The Russia Connection
Seven Theories of the Case: What Do We Really Know About L’Affaire Russe and What Could it All Mean?
Today, Lawfare is launching a detailed, annotated set of links laying out the known facts about L’Affaire Russe. We will keep this resource page updated as new facts, stories, documents, and statements emerge. Here, however, we want to consider a higher-altitude, more speculative question: What does it all mean? What possible explanations might make sense of the bewildering facts that have been reported? Are we dealing with Fake News or a Manchurian President—or something in between?
In this post, we start with an overview of the facts known today, and we then put forth seven different theories of the Russia Connection case that might account for those facts. We present these in ascending order of potential menace, from the most innocent to the most alarming. In doing so, we attempt to narrow the field of discussion—or at least provide a disciplined framework for assessing the possibilities—and give readers guidance as to what to watch for as investigations on both the legislative and executive sides move forward.
We’ve confined our overview of the facts to those most directly related to Russia’s interference in the election and the possible links between Trump associates and the Russian government. There are plenty of details we’ve left out—notably statements by Trump associates and the president himself that have had the effect of kicking up dust and confusing the public conversation about L’Affaire Russe.
The Known Facts
From July 2015 through at least June 2016, two groups of hackers now known to have been acting under the direction of the Kremlin maintained access to the networks of the Democratic National Committee. Beginning in July 2016, just before the Democratic convention, several outlets—DC Leaks, WikiLeaks and the likely-GRU-crafted online persona Guccifer 2.0—began disclosing the hacked information by means that intelligence officials deemed “consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts.” Throughout the rest of the presidential campaign, Donald Trump routinely cited the information provided by WikiLeaks and expressed his enthusiasm for Julian Assange’s work, at one point declaring, “I love WikiLeaks!” Notoriously, in one instance, Trump even seemed to encourage the Russian government to engage in further hacking against Hillary Clinton’s computers systems in an effort to locate her missing emails. That one statement aside, however, he generally cast doubt on Russia’s involvement in the hacking and the leaking of the documents obtained from the DNC
Trump’s skepticism stood in sharp contrast to the intelligence community’s confidence on the question of Russian involvement. In their declassified report on the matter, the CIA, NSA, and FBI expressed “high confidence” that President Vladimir Putin had ordered an “influence campaign” to “undermine public faith in the U.S. electoral process” and “harm [Hillary Clinton’s] electability and potential presidency”; the CIA and FBI expressed high confidence, and the NSA moderate confidence, that the Kremlin aimed specifically to boost Donald Trump’s campaign.
Trump’s reluctance to concede Russian interference in the U.S. election eventually gave way in the face of overwhelming evidence and the Intelligence Community’s unanimous opinion to the contrary. On January 11, 2017, Trump finally admitted for the first time that he believes Russia was behind the hacks. The same day, however, in response to BuzzFeed’s release of a dossier of alleged kompromat compiled by former British intelligence official Christopher Steele, Trump emphasized "I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA" and accused U.S. intelligence agencies of allowing "fake news to 'leak' into the public." Regarding allegations of links between his associates and Russia, he has remained openly hostile, going so far as to label the news media the “enemy of the American people” and excoriating leaks of classified information regarding alleged communications between his team and Russian officials as a "witch hunt." During an interview to mark the hundredth day of his presidency, Trump returned to his skepticism on Russian involvement, declaring, “I’ll go along with Russia. Could have been China, could have been hundreds of different groups.”
Testifying before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on March 20, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that since July 2016 the Bureau has been conducting a still-ongoing investigation into “the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts.” During Comey’s testimony alongside NSA Director Admiral Michael Rogers, the official @POTUS account posted a series of tweets seemingly aimed at playing down the importance of the investigation and even the fact of the Kremlin’s interference.
