Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Collusion, Treason, Trump and Putin

1. a secret agreement, especially for . . . treacherous purposes; conspiracy

2. Law. a secret understanding between two or more persons to gain something illegally . . . or to appear as adversaries though in agreement


Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, . . . adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason . . . and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.

-- 18 U.S. Code §2381 (1994)

The President . . . shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

-- U.S. Constitution, Article II, §4 (The 25th Amendment to the Constitution provides alternative procedures following a finding that the president is "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.")


What can we pluck from the speculation and wild accusations, alternative facts and devious denials, regarding Russia's involvement in our last presidential election? Here's a quick, three-part summary:

Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin was not fond of Hillary Clinton and preferred Donald Trump as the next U.S. president. Individuals in Russia were involved in hacking into computers of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton Campaign, and facilitating release of some of their content. They, or others in Russia, prepared propaganda and false damaging information about Clinton and distributed it throughout the U.S. through social media. However probable it may be that some voters were, to some extent, influenced in their opinions of the candidates, and even ultimate choices at the ballot box, there is no procedure for collecting the data necessary to prove or disprove such suspicions. It is unlikely that, but for these Russian efforts, Clinton would have won the electoral vote (although there's no way that can be proved or disproved). There have been assertions that Russians wanted to manipulate voting machines, but no evidence that, if so, they were successful in doing so.

Trump. A second, related, line of inquiry has involved the past and present ties that Trump, his family, campaign and other associates, may have with Russian oligarchs, banks, politicians and government officials. This includes Americans' interests in investments there (or payments from there) and Russians' investments or payments here. A significant number of individuals in both countries, meetings, and transactions have been identified and reported. Of course, a substantial impediment to a thorough understanding is Trump's refusal to comply with the norm that presidents reveal their past tax returns. And the Trump Team's case has not been strengthened by the number of instances in which their contacts with Russians (or payments from Russians) have been denied, only to have been unequivocally confirmed later.

Collusion. A third, and seemingly final inquiry addresses the possibility that there was "collusion," a "conspiracy," among the joint forces of Putin and Trump, working together in their efforts to defeat Clinton and elect Trump. Such a finding ("beyond a reasonable doubt") is somewhere between extremely difficult and impossible to prove without documents (e.g., electronic messages, meeting notes, transcripts of conference calls) or the testimony of those present at such meetings. If a "secret agreement" or "conspiracy" (as "collusion" is defined at the top of this post) can be shown, fine. But an inability to do so should not be the end of the matter. Indeed, it should not have been the beginning, either.

Here is an effort at an explanatory analogy for where the Putin-Trump inquiry should have begun.

Consider the terrorist attack on 9/11. That involved collusion, or a conspiracy -- an organization, communication and control, financing, training, a plan, and the execution of that plan. That was the case with some of the terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere. But as our government, intelligence community, and international cooperation became more sophisticated, loose affiliations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS found it increasingly difficult to carry out such organized attacks. Did they give up? No. What did they do? They changed strategy and procedures.

They began sending out to everyone in the world with an Internet connection the equivalent of the computer-generated emails we all get from time to time notifying us that we can't "reply" to the email. They said, in effect, "Don't leave your country; don't try to contact us or come to the Middle East for training; don't try to organize massive destruction like 9/11. Do what you can do where you are: shoot somebody or throw them off a rooftop, make a car bomb or drive your car into a crowd." Many to most of those who were persuaded by these Web pages and social media messages, persuaded to engage in some terrorist act, were not a part of a conspiracy, or collusion with a terrorist organization's leadership. They had attended no meetings, had no conversations, received no electronic communications personal to them. What they do is "consistent" with the organization's goals and strategies, but it does not constitute "collusion."

This is something we experience in our daily lives. Local street demonstrations -- whether the global "Women's March" demonstrations on January 21, or those throughout Russia on March 26; whether those of the Tea Party or Occupy -- often emerge and grow without any need for a conspiracy, collusion, or communication. Nor need it always be as dramatic as terrorist acts or demonstrations. The same is true of fads in food, dress, sports, or smartphones.

And that, I believe, is how we should approach the actions of Putin and Trump before, during, and after the November 8, 2016, presidential election. It is not necessary that they and their teams talked strategy with each other, or enabled each other's actions, or coordinated their campaign strategies and tactics. [Photo credit: Reuters/Alexander Zemlianichenko, AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Business Insider/Skye Gould]

"Treason," defined at the top of this post, only speaks of "giving [enemies] aid and comfort." Clearly, Putin derived "aid and comfort" from the outcome of the election, and the attitudes and actions of Trump's Team that have paralleled Putin's own.

