Mountains and molehills: what to take seriously in the Trump/Russia saga

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a prominent Trump campaign surrogate when he met with a top Russian diplomat.

Americans are divided over just what to make of President Donald Trump’s connection to the Russian government. Most of them favor a special prosecutor to look into the matter, and the political establishment is certain it’s a massive story. But until more facts are revealed, it’s impossible to know just how deep the arrangement goes. Knowing which angles of the story are mountains and which are molehills is difficult.

Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions bore the brunt of the allegations when it was revealed he lied to Congress about meeting Russian officials. Sessions added his name to the growing list of prominent Trump officials who met with the Russians, including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and now-ousted campaign officials Carter Page, Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. So far, however, very few details have emerged from those meetings. What was discussed is anybody’s guess, but the meetings themselves were not crimes.

What looks suspicious is the Trump Administration’s denial of their meetings, the number of officials caught lying about them, and a lot of circumstantial evidence. Over the last month Trump has insisted that he is tough on Russia, that he wants to get along with Russia, and that there is nothing to the Russian story either way. Normalized relations with the world’s other great nuclear power is certainly a worthy goal, but Trump seems to be going further than that.

Trump has raised alarms for his abnormally effusive praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a fascist strongman who assassinates political opponents, represses minorities, and boosts far-right nationalists worldwide. Ideologically, Trump and Putin are similar. Putin’s antidemocratic authoritarianism is a source of inspiration for Trump. Both men favor – and indeed, embody – a merger between the state and corporate sectors that will render the two indistinguishable. Both want to topple post-World War II institutions like the United Nations, and both are fanatically anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim.

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Vladimir Putin and Rex Tillerson share a toast after working out an oil drilling deal that would probably doom the planet.

Despite all the headlines, there is insufficient public evidence that Trump brokered any formal arrangement with Putin – but if he did, it was about oil. Trump’s Secretary of State, former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, received the Order of Friendship from Putin and worked out an Arctic drilling deal with him reportedly worth hundreds of billions of dollars. The deal was scuttled by sanctions imposed by President Obama when Putin annexed Crimea. We now know that members of Trump’s team discussed those sanctions with Russian diplomats.

One popular theory alleges that the deal between Trump and Putin included a 19.5 percent share of Russian oil giant Rosneft. The share, worth some $11 billion, was sold in late 2016. Reporters have been unable to locate the buyer. According to the controversial Trump Dossier – a compilation by British intelligence allegedly outlining the extent of Trump’s ties to Moscow – an offer was made through former Trump advisor Carter Page: the stake in Rosneft for the lifting of sanctions.

Evidence for the claim is scant. But it’s well within the bounds of reason to imagine Trump making that deal. His entire persona is about making deals, and the only thing in the world he wants more than the $5 billion he already has is another $10 billion on top. He is the walking embodiment of corruption and crony capitalism. Such an arrangement – undermine the integrity of US institutions for an $11 billion payout from Moscow – is not beneath him.

But because details of the Trump/Putin connection are so scarce, it’s up to the media and Trump’s political opponents to fill in details. And so far, they haven’t done a good job. In fact, polling shows that Democrats are now less popular than Trump, who remains unpopular himself. At a time when Republicans are engineering disasters at a frenzied pace, Democrats are engaged in neo-McCarthyism about Russian boogeymen instead of championing ordinary Americans.

We must continue to investigate, but no smoking gun is publicly known yet. If the worst Trump/Putin scenarios turn out to be true, Trump must surely be impeached. Putin, however, is untouchable. Conflict with him, on which warmongers in both parties seem insanely bent, would almost certainly mean the end of human civilization. If Putin used propaganda and cyber espionage to influence our elections, we can only let him get away with it – just as the US has time and again.

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