The leaked dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele alleged a range of potentially explosive connections between Trump associates and the Kremlin. Though much of the information in the dossier has not yet been corroborated by the intelligence community, details about some of the communications described in the dossier have checked out, according to some news reports, and it’s noteworthy that both President Obama and then-President-elect Trump were briefed on its contents by high-ranking intelligence officials—indicating a degree of confidence in at least some of the report’s conclusions by the intelligence community. More recently, CNN reported that the contents of the dossier were among the evidence presented by the FBI before the FISA Court to successfully obtain a warrant monitoring Carter Page’s communications.
Trump’s refusal to say anything negative about Putin during the campaign only fueled speculation that the Steele allegations had some basis in fact—or that there was something untoward in the relationship. Long before the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump voiced personal admiration for Vladimir Putin, often contrasting him with Barack Obama, whom he saw as weak. In 2014, he tweeted that “Putin has become a big hero in Russia” and added, "I believe Putin will continue to re-build the Russian Empire. He has zero respect for Obama or the U.S.!" On multiple occasions, he described meeting Putin and “hav[ing] a relationship with him,” though he later denied having any such ties.
Then there’s the small matter of Trump’s assorted business dealings with Russia and Russians over the years, the extent of which remain unknown, and his family’s loose links to and unexplained meetings with various Russian oligarchs and officials. This latter category includes son-in-law Jared Kushner’s mysterious December meeting with then-incoming national security adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak in Trump Tower and subsequent meeting with Sergey Gorkov, chief of Vnesheconombank, a Russia-owned bank on the U.S. sanctions list since shortly after Putin's annexation of Crimea.
Trump has also surrounded himself with advisors and confidantes who are unusually closely connected with and sympathetic to the Kremlin and associated entities. Most notably, there’s ex-national security adviser Flynn, who was forced to resign 24 days after taking office over revelations that his multiple phone calls with Ambassador Kislyak may have included the subject of sanctions imposed by the Obama administration against Russia, contrary to his representations to Vice President Mike Pence. We have also learned that Flynn failed to report payments he received during the campaign for his lobbying work for Inovo, a Dutch-based firm seeking to further interests of Turkish government, and probably failed to seek required advance approval for payments he received from the Kremlin propaganda network RT and two other Russia-related entities back in 2015. Flynn registered only retroactively as an agent of a foreign power for his work with Inovo under the Foreign Agents Registration Act after his resignation, omitted the Russia payments in his application to renew his security clearance, and likely neglected to request permission from the Secretary of the Army and the Secretary of State to accept the payments in the first place as required by the Emoluments Clause and by statute.
There’s also Roger Stone, a Trump associate who issued a series of tweets about a coming reckoning for Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and imminent WikiLeaks activity shortly before WikiLeaks began releasing tranches of Podesta’s emails in October. Stone later repeatedly boasted of his conversations with Julian Assange about the release of the DNC emails (triggering a denial from WikiLeaks); he also had electronic chats with Guccifer 2.0.
Then there’s Carter Page, who was affiliated with the campaign as a foreign policy advisor and whose July 2016 trip to Moscow reportedly launched both an FBI investigation into Page and the Bureau’s investigation into connections between the Trump team and the Kremlin more broadly. Page was never part of the Trump inner circle, but his connections to Russia were apparently serious enough for the FISA Court to issue a warrant for surveillance of his communications to investigate him.
And finally, there’s former Trump convention manager and campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who boasts extensive ties with Russian and pro-Russian Eastern European oligarchs—and who the White House now claims “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time” in the Trump campaign. Manafort worked for, among others, ousted pro-Kremlin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and secret ledgers show he received $12.7 million in payments from the Ukrainian government. During the months Manafort was in charge, the Trump campaign successfully pushed to strip language from the Republican Party platform calling for the United States to provide weapons to Ukrainian forces fighting pro-Russian rebel forces.
In late January, the New York Times reported that Flynn, Stone, Page, and Manafort were at one point under counterintelligence investigation for their contacts with the Russian government.
