How deep are ties between Russia and the GOP?
Recent events have driven home the point that Russian influence in American Republican politics is more prevalent than previously thought.
The examples are numerous — and very serious:
- Donald Trump’s rejection of the conclusion of U.S. intelligence services about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and Trump’s embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial of that interference (and no, the “would/wouldn’t” attempt at a take-back doesn’t cut it).
- The arrest of Russian agent Maria Butina, who is facing multiple charges and is being held without bail. The details of story and the reports of her offering sex to infiltrate groups like the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party read like a bad spy novel.
- Threats of Russian prosecution against — or “interrogation” of — 11 U.S. citizens. They include longtime Kremlin critic and financier Bill Browder, who was born in the U.S. but is now a British citizen and whose Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, died in Russian custody; Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, who, of course, had diplomatic immunity; and Kyle Parker, a congressional staffer who wrote most of the Magnitsky Act imposing sanctions on Russia, which has been a thorn in Putin’s side for years. Trump officials pointedly failed to deny that they might cooperate in such prosecution, saying only that it was “discussed” by the two leaders when they met in Helsinki. They have since backed down.
- The report that Russians were asked for and sent stolen documents about the Democratic opponent of a sitting Republican U.S. congressman during the 2016 election. Some reports identify that congressman as California’s Dana Rohrabacher, who met with Butina in Russia in 2015 and is sometimes described as “Putin’s favorite congressman.”
- Evidence that Carter Page, foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, was a Russian agent, which he continues to deny. The FBI’s wiretap application said Page had engaged in “clandestine intelligence activities” on behalf of Russia. Yet Page admitted that he was an “informal adviser” to Russia in a 2013 letter. “There may have been a loose conversation” with Russian officials about U.S. sanctions, and that “a few people might have brought it up in passing,” Page told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Condemnation of Trump’s behavior during the Helsinki news conference was swift and severe, by media, Democrats, and many Republicans. Trump has made it crystal clear that he has no problem sucking up to Putin, described as his KGBFF by comedian Jimmy Kimmel on his late-night show on ABC. But exactly how deep are the claws of the Russian bear dug into the GOP?
The threats against Americans — especially the former ambassador — are beyond outrageous, and for any member of the Trump administration to play coy about cooperating with such a plan is despicable. Here’s what California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell tweeted about it:
The U.S. State Department was quick to label the Russian claims against the Americans as absurd. Given the strong backlash by the diplomatic and intelligence community, Trump officials abandoned the idea, and the U.S. Senate voted 98-0 on a resolution condemning the proposal.
But the damage has been done. The Daily Beast compiled comments from several current and former U.S. diplomats, who were all horrified at the prospect of turning over a former ambassador to Putin, even quoting one current diplomat who chose to remain anonymous but said he was “at a fucking loss.” From the story:
David Wade, who was Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief of staff, said that the White House refusal to disavow Putin on McFaul crossed a line “from demoralizing to dangerous” for American diplomats.
“To even hint that there’s some element of credibility to Russian disruptions and distractions puts a bullseye on the back of any diplomat and invites authoritarian regimes to bully and threaten American public servants for the crime of doing their job. No administration should require a lesson or reminder in why this is reprehensible,” Wade said.
What Trump is willing to admit about Russian interference into the 2016 election is anyone’s guess on any given day, depending on whether he’s standing on a stage in Putin’s shadow or whether he’s half a world away, trying to sound tough with laughable damage control. Trump has made more conflicting claims on the charges of Russian cyberhacking than there are ingredients in borscht.
But there’s no question about what’s true—and that Trump knew it was true. The New York Times reports that, two weeks before his inauguration in January 2017, Trump was shown detailed, highly-classified intelligence reports that Putin personally ordered cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns to sway the election. All along, Trump knew it wasn’t China or some 400-pound guy sitting on his bed.
The story of Maria Butina gets more bizarre with each new set of details. And it’s a tale that reaches further into the GOP, touching many GOP officials, many of whom had photos taken with Butina at NRA conventions, the National Prayer Breakfast, and other instances, which she posted on social media.
Butina faces two charges: conspiracy and acting as a covert agent for Russia’s FSB spy agency. According to a story in The Washington Post:
Butina is accused of trying to cultivate relationships with American politicians to establish “back channel” lines of communication and seeking to infiltrate U.S. political groups, including an unnamed “gun rights organization,” to advance Russia’s agenda. Descriptions in court papers match published reports about Butina’s interactions with the NRA. …
Butina was allegedly assisted in her efforts by a U.S. political operative who helped introduce her to influential political figures. That person was not charged and is not named in court papers, but the description matches that of Paul Erickson, a GOP consultant who sought to organize a meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Alexander Torshin, Butina’s Russian colleague and a former Russian senator, at a May 2016 NRA convention.
Butina is described as “a former furniture store owner from Siberia and gun-rights activist.” She questioned Trump during a 2015 town hall meeting (no coincidence, I’m sure) about his plans for Russia; met with Donald Trump Jr. at the 2016 NRA convention; and met with many Republican officials at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. Deemed a flight risk, she is being held in custody before her trial.
And speaking of the NRA, the gun industry’s reported ties to Russia also are documented. According to a story from Newsweek:
The National Rifle Association has accepted contributions from at least 23 Russia-linked donors since 2015, the gun rights group revealed in a letter addressed to Congress. The admission came after Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, prodded the NRA as part of an investigation into what political organizations may have been used by Russia to influence the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump.
The money totaled $2,500, with most of it coming from subscriptions or membership dues, according to the letter, which was … first reported on by NPR. About $525 of that money came from “two individuals who made contributions to the NRA,” wrote John Frazer, the general counsel for the gun rights group. The 23 people “may include U.S. citizens living in Russia,” the NRA said.
Sure, $2,500 sounds like chump change when you consider the fact that the NRA gave more than $30 million to the Trump campaign and other Republicans. But it goes deeper than that. According to reporting by NPR, Alexander Torshin, now deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank and someone who is currently barred from entering the U.S., has spent six years building relationships with multiple NRA officials and past presidents, trying to gain greater access to GOP politicians.
Top GOP officials know all this and don’t care. According to an analysis in The Nation:
Russiagate isn’t just the narrow story of a few corrupt officials. It isn’t even the story of a corrupt president. It’s the story of a corrupt political party, the one currently holding all the levers of power in Washington. After Trump groveled before Putin in Helsinki, many Republicans in Washington proclaimed their solemn concern, just as they did when the president expressed his sympathy for the white supremacists in Charlottesville last year. But all of them are fully aware that they are abetting a criminal conspiracy, and probably more than one. …
[Special Counsel Robert] Mueller, who knows more than anyone in the media about the extent of the Russiagate scandal and never leaks, isn’t telling us that Trump colluded and obstructed justice — we already know that, because we literally saw Trump request on camera, in the summer of 2016, that Russia hack the Clinton campaign, just as we later saw him bluntly admit to the world that he fired James Comey to end the Russia investigation.
Instead, we are being told something much more frightening: that Russiagate doesn’t end with Trump and his inner circle, that some members of Congress may be implicated, and that the Republican leadership therefore has a personal stake in preventing anyone beyond [former Trump campaign Chair Paul] Manafort and a few other flunkies from being held accountable.
So Donnie, I hope you enjoy your friendship with Vlad, however one-sided it might be. This satire of a Facebook clip, made a few months after the 2016 election by the comedy filmmaker team of Evan and Adam Nix (the Nix Bros.), sums it up perfectly:
Originally posted on Daily Kos on July 22, 2018.