We still don’t know if the Trump campaign directly colluded with the Russian government to interfere with the US presidential election, but that doesn’t mean that a smoking gun doesn’t exist. I’m referring to the complete and frankly inexplicable indifference of President Trump to Russia’s direct interference in the US presidential election.
Indeed, there might not be a bigger scandal in US-Russian relations — or clearer circumstantial evidence of collusion between Trump and the Russian government.
Last October, the US intelligence community reported its unanimous and “confident” view that the Russian government had been involved in the hack of the DNC and senior Clinton campaign officials and “that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”
Since then, the evidence of Russian interference has only grown, including Tuesday’s blockbuster Bloomberg news story that Russian efforts to hack into voter databases and software systems were far more widespread than had previously been reported. According to Bloomberg, 39 states were hit with Russian cyberattacks. When former FBI director James Comey said last week in congressional testimony that the Russians are “coming after America” and “they will be back,” it was more than just a hyperbolic warning, but rather a reason for genuine concern.
Yet, even in the face of this overwhelming evidence, the Trump administration has shown zero interest in the issue.
Actually, the opposite has occurred. Trump has gone out of his way to reward the Russians.
For all the focus on Trump’s leaking of sensitive foreign intelligence information in his Oval Office tete-a-tete with Ambassador Sergey Lavrov and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kisylak, the real scandal is that the meeting happened at all.
Moscow had been requesting such a high-profile meeting since 2013, from the Obama administration, and had been regularly rebuffed. Trump agreed to do it . . . wait for it . . . after a request from the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. This was actually confirmed by a White House spokesman, who told Politico that Trump “chose to receive him [Lavrov] because Putin asked him to.”
Why, after four years of US refusals to host Lavrov in the Oval Office — and six months after an election that the US intelligence community unanimously agrees was tainted by Russian interference — would Trump agree to such a meeting and make clear he did it because of an ask from Putin?
Here’s an even better question: Why would the Trump Administration be moving to return diplomatic compounds that Russian officials were ejected from last December by the Obama Administration because they were being “used by Russian personnel for intelligence-related purposes”? Why would a US president make it easier for Russian officials to spy on the United States?
Trump’s defenders have argued that the olive branch extended to the Russians could bring about greater cooperation between the two countries in Syria and Ukraine. But it’s near impossible to think of a reasonable explanation for the United States to look the other way at evidence of a direct Russian cyberattack on US democracy in return for cooperation over Ukraine, a country to which the Unites States has no treaty obligations, and Syria, where US and Russian interests operate at cross-purposes.
And, to date, there is little indication that any of the White House’s moves have been predicated on a quid pro quo from Moscow. The most charitable explanation would be that Trump is giving the Russians concessions in the hopes it will soften Moscow up, but why would the Russians do any favors for the United States when they can sit back, do nothing, and be given prized diplomatic gifts from the White House?
It’s not as if Russia has much to offer America. It has a moribund economy, is diplomatically isolated, and has a weak military. The United States sells more goods to Thailand, Argentina, and Austria than it does to Russia — and imports about 7 times more goods from Germany, a country that Trump recently insulted on Twitter. Indeed, there are few countries on earth more hostile toward the United States than Russia.
There simply is no reason to show such partiality to Putin — and that would be the case even if there was no evidence of Russian cybermeddling.
None of this makes any sense — either from a diplomatic or a national security standpoint. The conspiracy mongers will argue that the real quid pro quo here is Trump doing favors for Moscow in return for its help in getting him elected or perhaps because of fears that Putin and his cronies have blackmail material on him.
This seems far-fetched, but is there another reasonable explanation for an American president actively rewarding a foreign government that directly interfered in a US presidential election? If there is one, I can’t think of it.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.