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National Politics|By Charlie Cook, June 6, 2017
This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on June 1, 2017

With the midterm elec­tions 17 months away, it’s pretty clear that all of this Rus­sia busi­ness is rel­ev­ant. We have a new pres­id­ent with no gov­ern­ment ex­per­i­ence, a mer­cur­i­al tem­pera­ment, and an out­size ego. His hope­lessly short-staffed ad­min­is­tra­tion is strug­gling to get his le­gis­lat­ive agenda through the House and Sen­ate, where the GOP is try­ing to man­age thin ma­jor­it­ies as well as dif­fer­ent pri­or­it­ies in the two cham­bers. The Rus­sia in­vest­ig­a­tions are rel­ev­ant be­cause they con­sume time and en­ergy from the Re­pub­lic­ans’ le­gis­lat­ive ef­forts, strain re­la­tion­ships between the pres­id­ent and Cap­it­ol Hill, and hinder Pres­id­ent Trump’s abil­ity to re­cruit top people to the ad­min­is­tra­tion. The probes also cast a polit­ic­al shad­ow over every Re­pub­lic­an run­ning in the midterm elec­tions.

So where is all of this Rus­sia busi­ness head­ing? What role did Rus­si­an in­tel­li­gence or oth­er en­tit­ies play in try­ing to in­flu­ence the out­come of the 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion and why? Was there any co­ordin­a­tion or col­lu­sion between Rus­si­an in­tel­li­gence or oth­er en­tit­ies and the Trump cam­paign or people as­so­ci­ated with the Trump cam­paign? Did Trump, the Trump Or­gan­iz­a­tion, or his fam­ily mem­bers have any kind of busi­ness or oth­er fin­an­cial re­la­tion­ship with Rus­si­an en­tit­ies and, if so, why were these denied and not dis­closed earli­er? What was the pur­pose of the meet­ings with Rus­si­ans be­fore the elec­tion and dur­ing the trans­ition, and why did pres­id­en­tial ad­viser and son-in-law Jared Kush­ner seek a chan­nel of com­mu­nic­a­tions that would be out of the earshot of U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies? All rel­ev­ant ques­tions.

Here are some edu­cated guesses. There will be no res­ol­u­tion of this mess any­time soon, cer­tainly noth­ing this year and prob­ably not un­til after the 2018 elec­tions. In the past, these kinds of spe­cial-coun­sel and in­de­pend­ent-pro­sec­utor in­vest­ig­a­tions have taken on lives of their own, go­ing in unanti­cip­ated dir­ec­tions with unanti­cip­ated res­ults. Re­mem­ber that the White­wa­ter in­vest­ig­a­tion star­ted off look­ing at an Arkan­sas real es­tate deal and ended up delving in­to the taw­dry de­tails of Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s sex life. Also re­mem­ber that more people get en­snared in cov­er-ups than in the pu­tat­ive fo­cus of an in­vest­ig­a­tion.

It’s pretty clear that the in­tel­li­gence and fed­er­al law en­force­ment com­munit­ies be­lieve there was a con­cer­ted, wide­spread, and soph­ist­ic­ated ef­fort by the Rus­si­an gov­ern­ment to un­der­mine the cred­ib­il­ity of the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Destabil­iz­ing ad­versar­ies is a time-honored form of non-kin­et­ic war­fare, and the in­ter­net has provided the means to un­der­mine rivals in largely in­vis­ible yet dev­ast­at­ing ways.

There ap­pears to have been a highly or­gan­ized ef­fort by groups act­ing on be­half of Rus­si­an se­cur­ity ser­vices or oth­er Rus­si­an en­tit­ies to dam­age Hil­lary Clin­ton, her cam­paign, and the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee though the use of Wikileaks and the spread of neg­at­ive stor­ies across the in­ter­net. False doc­u­ments and emails were also cre­ated and dis­sem­in­ated. The in­tent was likely not so much to elect Don­ald Trump, who seemed an un­likely can­did­ate when the Rus­si­ans began their mis­chief, as to pun­ish Hil­lary Clin­ton for cross­ing Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin dur­ing her time as sec­ret­ary of State. Putin was quoted Thursday in The New York Times deny­ing that his gov­ern­ment had hacked in­to Clin­ton emails but adding that if the per­pet­rat­ors are “pat­ri­ot­ic­ally minded, they start mak­ing their con­tri­bu­tions—which are right, from their point of view—to the fight against those who say bad things about Rus­sia.” U.S. in­tel­li­gence and law en­force­ment agen­cies don’t think these pat­ri­ot­ic Rus­si­ans were freel­an­cing.

While there may have been no sys­tem­at­ic co­ordin­a­tion between the Trump cam­paign and Rus­si­an groups, there was an un­pre­ced­en­ted level of con­tact between them. In­di­vidu­als work­ing for Rus­si­an in­tel­li­gence may have shared in­form­a­tion with people work­ing on the Trump cam­paign, who may or may not have known the true source of that in­form­a­tion. People in the in­tel­li­gence com­munity be­lieve that there is no cat­egory of “ap­pro­pri­ate” con­tact with known op­er­at­ives of an ad­versari­al for­eign in­tel­li­gence ser­vice.

People in the in­tel­li­gence com­munity be­lieve it is likely that Trump or the Trump Or­gan­iz­a­tion has had busi­ness and fin­an­cial re­la­tion­ships with Rus­si­an banks and oth­er busi­nesses in the past that were pre­vi­ously un­known—and they’re not talk­ing about the 2013 Miss Uni­verse pa­geant. If this is true and even if per­fectly leg­al, how ex­tens­ive and how fin­an­cially sig­ni­fic­ant were these re­la­tion­ships, and were en­tit­ies as­so­ci­ated with Rus­si­an se­cur­ity ser­vices or any oth­er Rus­si­an gov­ern­ment­al agen­cies in­volved?

Were there oth­er re­la­tion­ships between any­one in­volved in the Trump cam­paign or trans­ition team with for­eign gov­ern­ments oth­er than the already-dis­closed ties between Gen. Mi­chael Flynn, who was briefly Trump’s na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser, and the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment and Rus­sia’s RT Tele­vi­sion?

In an Oval Of­fice meet­ing on March 21, 1973, White House Coun­sel John Dean told Pres­id­ent Nix­on and Chief of Staff H.R. Hal­de­man that “we have a can­cer with­in—close to the Pres­id­ency, that’s grow­ing. It’s grow­ing daily. It’s com­pound­ing. It grows geo­met­ric­ally now be­cause it com­pounds it­self.” Well, it’s at least pre­ma­ture, and quite pos­sibly an ex­ag­ger­a­tion, to say that the Rus­sia af­fair is a can­cer on the Trump pres­id­ency, but at the very least it is a high-grade fever, the kind that fre­quently warns of an in­fec­tion. Does this fever break soon or does it linger, and what does it por­tend? With such nar­row Re­pub­lic­an mar­gins on the Hill and the stakes so high, the an­swers to these ques­tions are highly rel­ev­ant to the out­come of the midterm elec­tions.