IntelBrief: The Reality of the Russian Investigation
Bottom Line up Front:
- One day after a disastrous press conference, President Trump tried to minimize the political damage he wrought in Helsinki.
- The focus on one word – ‘would’ or ‘wouldn’t’ – obscures the much larger concern that the U.S. President is at complete odds with his Justice Department and intelligence agencies.
- On July 16, the U.S. government arrested a Russian national on charges of being an unregistered agent of the Russian government.
- This is the 26th indictment of Russians related to illegal interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, and the first arrest.
On July 17, President Trump read from prepared remarks in an attempt to minimize the blowback over his unprecedented performance the day before in Helsinki. The July 16 joint press conference with President Trump and Russian President Putin was unlike anything in modern U.S. political history. At various points, Trump essentially—and at times literally—claimed he believed the word of a foreign leader over the findings of his own Justice Department and other U.S. agency investigations into Russian actions to illegally influence and interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections. In his prepared remarks, President Trump said he misspoke: he meant to say ‘wouldn’t’ when he said he didn’t ‘see why it wouldbe Russia.’ While much attention has been paid to this one word, changing it does nothing to alter the larger reality of the conference in Helsinki. In fact, Trumpwent on to say, ‘I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia meddling in the 2016 election took place…Could have been other people also. Lots of other people out there.’ President Trump’s repeated statements undermining the United States, while propping up Russia, do not hinge on one word.
The deliberate undermining of the legitimacy and credibility of the investigation by the Special Counsel, as well as the actions of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the entire U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), is among the more disturbing and controversial in recent U.S. history. The rhetoric around mistrust and fake news, and the rampant paranoia encouraged by President Trump, was on full display in Helsinki. President Trump stood next to President Putin and cast doubt on evidence-based findings of his own agencies, while promoting the unsubstantiated claims of the leader of what many believe to be a rogue nation. Yet there is little doubt beyond President Trump’s circle of unquestioning supporters that Russia engaged—and is still engaged—in a widespread effort to help then-candidate Trump and promote pro-Russian sentiment and policies among powerful politicians, think tanks, media personalities, and organizations, including the National Rifle Association (NRA).
A most recent example of this effort came to light on July 16. The U.S. Department of Justice announced the arrest of Russian national Maria Butina. Ms. Butina was charged with being an unregistered agent for the Russian government connected to very high-placed Republican politicians. Butina worked with the NRA at the direct behest of senior Russian officials, reportedly including Putin. Butina worked to establish ‘back channel’ lines of communication—including two known attempts to arrange meetings with then-candidate Trump—that, in the charging document submitted in court, stated ‘could be used by the Russian Federation to penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.’ After her arrest become public, the extent of her ‘back channels’ began to be more publicly known, with photographs emerging of Ms. Butina standing with senior Republican politicians and government officials.
An example of this—Russia’s thinly-veiled access to leading Republican official—is National Security Advisor John Bolton. In 2013, Bolton gave a taped presentation for the NRA aimed at helping Russia change its constitution to include a ‘right to bear arms.’ The deal was arranged by the NRA and Russian national Alexander Torshin, who is now under investigation by the U.S. government for illegally trying to funnel money to help the 2016 Trump campaign through the NRA. Ms. Butina is said to have reported to Torshin.Butina’s is the 26th federal indictment of Russians in connection with the campaign to illegally influence the 2016 U.S. elections. That such a campaign existed is the assessment of the U.S. IC, various congressional investigations, the Mueller Special Counsel investigation, and parallel DOJ investigations, including the one that led to the arrest of Ms. Butina. On July 13, 12 Russian intelligence officers were indicted by the Mueller investigation. The 204-page document supporting the indictment is by far the most detailed public accounting of the Russian effort to ‘hack’ the databases of the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Butina’s is the first arrest in this matter; the other 12 who have been indicted are in Russia.
During the Helsinki press conference, President Putin denied any collusion between his government and the Trump campaign. However, Putin also flatly stated, referring to Trump, that Putin ‘wanted him to win because he spoke of normalization of Russian-U.S. ties.’ In a country where Putin isthe government, his desire to see Trump win the U.S. presidency would not remain an idle preference. Trump’s rejection of the various investigations’ findings, and his blatant pandering to President Putin, will ensure that conspiracy theories increase. The entire affair has dovetailed with existing social and political divisions in the U.S., which are by now easy to exploit to the point of a national crisis.
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