Russia collusion scandal brews in the Trump administration

As the massively unpopular replacements for the Affordable Care Act are rewritten in secret and released, the probe of possible collusion between Russia and Trump has unfolded slowly. Recently Sen. Angus King said the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into possible Trump-Russia collusion was far from done, estimating they were “20 percent into it.” Now it’s heating up.

The Senate’s next bill cutting coverage for the poor and middle class and taxes for the wealthy, by the way, should be released on Thursday. The Congressional Budget Office will put out its analysis early next week. Despite having no public hearings and providing little time for people to offer their input on the bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hopes to have the Senate vote on it a few days after. Various versions have little public support because they deliver lousier coverage for fewer people at a higher cost when the American people want really good coverage for more people at a better price.

But that shameful way of conducting public policy was just pushed off the front page.

The Trump-Russia story burst into the open after the president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., admitted that he and others met with a Putin-linked Russian lawyer to obtain negative information about Hillary Clinton during last year’s presidential campaign. We’ve also learned he was told in an email he received before the meeting that it was part of a Russian government project to help his father and replied as part of an email chain now public, “If it’s what you say I love it.”

Donald Trump Jr. watches as his father takes the oath of office. Carlos Barria | Reuters

The president’s son says that the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, used the promise of delivering opposition research as the “pretext” for meeting. She then turned to discussing adoption, which sounds altruistic except that Russia suspended adoptions to the United States after former President Obama signed the bipartisan Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on Russians suspected of being human rights abusers. Moreover, Veselnitskaya has lobbied against the Magnitsky Act.

How big a scandal was Trump Jr.’s meeting?

George W. Bush’s chief ethics officer, Richard Painter, said on Twitter, “He must have known that the only way Russia would get such information was by spying” and if something like that happened in “the Bush administration we could have had him in custody for questioning by now.” Law professor Richard Hasen of the University of California, Irvine suggested that the meeting may have violated federal laws against soliciting foreign contributions. Former acting CIA Director Michael Morell said on CB News that the meeting showed “a willingness to collude” and was “highly inappropriate” because “it allows a foreign national to potentially influence the outcome of an election.”

Trump Jr. has hired a criminal defense attorney, and it’s likely members of Congress will question him, as Sen. Susan Collins has called for. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser, employed his lawyers to add the meeting to the disclosure form filed for his security clearance since it and other meetings with Russians were left off. Both had previously lied and denied having Russian meetings.

We’ve long had confirmation from the U.S. intelligence community that Russia tried to help Trump win the presidency.

According to the public version of the intelligence community assessment released on Jan. 6, 2017, Russia carried out a multi-faceted operation. One element was cyberwarfare — hacking and leaking. Russia also went after our election infrastructure, as “Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards.” And Russia conducted an “influence campaign” using television, Twitter, Facebook and other ways to try to shape public opinion.

Having been successful, Russia will try again. Sen. King predicts that election equipment “will certainly be subject to sophisticated cyberattacks” and warned, “It’s going to be back, and shame on us if we’re not prepared.”

Trump raised suspicion by questioning whether Russia did what the intelligence community says it did, refusing strong measures and loosening measures taken by Obama.

Other potential Russia-related scandals brewing involve financial crimes, such as a fraud and money laundering scheme linked to real estate, possibly carried out by Trump with mob-linked Felix Sater. Questions have been raised about Jared Kushner’s failed attempts to borrow half a billion dollars from Qatar, followed by the U.S. taking sides against the government.

As Trump (and Gov. LePage) try to delegitimize the free press, investigations by journalists, lawyers and Congress go on. News of the emails offering the Trump campaign aid from Russia adds to the simmering brew.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.