Over the past few days, the questions around President Donald Trump’s personal, business, and campaign connections to Moscow have turned into a full-fledged political crisis — one with the potential to destroy Trump’s presidency.
Yet there is still more than smoke than fire, and largely because a host of unanswered questions to which answers are immediately needed.
Based, largely, on leaks from law enforcement and national security agencies, here’s what we know so far — and more important, what we don’t know.
We know now that former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn spoke with the Russian ambassador to the United States on the same day that President Obama imposed sanctions on Moscow because of its interference in the 2016 presidential election. Allegedly, he told the ambassador that if the Russians did not retaliate, sanctions relief from a Trump administration could be forthcoming. We also know the White House was told on Jan. 26 by the Department of Justice that Flynn’s public statements about these conversations were inaccurate — and that he was at risk of being blackmailed by the Russian government.
Did Flynn act independently, or did Trump instruct him to make the call? And if he doing Trump’s bidding, why was he so keen on easing the sanctions burden on Moscow, even in the face of strong evidence that Russia had interfered in the election?
An even bigger question is why was Flynn allowed to keep his job and maintain his security clearance for 18 days after the White House had been notified of his dishonesty, even though he was vulnerable to potential extortion from a hostile government? And why was Vice President Mike Pence, who had publicly defended Flynn, not told about Flynn’s duplicity?
While these questions are of immediate concern, they actually pale in comparison to the issue of contact between Trump campaign officials and members of the Russian intelligence services. According to a blockbuster report in the New York Times, Trump campaign aides were in “constant” communication with the Russians during the campaign. These officials appear to include not just Flynn, but Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort — the same campaign official who worked to soften anti-Russian language in the GOP platform.
As of yet, there doesn’t appear to be evidence that Trump aides were coordinating the various leaks of DNC emails with the Russians, but what would be the benign explanation for several Trump campaign aides speaking regularly with Russian intelligence officials? Was Trump aware of these conversations? And if he was, how does he square that with his previous statements denying any contact between his campaign and Moscow? Even today in his surreal press conference/cry for help Trump refused to give a yes or no answer to the question.
Finally, there’s the dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele that alleges not just coordination between the campaign and Russian intelligence, but details Trump’s allegedly deep financial connections to Russia. In recent days, CNN has reported that US intelligence agencies have confirmed some key elements of the dossier.
Answers to all these questions might also explain Trump’s bizarre and inexplicable reluctance to say a single negative word about Russia and its authoritarian ruler, Vladimir Putin.
So where do we go from here? Quite simply, Congress must act. Members of the House of Representatives must demand that the IRS turn over Trump’s tax records — something that House Democrats tried to engineer this week and were rebuffed by Republicans. The House and Senate must create a select committee to publicly investigate allegations of election coordination and the nature of Trump’s financial connections to Moscow. Flynn should be asked to testify about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States both before and after the election. Finally, Attorney General Jeff Sessions should recuse himself from the ongoing criminal investigations into these matters and, ideally, appoint an independent prosecutor to continue the inquiry.
Congressional Republicans have, to date, shown little interest in getting to the bottom of these matters. The same group that spent years investigating Benghazi seem utterly indifferent to what is an exponentially greater national security crisis. I get the partisan impulse to circle the wagons for Trump, but it simply won’t do.
The issues raised by Trump’s Russia connection are some of the most serious that this country has ever confronted. We could have a president who is vulnerable to blackmail from Moscow and even worse, one who has committed treasonous offenses. As long as these questions go unanswered there will be a permanent black cloud over the White House — and the country.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.