Analysis

Putin Plot Flusters Washington and Mars Trump's Inauguration

Controversy over Russian times spills over into confrontation with African-Americans after Trump berates Civil Rights icon John Lewis.

President-elect Donald Trump on a night out in Russia.
Amos Biderman

The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee headed by North Carolina’s Richard Burr has announced that it will investigate the contacts between Russia and the Trump election campaign and that it may subpoena campaign staffers as well as officials of the Obama administration. Given that Burr is a staunch Republican and his announcement comes less than a week before the inauguration of a GOP president, the statement is nothing less than sensational.

The joint announcement by Burr and his Democrat colleague in the committee, Mark Warner of Virginia, is one of many symptoms of ongoing turbulence in Washington stemming from the deep fog that continues to envelop Donald Trump’s ties to the Kremlin. Democrats, along with many Republicans, are increasingly convinced that Trump is an agent of Vladimir Putin’s designs, either because he is ignorant and naive or because he is indeed being blackmailed with incriminating information that the Russians are holding. Many Trump supporters, on the other hand, are convinced that American liberals are waging a systematic campaign of delegitimization against Trump, aided and abetted by rogue elements in the American intelligence community.

Trump was so outraged by Congressman John Lewis’ statement after the Comey briefing that he would not attend the inauguration because Trump was “illegitimate” that he created a subsidiary storm by savagely tweeting that the former Freedom Rider civil rights icon was “talk, talk, talk and no action.” Thus, the Putin saga created a subsidiary storm on Saturday which is bound to escalate tensions between African Americans and the GOP.

American intelligence agencies are at the crux of the confrontation. Trump and his assistants accuse the intelligence agencies – mostly the CIA – of leaking the damning dossier put together by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, which included the salacious reports of Trump’s perversions in a Moscow hotel room. The Democrats, on other hand, are directing their fire at FBI Director James Comey, who they already suspect of having torpedoed Hillary Clinton’s presidency with his October 29 letter about renewing the investigation of her emails. Democratic lawmakers emerged fuming from a classified Friday briefing with Comey in which he reportedly refused to divulge details about an FBI investigation of Trump’s Russian links. Some of Comey’s detractors called for his immediate dismissal.

President-elect Donald Trump calls on a reporter during a news conference in New York, January 11, 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP

The reports and revelations about Trump’s alleged ties to the Kremlin are coming at a furious pace as the inauguration comes closer, deepening the disorientation in Washington and creating a sense of crisis. This is true of reports that Trump’s designated National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, was in contact with the Russian ambassador in Washington before and during U.S. President Barack Obama’s December 29 announcement of sanctions against Moscow in retaliation for its hacking of Democratic Party computers and its intervention in the U.S. elections. The suspicion is that Flynn coordinated Putin’s benign response to Obama’s punishment in exchange for unknown assurances about Trump’s future policies. Some have questioned whether Flynn isn’t in violation of the Logan Act of 1799, which prohibits private citizens from intervening in a dispute between the U.S. and a foreign country.

Trump, for his part, continues to pour fuel on the smoldering suspicions about his ties to Putin, as he has done since the start of the election campaign. In his unruly press conference in New York last week, Trump savaged U.S. intelligence agencies, compared the leak of Steele’s dossier to Nazi Germany and then went on to revel in the fact that Putin may like him. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump hints at a possible early removal of sanctions against Russia and a reassessment of Washington’s “One China” policy. Trump’s statements on China, including his phone call with Taiwan’s president after his November 8 elections, have enraged Beijing and enhanced tensions between the U.S. and China, which obviously couldn’t please Putin more.

The confusion about Trump’s true intentions is compounded by the fact that his candidates for the cabinet have been far tougher and more critical than he is on Russia. Secretary of state designate Rex Tillerson, James Mattis at defense and Mike Pompeo, who is slated to head the CIA, attacked Putin’s policies and called for tough American reactions. Their statements may point to future divisions in the incoming Trump administration but may also be posturing aimed at placating the frustration and suspicions of many senators, including senior Republicans, surrounding Trump’s ties to the Kremlin.

The swirling suspicions and counter-accusations are creating a sense of instability and apprehension in advance of Trump’s swearing in. These are complemented by the Republican Congress’ emphatic moves to dismantle ObamaCare, which only serve to deepen the already significant polarization in American politics. Whether Trump is Putin’s puppet, as Hillary Clinton alleged during the campaign, or this is simply the impression created by Russian shenanigans, there is no doubt that as Obama’s tenure comes to an end and the Trump era begins, America is fearful and flustered, possibly more than ever before. If Putin has a special adviser on black propaganda and psy-ops, he certainly deserves a raise.