The Washington Post and The New York Times each published stories on Wednesday night about President Trump’s administration and its connections to Russia — first at the top of their websites and then, on Thursday, on the front pages of their papers. The Post reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who denied under oath having any contact with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign, had met in September with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. Sessions was one of Trump’s senior advisers during the campaign, and by September U.S. officials had evidence that Russia was hacking into the e-mails of Democratic officials to influence the election. (Sessions recused himself Thursday afternoon from any Department of Justice investigation into the 2016 election.)
The Times reporting, meanwhile, described how Obama administration officials, in their last days in office, sought to preserve information about the details of the Russian hacking effort by making sure that information was distributed to European allies, key senators and across the executive branch. According to the Times, Obama administration officials were worried Trump and his allies could opt to destroy this evidence once they entered office.
Those two stories fit into a broader narrative that has been ongoing since November. The Post and Times have produced a series of stories (here is one on Nov. 10, one on Jan. 19 and another on Feb. 14,) that allege various Trump aides and advisers met or connected with Russian officials in the run-up to the election. Separately, the two papers have also published stories that showed Trump allies — one-time National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and now Sessions — had given false, misleading or incomplete descriptions about pre- and post-election contact with Russian officials. These stories have had immediate impact, with Flynn resigning from his post at the request of Trump, and Sessions now promising to recuse himself.
Where is all this heading? There’s one big question we still don’t know the answer to: What were Trump World and the Russian officials talking about? The answer to that question will go a long way toward determining how big a scandal Trump’s Russia ties turn out to be. So to help make sense of all this reporting, let’s run through some plausible scenarios, starting with the most extreme.
The Times’ article hints at this. The effort to preserve the hacking evidence, the Times writes in the ninth paragraph of its Thursday piece, “also reflected the suspicion among many in the Obama White House that the Trump campaign might have colluded with Russia on election email hacks — a suspicion that American officials say has not been confirmed.”
Whoa. If the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians on the hacking, that would be a huge story. If Trump were found to have authorized such a hacking, there would be calls for him to resign from office. (Maxine Waters, a Democratic congresswoman from California, has already been making this case and invoking the specter of impeachment.)
Trump and his team have denied that they were coordinating in any way, regarding hacking or anything else, with Russia during the election.
But what’s happening in Washington is all premised around this question: Did Trump or one of his allies somehow authorize or support the hacking of the DNC and Hillary Clinton aides? The press is not sure, so it is investigating the question. Democrats in Congress want the Department of Justice to launch a full-scale investigation of the Russian hacking and Trump’s connections to Russia. They didn’t want Sessions involved, since he is a top Trump ally and they don’t trust him to be impartial. And in the wake of the disclosures about Sessions’s meeting with Kislyak, even some top congressional Republicans said Sessions had to recuse himself from whatever investigation of Russia that DOJ conducts.
So the most extreme, game-changing scenario is that Trump or his allies, while meeting with Russian officials in the run-up to the election, either encouraged the hacking or actually authorized it.
The benign explanation
Even if these contacts between Russian officials and Trump’s team did happen, that doesn’t mean they were nefarious. In 2008, Michael McFaul, then an Obama campaign adviser, met with Russian officials in Moscow, as he recently told the Post. Once Obama was in office, McFaul became one of his top aides on Russia policy and later the U.S ambassador to Russia.
It is not uncommon for foreign governments to reach out to the team of a major American presidential candidate or top-ranking former or current officials in U.S. government. This is Sessions’s argument, according to his aides, that he meets with ambassadors all the time. But we simply don’t have any precedent for how presidential campaigns or senators typically do or should interact with officials from governments that are involved in hacking schemes that affect the American election.
The policy explanation
Maybe these contacts with Russia by Trump allies were driven by policy, not hacking or election strategy or business. In short, the talks between Trump’s team and Russian officials could have been the start of an attempt at a kind of detente between the U.S. and Russia, similar to the secret talks the Obama administration had with officials from Iran and Cuba before Obama shifted American policy with those nations.
Trump, in his speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, while not naming Russia, seemed to make a nod to his view that U.S.-Russia relations are currently too toxic.
“America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align. We want harmony and stability, not war and conflict. We want peace, wherever peace can be found. America is friends today with former enemies. Some of our closest allies, decades ago, fought on the opposite side of these terrible, terrible wars,” he said.