Volume 5 of the Senate report gets us closer to the truth about Russia and Trump — and closer to understanding how Russian influence works

Until the recent publication of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian interference, the issue of the Trump campaign’s secret relationship with Russia had been subsumed by the constant barrage of news related to impeachment, Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, and his constant stream of moronic tweets, insults, lies, and personal attacks. Trump and his cronies’ efforts to confuse and deflect were largely successful. Despite the damning conclusions of the Mueller report, Trump supporters took Mueller’s unwillingness to charge a criminal conspiracy as complete vindication, and even Democrats seem to have been steamrolled by the interminable chants of “hoax” and “no collusion.” 

Unfortunately, Mueller’s report was easy to misrepresent. It was poorly written, limited in scope, failed to investigate Trump’s finances or possible ties to Russia, and bizarrely failed to make key judgments. Justice Department pressure insured that Mueller limit his task to investigating crimes, not threats to national security. As such, Mueller’s caution and unwillingness to speak clearly and forcefully allowed Trump’s lies and over-simplification to control the political narrative. Of course, to anyone who actually read the Mueller report, or had experience in national security matters, Trump’s actions were beyond troubling, even disqualifying. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake to assume that a criminal investigation of limited scope would serve to illuminate an ethical and counterintelligence breach.

The recently published Senate report succeeds where Mueller failed. Its conclusion that the actions of the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia constituted a “grave counterintelligence threat,” make it clear that the investigation was anything but a hoax. As Franklin Foer commented in The Atlantic: “The chairman of the Trump campaign was in daily contact with a Russian agent, constantly sharing confidential information with him. That alone makes for one of the worst scandals in American political history.” 

Volume 5 is a stunning document. It lays out an overwhelming series of ethical and corrupt conduct, all of which Trump’s associates tried to keep secret. As damning as it is, one can assume that it is nonetheless incomplete. A variety of factors limited what was unearthed and reported. The Trump administration stonewalled at every turn. They refused to share documents or allow witnesses. The campaign covered up its activity at the time and consistently obstructed investigative efforts after the fact. Key players in the activity lied and relied on encrypted means of communication. The Senate lacked access to Trump’s finances or a detailed history of his dealings with Moscow. More importantly, the real evidence is held by a hostile foreign intelligence organization, and hidden in Moscow. Further, as the bipartisan document was signed by Senate Republicans, it is easy to assume that the language and conclusions were watered down or at least softened to avoid the ire of the White House. 

However, like the Mueller report before it, the shocking Senate conclusions also seem to be swallowed up in the day-to-day chaos that is 2020 America. The seemingly larger threats to democratic norms, voting rights, and stoking of a culture war make the Russia collusion narrative appear to be yesterday’s news. Even after signing the Senate report, Trump’s congressional enablers promote counter-narratives that they know to be incorrect, well aware that the details of the reports are too complicated and far from the real life of most voters.

As we approach the Presidential election, it is now clear that Trump’s opponents wasted a critical opportunity to frame the political narrative to display Trump’s shameful and corrupt behavior. Democrats shouldn’t have relied on what they could easily have predicted would be wordy and esoteric reports. Waiting years for the voluminous reporting ensured that they lost key time, and were not able to capitalize while the issue was fresh in voters’ heads. Also, they made it easy for Trump’s supporters to craft a simple counter-narrative and use their bullhorn to saturate the media landscape in an effort to confuse and deflect.

This is especially frustrating because the Democrats had access to the simplest of narratives as early as 2016. The media and Democrats should have avoided responding to the myriad of confusing actions, and simply continued to press Trump surrogates with a single question: Why? 

Nobody ever turned the simple question back on Trump and his enablers. Why did the campaign meet with so many Russians? Why would a campaign trying to corral votes in Iowa and New Hampshire spend precious time engaging with Russia and Russians? What did the campaign expect to gain from Russia? Instead, the failure to focus on this most simple question has allowed Trump to escape accountability from the kind of voters who don’t follow the ins and outs of foreign policy. Instead, they could revert to claims of legality or push back against this allegation or that.

Despite unequivocal public statements that they had no contact whatsoever with Russia or Russians, the Trump campaign had hundreds of connections, all of which the Trump team tried to cover up. When eventually caught, they consistently tried to obstruct the investigation. Even after the Mueller Report’s publication, nobody in the Trump orbit was able to provide any plausible reason for their activity. Indeed, they never even tried. Mueller himself stated, “the investigation established that several individuals affiliated with the Trump Campaign lied to the Office, and to Congress, about their interactions with Russian-affiliated individuals and related matters. Those lies materially impaired the investigation.” He added that Trump himself “engaged in efforts to curtail the Special Counsel’s investigation and prevent the disclosure of evidence to it, including through public and private contacts with potential witnesses.” Hardly the actions of innocent actors.

Why were so many people around the president engaged in conspiratorial behavior? Why did they uniformly lie, destroy communications, engage in a cover-up, and obstruct the work of investigators? Why did Trump and those around him consistently parrot Russian talking points? If Trump’s actions were on the up and up, why the lies and counterattacks? Why the obstruction and efforts to hamstring any individual or institution that might uncover the truth? 

Team Trump was clearly trying to establish a secret relationship with the Russian government to improve his election chances. His team was willing and eager to accept material stolen from Americans by a hostile intelligence service, and covertly shared internal campaign data with the Kremlin. As Mueller himself reported, the campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” At the end of the day, even if Trump didn’t knowingly conspire with Russia’s intelligence service, his actions nonetheless handed Putin a weapon that constitutes an ongoing counterintelligence threat.

Perhaps the most troublesome result from the Russia/campaign saga is that the president has been able to convince a large part of the populace that it was merely a domestic political issue, and not a national security concern, thus leaving Putin free to continue his attacks. Who knows what the Trump team was trying to accomplish with their secret collusion with Russia, or how far they would have gone if they weren’t caught. In any event, engaging a hostile intelligence agency is playing with fire. You don’t have to go all in on treachery and become a spy to aid the enemy and undermine national security. You only need to make dishonest choices when you think no one is watching. 

President Trump may not have been convicted for his actions in 2016, but have the subsequent years made us more or less likely to think that the President was engaged in actions that may come back to burn us all?