Donald Trump's Russia scandal: What you need to know (and what you should avoid)

When it comes to Russia, there are a lot of dangling threads that could distract us from the important points

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published April 9, 2017 11:00AM (EDT)

 (Reuters/Maxim Shipenkov/Christopher Aluka Berry/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Maxim Shipenkov/Christopher Aluka Berry/Photo montage by Salon)

If President Donald Trump did indeed collude with Russia to defeat Hillary Clinton, his best chance of getting away with it rests on manipulating our culture's notoriously distractible attention span. Indeed, there has been so much thrown out there about this issue — from countless interactions between Trumpers and unsavory Russians to the president's attempted deflection with various bogus "I was wiretapped" narratives — that it's almost understandable that we could lose sight of the important points here.

Focus on this

1. What stories do Michael Flynn and Sally Yates have to tell?

As the media reported last week, the Trump administration tried to prevent former acting attorney general Sally Yates from testifying about the scandal involving Russia, she said she was going to do it anyway, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes then abruptly — though he'd probably argue coincidentally — canceled the hearing in which she would have testified.

Again, the media reported on this — great! — and then moved on from the story, most likely due to the aforementioned pitifully short attention span. This is a huge piece of the puzzle, especially since Yates would have likely discussed the background that led up to the firing of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The former lieutenant general has extensive connections to Russia himself and actually offered to testify before Congress in exchange for immunity, which he himself would have to admit suggests that he "probably committed a crime."

There could be more here, if only the media picks up the thread again.

2. What exactly are Trump's business ties to Russia?

If you want to understand how Trump developed such close ties to Russia, start with the fact that Trump needed to turn to Russian financial interests when other banks wouldn't loan him money due to his multiple bankruptcies.

Over the years Trump has developed numerous business ties with powerful Russians, including some allegedly affiliated with the Russian mob, and as recently as 2008 Donald Trump Jr. admitted that "in terms of high-end product influx into the U.S., Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia."

Of course, Trump could clear up all of these suspicions by releasing his tax returns. That is one thread that can never, ever be dropped.

3. What role did Paul Manafort play? 

There are a number of Trumpers with ties to Russia — former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are the two biggest names that come to mind — but none send up red flags quite as much as Paul Manafort. It's easy to forget this now, but when Trump chose Manafort to be his campaign manager after releasing Corey Lewandowski, it was a pretty big deal. It was also a big deal when Manafort was released amidst scrutiny over the fact that he had been an adviser to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who is best known for being a puppet of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and was ousted in 2014 (after which he fled to Russia). Since that time, more reports have come out suggesting that he pushed for Putin's political interests throughout the world, particularly his work with Russian billionaire and Putin crony Oleg Deripaska.

This may explain why, while Manafort was campaign manager, the Trump campaign changed a plank in the Republican Party platform that was sharply critical of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. It definitely explains why, when Trump hired a campaign manager for a critical part of his presidential campaign who is best known for being one of Putin's puppet-masters, that Trump can't shake his reputation as a puppet.

4. Is Julian Assange a partisan?

Well before the 2016 presidential election, it would have taken an act of willful denial to believe that Julian Assange isn't working as a tool for the Putin regime. The evidence is overwhelming: Russia was one of the first nations to support Assange when he took refuge in London's Ecuadorian Embassy to flee rape charges in Sweden. Assange specifically requested Russians to protect him. He has frequently appeared on Russia's state-subsidized propaganda TV station (can you imagine Putin allowing anyone to appear there, particularly someone as prominent as Assange, without that person being in his pocket?). He tried to discredit the Panama Papers because they were embarrassing to Russia (a bit odd for an ostensible advocate of transparency, no?), and he has even praised Russia as having "vibrant publications, online blogs, and Kremlin critics such as [Alexey] Navalny are part of that spectrum."

Aside from that last point, all of these things occurred before the Trump-Clinton election. The fact that the Clinton emails were leaked not to a normal media outlet, but rather to an arm of Putin's propaganda machine, speaks volumes about where that information most likely came from. While this doesn't prove a Trump-Russia conspiracy, it is a thread that definitely needs to be pulled further.

5. Trump publicly asked Russia for help in defeating Clinton, but was it more than just a rhetorical question? 

In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter," readers learned a valuable lesson: Sometimes the most important evidence you need is literally right in front of you. It is for that reason that I am giving this quote by Trump, offered shortly after it was alleged that Russian intelligence had hacked Clinton's emails, without any further commentary.

"Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press."

Don't get distracted by this

1. Neo-McCarthyism

As Matt Taibbi pointed out in Rolling Stone, there is significant danger in branding people as Putin sympathizers simply because they express skepticism about aspects or even all of the story involving the Trump-Russia connection. The name of journalists, politicians and ordinary citizens accused of being pro-Putin is too numerous to list here, and the tricky part is that certain movements that are backing Trump — the alt-right being foremost among them — clearly do have sympathies with, and on some occasions direct ties to, the far-right ideology being peddled by Putin and his ilk.

Nevertheless, for every Julian Assange with irrefutable ties to Russia, there are people like Glenn Greenwald, who get accused of being pro-Russia simply for doubting the case presented by the intelligence community about Russia's alleged meddling in the election.

A cultural ethos can't develop in which people are silenced out of fear of being linked to a sinister conspiracy if they speak their minds. That kind of political society is precisely the sort of thing that exists in Russia, and which we must avoid replicating in free nations.

2. The "deep state" danger

When Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow in January that he was amazed that Trump would criticize the intelligence community because "they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you," he had a point — but not one that Trump's critics should gloat about.

Make no mistake about it: If Trump knowingly colluded with the Russian government to defeat Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, he should to be investigated.

Similarly, because the American public simply doesn't have access to the information we need to know the truth, our best hope may be more leaks from the intelligence community.

Nevertheless, we must remember that the so-called "deep state" is not the good guy here. After all, the same people who are lauding FBI Director James Comey for investigating Trump seem to forget that Comey's own meddling in the 2016 election quite likely played a major role in Clinton's defeat. There is nothing good about the fact that the fate of American democracy rests in the hands of unelected and militaristic government officers — first in tipping the scales from one presidential candidate to another, and then in systematically leaking to take down a likely corrupt president.

If we want to avoid a repeat of the political debacles that have roiled American politics in the late 2010s, we must realize that there is only one destination that ends well for the causes of freedom and justice: transparency. When it comes to that vital quality, it isn't just Trump who wants to keep everything opaque. To some extent, the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the deep state, governments, corporations — really, anyone with considerable power — doesn't want to open up to criticisms that could possibly hurt them.

If we're going to get informed, a good place to start is by learning the truth about whether one of the two most powerful men in the world got that job because of anti-democratic meddling by the other one.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Donald Trump Julian Assange Michael Flynn Paul Manafort Rex Tillerson Russia Sally Yates Vladimir Putin