” And from that day forth, in the face of additional intelligence briefings and within the character limits of Twitter, Trump continued, with remarkable consistency, to refrain from referencing Russia’s culpability without diluting it with other suspects.

“Such a Dishonest Person.” (Sept. - Oct. 2016)

Thanks in part to Clinton’s brief bout of pneumonia, Trump pulled even again in the polls by mid-September, and at the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, he continued to push the discredited notion that nobody really knows who was behind the DNC hacking. “I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China,” he told moderator Lester Holt. “It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”

This despite the fact that weeks earlier, according to NBC News, Trump had received a classified briefing from intelligence officials that included “extensive” new information about Russia’s involvement. Why did Trump still insist on making such transparently dishonest claims? By now, the DNC hacks had inflicted their damage. “In this case, Trump knows the truth and he’s actively saying something to deflect away from it,” says Jeff Hancock, a professor of communications at Stanford University and an expert on the psychology of deception and how we interact through digital communications. “This seems more like lying than bullshit,” he suggests, noting the difference being that a “bullshitter isn’t concerned about the truth, unlike a liar, who is trying to create a false belief.”

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A billboard from a pro-Serbian movement in the town of Danilovgrad, Montenegro, on Nov. 16, 2016.

Source Savo Prelevic/Getty

Meanwhile, Clinton’s poll numbers were rising after the first debate, and more questions were being raised about the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia. Cue the projecting: On Oct. 4, the campaign releases a statement claiming that “Clinton’s close ties to Putin deserve scrutiny.” Then, on Oct. 7, the same day theWashington Post reports that the intelligence community is confident that the Russian government directed the acts so as to “interfere with the U.S. election process,” the Post also breaks the news of the Access Hollywood tape around 4 p.m., showing Trump’s lewd conversation with television host Billy Bush. Less than one hour later, WikiLeaks drops the first batch of Podesta emails. We’ll never know if this was a later October surprise pushed up to dampen the blow of the Access Hollywood story, but as Podesta later observed to NBC’s Chuck Todd: “One could say that those things might not have been a coincidence.”

For three days the news was all Access Hollywood, even as WikiLeaks dumped the second batch of Podesta emails. In the second debate, on Oct. 10, Trump continued to push back on Russian involvement, even suggesting that “maybe there is no hacking.” As Clinton’s poll numbers continued to rise in the face of the WikiLeaks assault, Trump took to Twitter to express his frustration that they were not doing more damage.

According to a tally by Think Progress, Trump invoked WikiLeaks 164 times during the last month of his campaign, including at least once every day. But as far as leaks and October surprises go, the WikiLeaks revelations were remarkably tame, despite the volume. What multiplied the impact of the leaked emails was the megaphone that Trump put behind them.

“If you don’t catch them in the act you’re not going to catch them.” (Nov. 2016 - Jan. 2017)

After Trump won the election and set off on his victory tour, the WikiLeaks releases stopped and no new information on Russia came to light. Things quieted down. In a subsequent interview with Time magazine, Trump stuck to the same obfuscation that worked during the campaign: “It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.”

Yet on Dec. 9, theWashington Post reported the CIA’s assessment that Russia hacked the DNC to help elect Trump. A few days later, an FBI official told the Associated Press that the bureau concurred. By this point, Trump had taken multiple briefings from the intelligence agencies as president-elect, yet his transition team responded to the news by calling the intelligence community “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

With new questions about Russia rearing again, Trump began his new forensic attack on the findings, telling Fox News on Dec. 11 that “hacking is very interesting. Once they hack, if you don’t catch them in the act you’re not going to catch them.” Over the next few days, Trump, in a series of tweets, doubled down on hacking detection, and tried to throw some more shade on the affair by blaming the White House and the CIA for waiting so long to act.

After President Obama imposed new sanctions on Russia on Dec. 29, Trump said, “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” but agreed to meet with intelligence officials. Yet even following the briefing with heads of the NSA, FBI and CIA, Trump could not bring himself to implicate Russia. In a statement, Trump mentioned his meeting with intelligence officials before piggybacking his own conclusion that “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election, including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.”

On Jan. 11, a new leaked document surfaced, this time a private intelligence dossier containing unverified allegations of misconduct by Trump in Russia. And finally, that day at a press conference, with “golden showers” memes swirling around the internet and Russian allegations arising anew, Trump — seven months after the Russian hacks were first reported — was finally willing to put the finger on Russia … kind of. “As far as hacking, I think it was Russia, but … we also get hacked by other countries and other people.”

* * *

Remember when Bill Clinton’s “depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” was considered presidential evasion? Trump’s months-long posturing on Russia took things to a whole new level, and his attitude toward Putin has always stood in marked contrast to his usual bravado toward other power players, and his tendency, says Hancock, to blame out-groups (illegal immigrants, Muslims) for problems. “So,” Hancock says, “why not just let Russia take the blame?”

Very few people lie for the sake of it, observes Hancock. “There is usually a good reason.” Perhaps this is all just sloppy, erratic behavior from someone who is insecure, often mendacious, and who was in pursuit of the most powerful job in the world. But it looks much worse. If guilty, would Trump ever come clean with the details of what he knew about the Russian hacking and when? If his tweeted response after the New York Times broke the Valentine’s Day bombshell of his campaign’s Russian election contacts is any indication, then it appears that the obfuscation is going to go on for at least a while longer.


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