Recall, too, the conduct of now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who met twice with Russian Ambassador Kislyak over the course of the presidential campaign, while he was both a sitting Senator on the chamber’s Armed Service Committee and the chairman of the Trump campaign’s Foreign Policy Advisory Committee. Sessions did not disclose his meetings with Kislyak during his confirmation hearing to become Attorney General, instead declaring, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.” Amidst the firestorm that ensued, Sessions recused himself from overseeing the investigation into Russian election interference. As of Friday, April 28, he had clarified that his recusal would also likely include the investigation into Michael Flynn.
(In this summary, we have intentionally omitted Trump’s tweets accusing President Obama of engaging in politically motivated surveillance of Trump Tower during the election. And we have not touched on the absurdist saga of House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, who was forced to remove himself from overseeing the committee’s investigation into Russian election interference after holding a series of bizarre press conferences announcing his ostensible discovery that the identities of Trump associates had been inappropriately unmasked after their communications were incidentally collected—a discovery that has not been borne out by subsequent reporting on the issue. In the interests of clarity, we’ve confined our discussion to the underlying Trump-Russia connections themselves.)
What should we make of this bizarre constellation of facts? The honest answer for anyone who wishes to avoid speculation is that we don’t know. The facts are potentially consistent with a range of different explanations, some relatively anodyne, some quite alarming. So let’s consider seven different plausible theories of the Russia Connection case—wherein we define “plausible” as broadly consistent with all or most of the known facts. These different theories assign different relative salience to those known facts, link them differently, and make very different assumptions about the many facts that are not known or are claimed but disputed.
As a general matter, we avoid predicting which of these theories is most likely to be the true. We will say, however, that the two most extreme theories we lay out—everything as giant coincidence (Theory #1) and Trump himself as a Russian agent (Theory #7)—seem to us highly improbable. That leaves us with a number of intermediate alternatives that are by no means mutually exclusive and that might operate in conjunction with one another.
Theory of the Case #1: It’s All a Giant Set of Coincidences and Disconnected Events
This theory recognizes, and dismisses, the human propensity to link things that could be connected without reference to whether they are, in fact, connected. Under this theory, the only grand unifying element of L’Affaire Russe is that birds of a feather—in this case Trumpist Russophiles—tend to flock together. Maybe there’s nothing much more to the Russia Connection matter than that. Trump was enthusiastic about Putin and Russia, so maybe it’s no surprise that a group of people who have no problem with that, who share the enthusiasm, and who have done business with Russian interests get on board. Some of those people may have crossed legal or ethical lines, but that has little to do with Trump—and importantly, each element has nothing to do with each other element.
In this version of reality, Gen. Flynn may have failed to disclose things or file required FARA registrations, and Trump’s making him national security adviser may have been a reckless oversight—but that’s as far as it goes. Ditto for Manafort: given his extensive connections to Kremlin-backed Yanukovych, the Trump team should have proceeded with caution but, in the interest of benefiting from his decades of lobbying experience, did not. Carter Page was connected to Russia and may even have been a foreign agent within the meaning of FISA, but he was a hanger-on, only marginally connected to the campaign. Roger Stone was a blowhard about deflecting blame from the Kremlin and onto Guccifer 2.0, and his vague prediction about Podesta was just the sort of bombast that only looks prescient because it turned out to be right—but is actually the sort of vague threat Stone says a lot about a lot of people. And the Sessions meetings with Ambassador Kislyak were nothing, just—as Sessions says—routine senatorial contacts. The many other contacts with Kislyak were all just people looking to effectuate Trump’s publicly stated desire to “get along” with Russia.
For that matter, though perhaps conspicuous in their consistency, Trump’s own statements about Putin were substantively no different from his statements about other authoritarian leaders. Trump likes autocrats and strongmen. Perhaps the main reason we treat his solicitude for Putin differently from his solicitude for Egyptian President Sisi, Turkish President Erdogan, and now Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is that his praise came at a time when that country was mounting an intelligence operation against our democracy and his aides had these business ties. And when called on it, Trump doubled down. But that’s also his normal modus operandi, after all.
