The Russian Connection: An Unbiased Perspective

Talk of Russia permeates our national discourse in the early months of the Trump regime. While specific details are highly classified, what has leaked and the administration's reaction to said leaks implies that this scandal has teeth. In trying to be an honest voice in this discussion, my official position is that something happened - the extent to what however is up for debate.  I'm not going to brush off the Russian connection as some are, however, but I'm also not going to speak as if I know it's as bad as it possibly could be.

Knowing what happened is very important for the future of our American democracy. The same democracy that Black people in America live under - a democracy that has been cracking for years, so one good swing could bring democracy to its knees in this country. We have to get real about that. A conspiracy looks to be unfolding, some don't like that word but if we're talking about collusion with a foreign power - and not any foreign power...but Russia - by the Republicans of all groups, then we are indeed talking conspiracy (and dramatically stunning irony).

The Trump-Russia Connection is Broad

This is not, in fact, one scandal, but at least 3 different scandals according to Vox (and other sources) connecting multiple people in and around Trump's administration. For the purposes of this blog article, I'm going to focus on the potential for Russian involvement in the U.S. Presidential election.

Let's start by saying that Donald Trump has been writing favorably of Vladimir Putin for several years now and has been open about his interest in investing in Russia going at least back to 2008. In 2008, Trump said Russia was one of his two top "A-list" areas of investment in the global emerging market. While that in and of itself is not illegal or particularly scandalous, it does portray a man who is deeply involved in Russia with financial ties to the country.

Fast forward to June 2013 as we see Trump seemingly giddy about Vladimir Putin becoming his new best friend...

It is unclear whether or not Trump actually made contact with Putin, or any of Putin's associates, while in Moscow.

Then in September of 2015, the DNC was hacked for the first time. A special agent for the FBI informed a tech support contractor for the DNC that one computer system had been hacked by a group calling themselves "the Dukes" who the FBI says have ties to the Russian government. 

However let's continue, so as the love fest between Trump and Putin continued for months - another hack occurred of John Podesta's email account in March of 2016. The thousands of emails that were obtained wouldn't be released until October and would have an impact on the outcome given their timing. This has been a source of argument on the Left. While I am not against their eventual release, I personally would've held them until after the election (unless of course, your intent was to have an impact on the election). One cannot say that the release of those emails and the scandal that ensued had zero impact. That they weren't obtained by an honest actor, but potentially a foreign power makes the hacks and subsequent leaks even more problematic. I say potentially because there is good evidence pointing to Russian involvement in all of the hacks involving the DNC, DCCC, and Podesta.

However good evidence is not the same as a smoking gun. The closest thing to a smoking gun might be the Steele dossier, the contents of which haven't even been verified yet. I detail that down below.

That research into Russian involvements in the hacks comes primarily from private security companies (hired by the DNC) that specialize in threat analysis is another issue.  One can say that there is certainly a level of educated speculation on the part of private companies to investigate what happened. That speculation fits very neatly into the historic fear-mongering around Russia and could serve as a distraction away from the content of the emails. I don't deny that. However, as I continue detailing the Trump-Russia connection down below, you'll see that the circumstantial evidence is piling up incredibly high. So while one can certainly doubt the claims of Russian involvement, let's also accept that certain intelligence is classified and being kept from the public. This creates an environment where no one really knows who to believe and overall distrust is rampant.

For those denying Russian involvement, it doesn't help that Donald Trump during the campaign around the summer of 2016 said he'd love to have the power to get Russia to hack Hillary's emails and said he hoped Russia had her emails. If he'd be open to the Russians having Hillary's emails, would he not be open to them having the DNC, DCCC and Podesta emails too knowing he'd get a political advantage?

Paul Manafort

The same month Podesta's emails were hacked in March of 2016, Trump hired Paul Manafort to be his campaign manager. Manafort is one of many people around Trump either during the campaign (and currently) with either clear Russian ties or pro-Russia sympathies. He had to resign several months later in August of 2016 when it came out that he had been a paid consultant working for the Ukraine's pro-Russia former President Viktor Yanukovych. Research also seems to suggest Manafort was the victim of blackmail by a member of the Ukrainian parliament who threatened to expose even deeper ties that both Manafort and Trump had to Yanukovych. Manafort is still currently under investigation by federal authorities about possible intercepted communications and financial transactions between he and elements within Russia. "Current and former American officials" are also implicating Manafort and others within the former Trump campaign of having "repeated contacts with Russian Intelligence officials" a year before the election based off of phone records and intercepted calls. 

One can question the anonymity of these "current and former American officials." Do you take them at their word or do you doubt it? I think based off of Trump's reaction to leaks - I'd say they are at least somewhat genuine. I'm not so much in the camp that this is all to do about nothing.

