Donald Trump's connections to Russia, explained

Here are five irrefutable facts about our president's ties to a foreign adversary

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published August 3, 2019 1:01PM (EDT)

Vladimir Putin; Donald Trump (AP/Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)
Vladimir Putin; Donald Trump (AP/Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)

In July 2016, Donald Trump — then still the Republican Party's presidential candidate — openly encouraged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton, then the Democratic Party's nominee for the White House.

"I will tell you this, 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," Trump told a group of reporters assembled reporters at a news conference.

As former special counsel Robert Mueller's report made clear, this was not the beginning of Trump's association with Russia — but it was certainly a flashpoint.

As it was then, Trump's coziness with the foreign adversary is far from hidden. Who could forget his joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018?

After meeting with the dictator for two hours in Helsinki, Trump told reporters this: "I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today."

Once again, Trump's fondness of Russia was caught on camera for the world to see. Nonetheless, many Americans continue to choose to ignore it, either for partisan reasons or perhaps because the individuals exposing it are perceived as "boring," as my colleague Amanda Marcotte recently observed.

Wherever you may fall in line, here are five irrefutable facts about our president's ties to Russia:

1. This is not McCarthysim.

Before delving into the Trump-Russia scandal, it is first important to explain why this is not McCarthyism. Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin was a right-wing Republican, who terrorized America in the early 1950s by creating a panic over the idea that communist subversives were everywhere — and all Americans needed to be afraid of them. Because this was in the early years of the Cold War, the fear of communism was equated with the fear of America's chief geopolitical adversary — the Soviet Union — and rightly so. At the same time, communism was also a distinct ideology, and many opposed it not only because it was supported by our enemies but also because they disagreed with its precepts on rectifying economic and social injustices.

The main thing that has not changed since the 1950s is that Russia — the main nation behind the former Soviet Union — is still America's adversary, albeit arguably not its chief one. (More on that in a moment.) At the same time, the claim that Trump is connected to Russia is not being motivated by ideological conflation. It is based on solid evidence akin to that which was assembled against the Soviet spies who infiltrated the American government during the Cold War, like Alger Hiss, who Richard Nixon helped expose when he was a legislator from California.

2. It all started with money.

Remember when Trump's main claim to fame was his multiple corporate bankruptcies? After major banks stopped lending Trump money due to his multiple bankruptcies, the desperate businessman started turning to Russian financial interests with close ties to the Putin regime in order to continue funding his various business ventures.

Exactly how many Trump ventures are connected to Russia? We cannot know for sure, because the president has been opaque about his business dealings, but they certainly include Trump Soho, a Trump resort in Phoenix and two Trump projects in Fort Lauderdale. A Trump building constructed in Panama almost exclusively served wealthy Russian clients and was described to NBC News "as a magnet for international organized crime, particularly from Russia."

Trump attempted to build a branded tower in Moscow even as the 2016 presidential election was under way, which former special counsel Robert Mueller confirmed in his recent testimony to Congress. Perhaps most damningly, Donald Trump Jr. admitted in 2008 that "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia," according to the Washington Post.

3. The Mueller report irrefutably links members of the Trump campaign to Russia.

Although the 448-page Mueller report determined that the Trump campaign did not conspire with Russia to influence the outcome of election, it laid out irrefutable links between the two.

Trump surrounded himself with people who were connected to Russia, including his former national security Michael Flynn. The Mueller report stated that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and political consultant Rick Gates provided polling information to someone they believed to be a Russian spy, and Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos tried to arrange meetings between the future president and Putin.

During the campaign, Russia tried to hack into Clinton's email account less than five hours after the future president called on them to do so. In his congressional testimony, Mueller publicly criticized the Trump for his apparent embrace of the thousands of emails stolen from Democrats and published by WikiLeaks.

The former special counsel later documented at least ten instances of possible obstruction by the president of his probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

4. In spite of Trump's questionable connections with Russia, his administration's policies toward the country are not drastically different from those pursued by his Democratic predecessor.

As former President Barack Obama's ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, told Salon in June:

I think the basic Trump administration policy toward Russia has been pretty sound. They don't like it when I say this, and Obama folks don't like it when I say this, but I see more continuity in actual policy between Obama and Trump than this continuity with respect to Russia. Not in terms of language, but in terms of actual things. Right?

Sanctions are still in place. That's the right strategy, in my view. NATO is strengthened and has deployed forces closer to the Russian border. That's good news, in my view. Support for Ukraine, economic political reform and military assistance, has continued. I give the Trump Administration credit in providing lethal [military] assistance [to Ukraine]. That's an improvement.

So far, the contours I think are more or less the same. What I worry about, of course, is that as the president gains more confidence in his practice of diplomacy that he might disrupt that and might begin to move in different directions. The area I'm most concerned about right now is with respect to Ukraine.

5. That said, Trump's friendly rhetoric helpful to Putin's interests.

As McFaul also told Salon in June, "What I do know is that things that the president says serves Russia's national interest, as defined by Putin. I want to be very clear about that: as defined by Putin."

It is also worth looking at this observation from Bill Browder, a British businessman who has blown the whistle on Russian government corruption. Here is what he said when he spoke to Salon in January:

I think the best comparable would be Pablo Escobar. Putin is a criminal. He’s committed enormous financial crimes of unimaginable magnitude over the last 19 years against his own country. Because he’s committed those crimes, and it was just reported today that 1 in 4 Russians don’t even have an indoor toilet, they’re so poor. Those crimes have impoverished the Russian people. At this point, his only objective is to stay in power, which allows him to keep his money and stay alive, and so all of his actions — whether they’re repressive actions, repression in Russia or foreign conflicts outside of Russia — it’s all designed to either stay in power, to create a nationalistic diversion and to also create chaos in the West so we can’t focus on the terrible things he’s doing.

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.

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