In this version of the story, Trump staffers’ successful move to change the Ukraine plank of the GOP platform remains something of a mystery. But given Manafort's years of work for Yanukovych, maybe the explanation is as simple as a campaign chairman with ties to the former government of Ukraine and sympathy with Putin moving policy in the direction sympatico both to his friends in the region and in closer alignment with the stated policy positions of his current boss, the party’s candidate for President.
In short, on this view, the Trump-Russia relationship is ultimately no more than symbiotic: Russia and Trump had common interests and both pursued those interests, maintaining something of an unspoken non-aggression pact while they each pursued a common enemy.
Theory of the Case #2: Trump Attracted Russophiles
A variant of Theory #1, in our view a more likely one, assigns a bit more linear causation to the reason these particular birds of a feather ended up flocking together. One possibility is that Trump’s Putinista tendencies—along with his many other eccentric and unappealing features—had made him so unacceptable to traditional foreign policy conservatives that the only people willing and eager to work for him were people of fringe views similar to his own, shady business ties, or both. Remember that choosing to work for Trump during that period of the campaign, when virtually nobody expected him to win, was not widely seen as a winning career move. The real qualifications for the job were not minding Trump’s bizarre behavior and his many questionable statements. On the plus side, Trump clearly wasn’t asking a lot of questions about people’s ties or ethics. This combination may have been a toxic brew for the collection of Russia-connected individuals.
For example, back in March 2016, Manafort sought out work on the Trump campaign—offering his services for free and, according to a memo and cover letter detailed by the New York Times, in the same breath pitching his vast experience working with oligarchs and dictators. On the one hand, it’s harder to imagine a more obvious red flag. On the other hand, it’s not at all hard to imagine Trump ignoring both muleta and matador in pursuit of his own interests.
In thinking about this theory, ask yourself this question: If the major precondition for working on the Trump campaign was one’s willingness to do so notwithstanding the regular uproar over the offensiveness of his statements—including about Putin—and if nobody was going to too carefully scrutinize your Russian ties, is it really a surprise that the Trump entourage ended up populated with a bunch of people with Putin-friendly views and Russian business connections?
In this version of the story, the basic framework of L’Affaire Russe was two-fold: There was a Russian hacking operation, and there was a largely unconnected incentive for people with untoward Russian business connections to attach themselves to Trump. The latter incentive may have resulted in individuals doing unsavory or even illegal things or acting on behalf of Russian interests, but it did not involve any Russian infiltration of the Trump campaign as such, much less Russian corruption of Trump himself.
Theory of the Case #3: The Russian Operation Wasn’t Really About Trump at All
Before turning to more menacing possibilities, let’s pause to consider a theory somewhat orthogonal to the axis of ascending menace along which we have arrayed these theories: Perhaps the true explanation of the Trump-Russia connection is that the Russian operation wasn’t really about Trump at all—but was really about Hillary Clinton.
There’s reason to believe that the Russian objective here was not specifically to get Trump elected President; like the rest of the world, the Russians seem to have believed that Clinton was going to win. The goal may well have been to injure her legitimacy and popularity as much as possible, weaken her domestic legitimacy, and retaliate against her perceived interference in Russian internal affairs when she, as Secretary of State, supported anti-Putin protesters. In this scenario, Russian support for Trump was largely ancillary to this effort to hurt Clinton.
There is some public evidence to support this theory. Earlier this month, Reuters reported on two strategy documents prepared by Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, the Kremlin's primary foreign policy think tank, one of which emphasized Clinton's likely win and argued Russia should shift from pro-Trump propaganda to messaging designed to undermine the legitimacy of her predicted electoral victory and ensuing presidency.
Some of the unsubstantiated information in the Steele dossier would also seem to accord with this general line of reasoning. For example, one report (pp. 28-29) cites a Russian Foreign Ministry official who explained that the Kremlin's pro-Trump operation was motivated by a general desire “to upset the liberal international status quo” and the perception that Trump had the potential to "disrupt the whole US political system,” in addition to being "a pragmatist with whom [Russia] could do business." This explanation for Russia’s interference is less about the corruptibility of Trump than about his disruptive potential as an anti-establishment candidate.
