The past ten days have brought to surface a list of revelations about, and statements from, President-elect Donald Trump. These realities force Americans to inquire as to motivations of Trump and his staff in the Administration’s stance toward Russia. But more importantly, they force each of us to examine exactly how a large swath of voters allowed themselves to be swayed by foreign actors during the election itself.
To start, a briefing from leaders of US intelligence agencies and the release of an unclassified report found that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election represented “a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort beyond previous election-related espionage.” Afterward, the Trump team begrudgingly admitted that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Despite the continued and months-long stream of condemnations of the election interference from both sides of the political aisle, Trump himself seemingly never speaks ill of Russia or her president, Vladimir Putin. Notably, Putin does not appear on the New York Times’ running list of people or things Trump has insulted, while civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis, General Colin Powell, Chief Justice John Roberts, Senator John McCain, NATO, the UN, and the Broadway musical Hamilton have all caught the President-elect’s ire. In fact, Trump often praises Putin, most recently for Russia’s response to increased US sanctions, perhaps due to Trump’s documented relationship with the man, which goes back to at least 2013.
Early last week Buzzfeed published an admittedly unsubstantiated report that Russia has substantial Kompromat on Trump: compromising material which includes evidence of legal, financial, or moral misdeeds for the purpose of blackmail, influence, or control. The material allegedly stems from Trump’s 2013 visit to Moscow during his Miss Universe pageant held just outside that city. Importantly, allegations in that report include a continuing relationship between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government. A Trump aide later confirmed that Trump's national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has been in frequent contact with Russia’s ambassador to the US in recent weeks. The FBI has since confirmed that Russia hacked the Republican National Committee during the election, as well, but did not leak whatever information was obtained.
Later in the week we learned that top US intelligence agencies expressed “high confidence” that Putin himself ordered electoral interference at the expense of Clinton, and that the CIA and FBI are investigating whether Russia financially contributed to the Trump campaign. Despite this news, Trump later expressed the possibility that he may remove sanctions the US has placed on Russia in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea and extended after the meddling in the 2016 election. Further, Trump advisers have stated that the President-elect’s first foreign policy trip will be to Iceland to meet with Putin within weeks of his Inauguration. Trump has still not released his tax returns, but we know he has continuously tried to do business in Russia in the past.
In sum, there is reason to believe that Russian officials, acting on the orders of Vladimir Putin, may have used their ability to blackmail Trump, both with the material in the dossier published by Buzzfeed and any information obtained from hacking the RNC, as leverage to gain influence with his campaign, which may include financial contributions, in order to undermine the Clinton campaign and convince the American people to elect Trump. As further evidence, since his victory, Trump has expressed his intention to re-evaluate US sanctions on Russia, his top aides continue frequent contact with Russian officials, and once sworn in he plans on immediately meeting Putin in person.
Under relevant federal law, an organization or individual, which agrees or consents to be indirectly supervised, directed, financed, or subsidized in whole or in major part by a foreign government or political party is an agent of a foreign principal, and must register as such with the Department of Justice. Further, public officials who act as agents of a foreign principal would be in violation of 18 US 219 and are subject to fines or imprisonment.
Whether the President-elect or any or his organizations, appointments, or advisors meet the legal standard to qualify as agents of a foreign principal requires more evidence beyond what is publicly available. The law requires more than a mere confluence of interests between foreign and domestic actors, but actual direction or supervision of foreign actors over domestic actors. The possession of blackmail material would be key to establishing this link. However, our intelligence agencies may plausibly corroborate the existing allegations and may yet uncover further connections between Trump, his staff, and Russia. This reality brings America to the three following questions:
First, how did we allow so many of our individual political judgments to be influenced by a foreign power? No public information implies that Russia infiltrated US election software. Instead, in November only Americans voted, but too many of us were insufficiently critical in both how we discerned factual articles from inaccurate or purposely misleading ones and how we weighed the value of the factual information, which was available. As much as we may point fingers at Trump or Putin, we too must look inward for both blame and solutions. Russia and other adversarial actors may be emboldened by the results of the 2016 election interference and seek further influence in 2020 and beyond. We the people must change if the results are to, as well.
Second, how do we convince Speaker Paul Ryan and Republicans on the Hill to use the threat of impeachment to obtain sufficient financial and other information from Trump and his staff for a proper investigation into potential coordination with Moscow? Luckily Trump’s affinity toward Russia and propensity to insult even allies have made him unpopular among his own party leaders. Nonetheless, broad and sustained political mobilization will be required to convince Congressional Republicans that impeaching a Republican president is politically advantageous for them individually and as a party.
Third, how do we prevent foreign powers from influencing our elections again? Neither our Constitution nor our laws can prevent a sufficiently large number of Americans from making gravely poor decisions. However, strengthened required financial disclosures for candidates and appointments or other transparency and ethics legislation may constrain our future potential lapses in judgment.
Irrespective of any potential forthcoming revelations or allegations regarding relationships between an adversarial country and the man who will be our president before week’s end, our country has already ventured into uncharted waters, guided by a minority of voters who allowed themselves to be steered by a foreign power. Is the American ship seaworthy? How we act now, with Republican leaders at the helm, can only answer this question.