Attorney General Jeff Sessions told senators at his confirmation hearings that he “did not have communications with the Russians,” but it now seems that he did have contact with the Russian ambassador during the 2016 presidential campaign. That unexpected revelation has forced him to cede responsibility for overseeing any and all investigations into President Trump’s campaign.
Whether it’s Michael Flynn’s resignation as national security adviser or news that Trump campaign staffers were in regular contact with Russian intelligence officials, scandals in the Trump administration invariably seem to involve Russia.
Behind these revelations lies a fundamental and still opaque issue: Why has Trump taken such a conciliatory approach to Vladimir Putin’s illiberal regime — a regime that muzzles dissent, abets war crimes in Syria, supports an ongoing rebellion in Ukraine, and nakedly interfered in the 2016 presidential election?
Forging an alliance with such a regime might still make sense, if it were necessary to achieve some grand geostrategic goal. But beyond loose talk of fighting terrorism together, Trump has never clarified what he expects to get from Moscow. What exactly does the United States need — and need so badly that Trump would go out of his way to praise Putin as a “strong leader,” wave away questions about Putin’s use of violence, select staff with strong Russian ties, question the value of NATO, and raise doubts about Russia’s efforts to swing the 2016 election — even after US intelligence agencies determined that this was precisely Russia’s goal?
Without a clear realpolitik explanation for Trump’s Russophilia, it’s hard to silence questions about whether he’s actually motivated by something else. Hidden business ties with Russian oligarchs? A close adviser who’s been compromised? Even blackmail inside the White House? The reason such wild theories are being mooted in many quarters, despite a lack of evidence, is because as of yet there is no clear and straightforward explanation for Trump’s behavior toward Russia.
Given the murky circumstances surrounding Trump and Russia, here are the five big questions still waiting to be answered.
What’s in Trump’s tax returns?
Tax returns contain a wealth of information, far more than is available through Trump’s other financial disclosures. That includes any investments in Russia — or any debts.
Without those tax returns, we’re left to extrapolate from statements like the one Trump’s son and business partner made in 2008, when he said that Russian investment made up a disproportionate share of their assets, adding, “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
Presently, there’s little of hope of seeing Trump’s returns. Not only has he refused to provide them — bucking 40 years of presidential practice — but Republicans in Congress also decided not to release the returns themselves, which they had the power to do.
Were Flynn and Session acting on orders from higher-ups?
Both Flynn and Sessions have now gotten into hot water for unexplained meetings with the Russian ambassador. The question is: Were they acting on their own? Or were they being directed by someone else?
We may well find out because the matter is being investigated by Congress and reportedly by the FBI, as well (Sessions would not confirm the existence of an investigation today, and FBI Director James Comey has not been forthcoming with details). It’s even possible Flynn could be offered a deal to testify against the administration that forced him out.
What did Trump’s campaign discuss with Russia?
The New York Times has been reporting that members of Trump’s campaign staff were in regular contact with Russian intelligence. It’s not yet clear who was involved, or what was discussed. But to say the least, campaigns rarely engage in ongoing communications with foreign governments under sanction by the United States.
The most explosive possibility — and the thing to watch for — is whether Trump’s advisers knew about Russia’s propaganda efforts to swing the election in his favor, or perhaps even joined those efforts.
What’s happening in the intelligence community?
The reason we know so much about the connections between team Trump and team Putin is because US intelligence officials are letting it slip. They’re sharing details about all manner of things that would usually remain between closed lips, including intercepted phone calls and ongoing investigations.
There is a real question here about motivation. Are intelligence agencies leaking damaging information as a form of revenge against a president who has questioned their conclusions in the past? Could it be a partisan act by Obama-Clinton loyalists in the ranks? Or is it really motivated by profound concern about the integrity and independence of the commander in chief?
Will Republicans turn against their president?
A lot hinges on the behavior of congressional Republicans. The founders put Congress in charge of disciplining the president through investigations and, if necessary, impeachment. But exercising these powers requires a fierce sense of congressional independence and a willingness to hold the president accountable, regardless of party or ideology.
At this point in American history, such disinterest might not be possible. Several Republican lawmakers did break ranks to demand that Sessions recuse himself from ongoing investigations, but generally speaking they have a strong incentive not to push too far. Time spent opposing Trump is time Republicans can’t spend on tax cuts or other priorities. Worse, it could poison Congress’ relationship with the mercurial president.
Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.