If this is the case, the specific connections between the Trump forces and the various Russian interests—even if all very untoward, very illegal, and very menacing—may nonetheless have very little to do with the hacking operation. In this version of the story, Trump was the beneficiary of the hacking operation, but not for any reason related to his staff’s ties to Russia—just because he had the virtue from a Russian perspective of not being Clinton. In this scenario, there are really two issues, and they are distinct. One is Russian interference in the election. The other is which, if any, Trump associates have ties to Russia that either violate rules or laws. Both questions are serious, but they are not really related—except insofar as Trump’s refusal to appropriately grapple with either suggests a certain level of disregard for his obligations as our commander-in-chief.
Notably, this theory coexists rather easily with Theory #2. That is, it is possible that the hacking operation was really about Clinton, not Trump, and that it was Trump’s solicitude for Moscow that drew to him the disreputable collection of misfits with Russian ties who manned his campaign—and that these two basic dynamics were largely unrelated. The Russians’ job certainly would have been made easier by the fact that the Trump campaign and the candidate himself were naturally inclined to be friendly toward the Kremlin, but this was just an added bonus.
Theory of the Case #4: Russian Intelligence Actively Penetrated the Trump Campaign—But Trump Didn’t Know
Moving up the scale of menace, it is possible to take the following facts as the salient variables: that the FBI appears to have had FISA coverage of Carter Page, that Paul Manafort was campaign chairman at the time Trump staffers engineered the change in the GOP platform on Ukraine, that Roger Stone had some contact with Guccifer 2.0, that everyone appears to have been meeting with Ambassador Kislyak, and that national security adviser Michael Flynn failed to disclose significant payments from Russian entities, discussed sanctions with Kislyak, and apparently lied about it to the Vice President. When you formulate the matter this way, the question of whether Russian intelligence, through one of these actors or another, sought to penetrate the Trump campaign rather leaps off the page.
Remember that all of these facts take place against the backdrop of the Kremlin’s known effort to interfere with the 2016 election through the hacking operation. And while it’s certainly possible—as in Theory #1—that these facts are all unrelated both to the hacking operation and to one another or—as in Theory #2—that they are connected in the sense of having been driven by the same underlying incentive, it’s also possible that at least some of them are the product of engineering by Russian intelligence. This is particularly plausible since several of these facts involve legal agency or undisclosed financing of Trump actors by Russian or Russian-allied interests. The Page FISA coverage, in particular, would have required a specific judicial finding that there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power.
Note that to say that the Russians penetrated the Trump campaign is not to say that Trump was aware of this. If the Russians were running an agent inside his campaign or the Trump Organization or sought to place friendly people in positions to influence him, he might well be the principal victim of the operation. Attempts to help get Trump elected would not, after all, be at odds with attempts to collect embarrassing information on him or surround him with Russia surrogates for purposes of leverage and influence after his election.
Theory of the Case #5: Russian Intelligence Actively Penetrated the Trump Campaign—And Trump Knew or Should Have Known
Of course, it is also possible that Trump was either fully aware of the Russian connections of his staff or was partially aware of them and willfully ignorant as to the gaps. These ties were the subject of wide speculation and reporting, after all. So if one takes Theory #4 seriously, one has to consider as well the possibility that Trump should have known or, in fact, suspected Russian attempts to penetrate his organization. Everyone else did, after all.
Consider as an example on this point the Flynn situation. Gen. Flynn’s various foreign ties were hardly a secret, yet he seems to have undergone no serious vetting. Indeed, Flynn’s late filings merely confirmed educated concerns aired in the press long before Trump took office—concerns thus very publicly flagged for the White House. Questions about Flynn’s work for RT have circulated since his flamboyant appearance at the network’s December 2015 gala, and reports of Flynn's lobbying work for Inovo and Inovo's Turkish ties emerged within five days of the election and were repeatedly flagged by members of Congress thereafter. What’s more, the White House had no reason to rely on outside reports or informed guesswork: before the Inauguration, Flynn's attorneys reportedly informed incoming White House legal counsel Donald McGahn that Flynn was considering registering as a foreign agent under FARA. It’s unclear what the White House did with that information, if anything.