So where's the evidence? Here are some excerpts from Newsweek's take last August:
Not since the beginning of the Cold War has a U.S. politician been as fervently pro-Russian as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. . . . Trump has praised President Vladimir Putin as a real leader, “unlike what we have in this country.” Trump has also dismissed reports that Putin has murdered political enemies (“Our country does plenty of killing also,” he told MSNBC) . . .. When Russian hackers stole a cache of emails [from the DNC] . . . Trump called on “Russia, if you’re listening,” to hack some more. . . .

“Trump advocates isolationist policies and an abdication of U.S. leadership in the world. He cares little about promoting democracy and human rights,” [says U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014] Michael McFaul. “A U.S. retreat from global affairs fits precisely with Putin’s international interests.” . . . Kremlin-sponsored propaganda outlets like Sputnik and RT . . . have lavishly praised Trump, . . . supported Trump’s assertion that Barack Obama “founded ISIS,” and Russia’s world-class army of state-sponsored hackers has targeted Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. . . .

[T]he Kremlin’s support for Trump is part of a longstanding strategy to sow disruption and discord in the West. Whether it’s by backing French ultra-nationalists . . . or boosting Donald Trump’s chances by blackening the Democrats, the Kremlin believes Russia benefits every time the Western establishment is embarrassed. . . .

Former CIA Director Mike Morell wrote . . . that Putin “recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation” with flattery. But the truth is more nuanced. Trump’s pro-Putinism goes back to at least 2007, when he told CNN that [Putin] was doing “a great job” rebuilding Russia. Trump was pushing real estate deals in Moscow at the time and, according to one Moscow-based American businessman . . . Trump’s admiration for Putin was rooted in “pure self-interest. . . . He was looking to make friends and business partners” among Russia’s politically connected elite. . . .

Trump’s . . . political career has made him an important part of Putin’s wider strategy to weaken the West and court conservatives around the world . . .. into a grand anti-liberal alliance headed by Russia. In August, Moscow hosted a gathering of nationalist and separatist activists from all over Europe and the U.S. . . ..

“The target of the hacks wasn’t just Clinton,” [former head, Estonian intelligence] Eerik-Niiles Kross, wrote . . .. "What the Russians have in their sights is nothing less than the democratic fabric of American society and the integrity of the system of Western liberal values. . . . The political warfare of the Cold War is back -- in updated form, with meaner, more modern tools, including a vast state media empire in Western languages, hackers, spies, agents, useful idiots, compatriot groups, and hordes of internet trolls.” In other words, Trump is merely a useful stooge in the Kremlin’s grand design to encourage NATO disunity, U.S. isolationism and the breakup of Europe.
Owen Matthews, "How Vladimir Putin is Using Donald Trump to Advance Russia's Goals," Newsweek, August 29, 2016.

OK; keep the search for "collusion" or a "conspiracy" on the back burner. But what the media's investigative reporters, House, Senate, and any other investigative committees ought to be focusing on is making the case for what Putin and Trump are doing in parallel that results in weakening the world's great democracies -- whether or not it is the result of joint planning.


Comparable analyses and conclusions are found in many other sources, including "The view from the Kremlin: Putin's War on the West," The Economist," Feb. 12, 2015; and Mark Galeotti, "Putin’s Chaos Strategy Is Coming Back to Bite Him in the Ass," Foreign Policy, October 26, 2016 ("The Russian president has sown confusion and conflict around the world the past two years. But his short-sighted meddling isn’t the work of a mastermind.")

And compare what Putin and Trump are seemingly trying to accomplish with this 2004 UN General Assembly list of the necessary elements of a successful democracy:
• Separation and balance of power
• Independence of the judiciary
• A pluralistic system of political parties and organisations
• Respect for the rule of law
• Accountability and transparency
• Free, independent and pluralistic media
• Respect for human and political rights; e.g., freedoms of association and expression; the right to vote and to stand in elections
Michael Meyer-Resende, "International Consensus: Essential Elements of Democracy," Democracy Reporting International (October 2011).

And see also, "Tracking Trump," November 9, 2016-January 19, 2017; "Resources for Trump Watchers," February 11, 2017.

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