March 20, 2017 / 8:03 AM / in 4 months

Commentary: How Trump-Russia ties have affected the administration – so far

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FBI Director James Comey prepares to testify to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on “Russia’s intelligence activities" on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 10, 2017.Joshua Roberts

FBI Director James Comey, National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers and other witnesses are expected to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Monday in the first public hearing on Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

The hearing is based on a report, issued by the U.S. intelligence community in early January, which confirmed Russia’s covert involvement in the election, using various tactics to undermine Hillary Clinton and aid Donald Trump.

Reuters global affairs columnist Peter Apps and contributor Tim Weiner, a national security and intelligence expert and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, have been covering claims of Russian ties to the Trump administration and the impact they’ve had on the White House: from former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s abrupt exit, to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal, to the crackdown on leaks. As the hearing gets underway, we revisit some of their insights.

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Remember when Jeff Sessions said, during sworn testimony at his Jan. 10 attorney general confirmation hearing: “I did not have communications with the Russians”?

We later learned that he spoke with Russia’s ambassador to the United States twice last year, according to Justice Department officials and as reported by the Washington Post. During a March 2 press conference Sessions confirmed the meetings and recused himself from any probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. He also defended his now-infamous denial: “My reply to the question of Senator Franken was honest and correct as I understood it at the time.”

Not quite, wrote Weiner in the hours before Sessions’ recusal. It’s malfeasance, or worse, by the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.

For more, see Weiner’s column: The right way to handle Jeff Sessions

Within minutes of Sessions concluding his press conference, the New York Times published an account of yet another previously undocumented meeting, this time between Russian officials and Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner. But the truth behind the allegations, innuendo and rumor is less important than the problems they are causing, wrote Reuters columnist Peter Apps – namely, the impression that the Trump administration continues to be soft on Russia, with a web of possible ties.

Two major hires may help. The administration recently picked Fiona Hill, former National Intelligence Officer for Russia under the George W. Bush administration, as its point person on Russia. She’s the author of a hard-hitting book on Putin, and along with Trump’s new National Security Adviser, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, is likely to recommend a tougher stance.

For more, see Apps’ column: Can new appointees fix Trump's Russia problem?

Without government leaks to the press, we likely wouldn’t know about contact between Trump associates and Russian intelligence officials, or the fact that White House Chief of Staff Rence Priebus asked the FBI to publicly rebut that report.

Trump has been publicly livid about leak-driven press coverage, which he described on Twitter as “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”

The White House is attacking the media – and its sources inside the government – on multiple fronts. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer put his staff on notice that their calls will be monitored. He specifically warned them against using encrypted communications apps like Signal and Confide.

But an obsession with chasing down leaks can damage this White House, wrote Tim Weiner. It is the road to hell in Washington. And through the travails of Richard Nixon, we have travelled that road before.

For more, see Weiner’s column: Chasing leaks is a road to hell in Washington. See: Nixon.

Trump is at war with the FBI and the CIA, tweeting denunciations of the agencies and railing against leaks about the Russia investigation.

All this puts FBI Director James Comey – and the president – in a political and legal contretemps at a moment when the stakes could not be higher, wrote Weiner. Comey is now in charge of one of the most delicate, and potentially the most dangerous, counterintelligence cases in the 108-year history of the FBI. 

Monday’s hearing will tell us some things. But the short-term, the most important aspects of this case probably will play out in secret, in lead-lined chambers of the Capitol and heavily secured conference rooms at the FBI. 

For more, see Weiner’s column: When the FBI confronts the White House

Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s tenure lasted 24 days. But the debacle surrounding his exit offers a window into the Trump presidency.

What have we learned?

For Trump, Russia is now toxic, wrote Tim Weiner. In the Trump White House, no one is untouchable – and the administration could become a “Game of Thrones”-style political bloodbath.

Everyone is leaking. Provable lies can be fatal. Vice President Mike Pence is in a strong, perhaps vital position.

The Flynn saga demonstrated that in the Trump White House there are limits to what you can get away with. Misleading the vice president or other senior officials can be fatal. The president can get away with more than anyone else – not least because he is so difficult to remove – but even he might struggle if found to have lied to Congress or the American people on something important.

For more, see Weiner’s column: What the Flynn debacle tells us about the Trump presidency

About the Author

Helen Coster is a Senior Editor at Reuters. @hcoster

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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