A bombshell Washington Post report Friday cast new light on the 2016 presidential campaign. According to the Post, the CIA in a secret assessment has concluded that “Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency.”
Intelligence agencies identified “individuals with connections to the Russian government” who gave thousands of hacked Democratic National Committee emails to Wikileaks as part of “a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances,” the paper reported. The next day, the New York Times added another piece to the puzzle, reporting that the Russians had also hacked into the Republican National Committee’s computer system, “but did not release whatever information they gleaned.” In other words, Moscow released only information that would help, not hurt, Mr. Trump.
The RNC denied its system was hacked and the president-elect’s transition office issued a blistering Trumpian attack on the CIA findings: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest electoral victories in American history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’” Later, Mr. Trump told Fox News that the CIA assessment was “ridiculous” and an “excuse” by Democrats for losing to him.
And while my friends at the Wall Street Journal editorial page are right that the “new information in these latest stories is less about new intelligence than it is a judgment about Russian motives,” this latest shock wave rolling out of Trump Tower has a different feel to it. The case of the Russian connection could spell real trouble for Mr. Trump. That’s largely because Congress is not going to roll over and play dead. Several influential Republicans are pushing for an investigation. There will be hearings. There will be new details. There will be leaks. The intelligence community now has its back against the wall, thanks to Mr. Trump’s attacks.
Mr. Trump’s win in fact was not “one of the biggest electoral victories in American history,” but it was substantial, and there is no evidence that Russia succeeded in throwing the election his way. But plenty of Trump links to the Putin regime kept popping up through the year and now they must be considered in the context of the CIA assessment. This includes a statement by the Russian government itself. “There were contacts” with Trump campaign staff during the election, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Interfax news agency on Nov. 10.
In July, in highly unusual remarks, Mr. Trump invited the Russian government to locate Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 missing emails. “I will tell you this, Russia, if you are listening,” Mr. Trump said to the cameras, “I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will be rewarded mightily by our press.”
In another incident, as the Republican National Convention neared, Trump campaign officials intervened to rewrite the party platform position on Ukraine, softening its hardline rhetoric on Russia. At the time, Washington lobbyist Paul Manafort was running the Trump show. Mr. Manafort has deep ties to pro-Russia forces in Ukraine and exited the campaign in August after questions were raised about payments he received from a Kremlin-aligned political party. Mr. Manafort has denied any wrongdoing. Asked about the party platform incident on ABC, Mr. Trump said, “I wasn’t involved in that,” but confirmed that campaign aides had played a role.
Two other Trump aides have ties to Russia as well. Carter Page, an early Trump foreign policy adviser with links to the Russian energy industry, came under FBI investigation earlier this year, according to news reports. In September, the Trump campaign distanced itself from Mr. Page, saying he was not a member of the campaign team. And Mr. Trump’s choice for national security adviser, former Defense Intelligence Agency chief Mike Flynn, was paid for a speaking engagement last year at the Kremlin-controlled Russia Today television network. Mr. Flynn also attended a gala for the group and was seated at the table with a very important patron, Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Trump himself is no stranger to the Russians. As I noted in a piece for the Journal in October, his Russian business forays date back to at least 1987 and include encounters with Kremlin-aligned power brokers and various shady characters from the region. Among the latter is Felix Sater, a former senior adviser to Mr. Trump. Mr. Sater became involved in the Trump Soho luxury condominium project around 2006. A Sater associate also brokered a $50 million investment in Trump Soho and other projects by a firm associated with wealthy Russians allied with Mr. Putin. According to a lengthy investigative report in the New York Times, Mr. Sater was “implicated in a huge stock manipulation scheme involving Mafia figures and Russian criminals” and became an FBI informant. The Sater affair continues to play out in a series of murky lawsuits and outlandish claims.
“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Trump Jr. told a real estate conference in 2008. He added, “we see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Mr. Trump and a Russian oligarch with ties to Mr. Putin brought the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013.
Mr. Trump’s history of business dealings with the Russians and the Kremlin links of his advisers may turn out to be much ado about nothing. But the path forward is strewn with dangers. We’ve been to this movie before. A break-in at the DNC. A confident, combative White House. Intelligence and law-enforcement agencies under pressure. Obscure plot lines tracing suspicious deeds. Congress and the media sensing blood in the water. Will Congress, seeking a Rosetta Stone to the Russia mess, press for a look at the Trump tax returns? Will damaging leaks emerge from the FBI or CIA? Will Messrs. Flynn, Manafort and Page be interviewed by investigators? Under oath? What did Mr. Trump know about the Russian connection and when did he know it?
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: firstname.lastname@example.org
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