But it doesn't end there...

Fast forward to June of 2016 and the DNC was hacked a second time. The contents of said hack would be leaked all over the internet by the now infamous Guccifer 2.0 hacker. Guccifer 2.0 has since been deemed to be a moniker used by Russian intelligence by the U.S. intelligence community. 

Late in the hour of his Presidency, Obama also requested the CIA, NSA and FBI to prepare a classified report detailing the involvement of the Russian government in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. A declassified version of the report was released in January of 2017 that made the alarming accusation that the Russian government had a clear pro-Trump agenda. Now again, we bump into that pesky wall of classified intelligence. For people who want to ignore the Russian connection outright, this provides them the opportunity to. They can simply say that all of the details are not known and the people leaking the information (and their agendas) are not known either. So therefore they say, let's just ignore everything that's coming out. The fact that so much information is still unknown (and may never be publicly known) is an important fact that cannot be denied, I simply disagree with the conclusion.

It is important to note I think that what was exposed is also a very big deal. Even if done by Russian intelligence, the extent to which the DNC went to prevent Bernie Sanders from getting the Democratic nomination is shameful and has caused a clear rift within the Democratic party. Had they been the neutral arbiters that Debbie-Wasserman Shultz claimed the DNC was, then there wouldn't have been anything significant for the Russians to find anyway! So while I certainly do not blame the Democrats for the hacks, I do hold them partially responsible for their corrupt conduct in office. Corrupt conduct that a foreign power may have obtained and is now using against them...again potentially.

Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak met with multiple members of the Trump campaign in the months leading up to the election.

In July of 2016, three more members of the Trump campaign got tied up with the Russians when Carter Page, Walid Phares and J.D. Gordon met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Gordon said he met with Kislyak twice and Gordon admitted that the Russian ambassador convinced them to soften their tone about arming anti-Russian Ukrainian forces. However, Gordon maintains that he changed the RNC speech because Trump wanted it, not the Russian ambassador. You're going to have to decide who you want to believe. Once again, we have a trend forming.

Two days after the RNC convention on July 20, soon-to-be Attorney General Jeff Sessions also met with Ambassador Kislyak at an RNC event. He met with him two times total in 2016 but during his confirmation hearing in 2017, Sessions denied ever having contact with Kislyak and lied under oath to keep his communication with the ambassador a secret. He was forced to recuse himself when it comes to any future investigations dealing with Russia. One may ask...if you don't have anything to hide, then why lie under oath? Perjury is a serious offense and was used by Republicans to bring down the Clinton administration. A campaign that Sessions partook in! 

At the end of July on the 25th of the month, it was revealed that the FBI suspected that Russia was behind the DNC hacks. A day later intelligence officials told the Obama White House that they had "high confidence" that Russia was behind the attacks.

Another figure in this scandal is Roger Stone, a close ally of Donald Trump's. In early August of 2016, he said publicly that he had contact with Wikileak's founder Julian Assange and that he knew of documents that would be released soon about the Clinton Foundation. Then on August 21st, Stone seemed to telegraph the Podesta email leaks on Twitter...

On October 3rd, Trump ally Roger Stone also telegraphed another Wikileaks info dump on Twitter...

John Podesta

Then several days later, Wikileaks began releasing the first batch of Podesta emails. What's most interesting about this leak that has largely flown under the radar is the peculiar timing of it - not necessarily that it would appear Roger Stone knew it was coming. October 7th was the date of the leak, that was also the same day that Access Hollywood released the infamous video of Donald Trump having a lewd conversation of grabbing women. The first of the Podesta emails dropped an hour after the release of the Access Hollywood video. Coincidence? Perhaps...perhaps not. What is clear is that the Trump tape should've done more to his candidacy than it did. The 2nd Presidential debate came on October 9th, two days after the release of the Access Hollywood tape and Podesta emails too by the way. One cannot deny that the timing of the Podesta email dump was very favorable for Trump. I think I can admit that, while at the same time valuing what was contained in those emails. I think we should have a very rigorous and honest discussion about the DNC, DCCC and Podesta emails.

That is why I think it's so important in times like this to not take sides. Even if you favor one explanation over another - be open to the possibility that you may be wrong. Why? Well because this is a classic "he said, she said" situation. We don't fully understand the allegiances of all parties involved. Anybody can claim anything on the internet or to the press.

The events that occurred between October 28 - 31 might have been some of the most decisive in the election. On October 28th, 11 days before the November election, James Comey of the F.B.I. sent a letter to Congress stating that emails from Hillary Clinton's private server had been found on a computer owned by Anthony Weiner. This news was immediately leaked to the press and set off a firestorm of controversy. Then three days later on October 31st, the FBI cleared Donald Trump of any clear links between he and the Russian government.

On November 8th, 2016 Donald Trump is elected President of the United States. Not without a massive amount of voter suppression which I will save for another article.

Donald Trump has since consistently called the Russia controversy "fake news" and has attacked and banned different members of the press who continue to report on it.

The Steele Dossier: Was Trump Being Blackmailed?

The Steele dossier began to be reported on by The Guardian and other media outlets on January 11, 2017. However the dossier itself was being circulated to members of Congress, the media and the FBI throughout 2016. It was authored by a former MI6 officer named Christopher Steele who was working as a private contractor for a political research firm based in Washington, D.C. It is unknown how or why they hired Steele, it could possibly be that they knew Steele supplied the FBI with information involving corruption within FIFA in 2010. It's also possible they knew of his private intelligence company called Orbis Business Intelligence (based in London) that on its own website claims they can provide complex, cross-border investigations. No one really knows.

What is known however is that Christopher Steele was hired by this political research firm on the behalf of Republicans who were part of that "Never Trump" group. It is important to understand that the source of this dossier originates from a Republican investigation...not a Democratic one!

It is also important to note that the contents of the dossier have not been verified and the validity of what it says has not been confirmed by independent sources.  The contents claim that the Russian government is in possession of damaging or embarrassing information about Trump that is important enough that it can be used to blackmail him and force Trump to cooperate with the Russia government! It also supposedly delves into Trump's sexual and financial dealings in Russia! The Steele dossier also alleges that Donald Trump has been getting groomed for his Presidential run for over 5 years with the overall agenda of creating division in the West!

Now, these are very huge charges, like something out of a Tom Clancy novel or a season of '24.' Out of everything involving the Trump-Russia connection, the Steele dossier is the thinnest of conspiracies. One can have a discussion about the Russian involvement in the 2016 election without touching on the Steele dossier. But Wait....

Before we brush this off, let's take a look at a few things. It has come out that Steele's investigation was known to the FBI and that they were in communication with him and were even willing to pay him to continue digging until he fell off the grid a month before the November election supposedly frustrated by the FBI's slow progress. That adds a lot of credibility to Christopher Steele at least being someone American authorities felt they could trust, especially since he was seen as MI6's leading officer on Russia for 20 years. Does that mean we take the dossier like it's the gospel? No we don't. Both Democrats and Republicans appear to be working behind closed doors to get Steele out of hiding so he can testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee and provide his evidence. Until that happens, and the evidence is shown to the public...a hefty grain of salt should be placed on this angle.

What is interesting is that John McCain felt strong enough about the report to pass it along to James Comey even after Trump had won the November election. Could he have been part of that original "Never Trump" group that was behind it to begin with? That remains to be seen.

Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist tracking Russia's surveillance state, wrote for The Guardian that there are problems with the dossier's analysis and there are unverified sensational claims...but that the dossier rings frighteningly true and reflects accurately the way decision-making in the Kremlin looks to close observers!

A True Threat to American Democracy?

I've written on warfare in the past and trust me, there is a lot of information warring, psychological warring and political warring going on right now. I for one would like to see stronger evidence presented. All of this "take my word for it" talk coming from the groups tasked with investigating this is going to cause suspicion in the public. This has the potential to be one of the biggest political scandals in recent U.S. history, I think the American people deserve the right to know more details. If we're talking about actors in America colluding with a foreign power during election season...I believe that's need-to-know information for the American people. This is our democracy after all...or at least it was at one point in time. Black people not so much though, we've only been able to call American democracy our own for a handful of decades. Even that time has been wrought with racial slights and prejudices. So I'm not going to be jingoistic here.

At the same time, however, if any of this is true...it's a major problem.  You can look at this several ways...

  1.  You believe U.S. intelligence has a pro-Clinton, anti-Trump agenda.
  2.  You believe Wikileaks has a pro-Trump, anti-Clinton agenda.
  3.  You believe both have agendas and don't know who to believe and want to see the full evidence released to the public regardless of which side is right.

I'm on Team #3. 

I will say that the potential for our democracy to have been politically attacked is there. Some people want to brush off the Russia talk because they haven't really done the research, so they just choose to ignore the controversy entirely. Others have done the research and have taken sides - so that's why they're dismissive of the circumstantial evidence pointing to Russia. I think everyone needs to pump their breaks and take a step back. When we're talking about secret intelligence operations...no one can be totally sure who to trust if you're in the public and not in that world.

It should be repeated that the FBI has cleared Trump of collusion with Russia as mentioned above, at least so far they have. It's also important though that it appears the FBI was working with Christopher Steele and at least open to his investigation. So this is not over yet. This is a scandal that is developing on a daily basis. Check back with Black and Intellectual for any major updates in the story.