Manafort’s connections to Yanukovych were similarly a matter of public record upon his hiring, at least in part. And according to the Times, Manafort even advertised his work abroad to some extent in his pitch to Trump, though it’s not clear whether he specifically referenced his time with Yanukovych. So for Trump to be entirely naive would have required a distinct lack of curiosity about the scope of his aides’ relationships with an adversary foreign power.
There’s another reason to consider the possibility that Trump had at least some constructive knowledge of Russian infiltration of his team and didn’t care all that much: It explains a lot of his public behavior throughout the campaign.
Remember that Trump was actively praising Putin on the campaign trail, publicly denying Russian involvement in the hacking (except when he was calling for more of it), and celebrating WikiLeaks at every turn. He has claimed to regard questions about his Russia connections as “fake news,” so it’s perfectly conceivable that he didn’t regard the Russians as the bad guys and he didn’t particularly mind if his people maintained close relationships—including major financial relationships—with them.
In other words, knowledge of what was going on may simply have involved the sustained failure to ask the sort of questions campaigns normally ask of people with known ties to adversary governments. But it might also have involved—as Trump’s public statements about Putin certainly reflected—a certain glee at defying norms.
Theory of the Case #6: Kompromat
This one’s pretty self-explanatory, at least in broad strokes. Well before the release of the Steele dossier, critics speculated that the Kremlin had something on Trump. What else could explain why Trump—so notoriously self-contradictory on everything else—was so uncharacteristically consistent in his defense and flattery of an undemocratic U.S. adversary? What else could explain his persistent refusal to back off that flattery even as it became obvious that Russia had intervened in the electoral process to his apparent benefit? What else could explain his denial of the reality of Russia’s intervention in the face of the unified opinion of the intelligence community?
Notwithstanding Russia’s indignant denials in response to the publication of the Steele dossier, we know that kompromat is a classic weapon in the Russian and Soviet arsenal. We also know that Trump’s attempted business deals in and visits to Russia stretch back years, and Trump has not exactly cultivated a reputation for avoiding scandal. Prior to the election, much of the speculation focused on Trump’s financial interests and what might lie behind his refusal to release his tax returns. But the Steele dossier also contains more salacious details that are at least plausible given Trump’s crude public statements and alleged private conduct (whether it’s being accused of sexual assault or bragging about what sounds like sexual assault).
That said, if Putin is holding something over Trump—or has more subtly, but to Trump’s knowledge, obtained “compromising personal and financial information” that allows Putin to exert some sort of influence—that would raise as many questions as it would offer answers. How explicitly a threat has been made, if one has been made at all? How far Trump has gone to foreclose embarrassment?
Not all kompromat is created equal (and some kompromat is more equal than others). We could be dealing in this scenario simply with inhibitions on Trump’s part associated with the possibility that a kompromat file may exist; call this the “soft kompromat” scenario. The soft kompromat scenario does not even require a real kompromat file, much less an explicit threat to Trump, only that Trump believes that one exists—or may exist. Alternatively, it is possible that Trump was, by one means or another, made aware of the existence of the material at some point in the (presumably distant) past in such a fashion that constitutes some kind of blackmail; call this the “hard kompromat” version.
Again, the kompromat theory could blend with some of the other ones. A soft kompromat scenario could, after all, inform Trump’s refusal to say anything negative about Putin, while Theory #2 might still provide the best explanation for why Russophiles have gravitated towards Trump like moths to a flame.
There are two reasons to take the kompromat theory seriously: The first is that Steele is a reputable intelligence officer and aspects of the dossier have, according to some news stories, been validated. The second is that the intelligence community took the matter seriously enough to brief the matter to both Trump and Obama, while the latter was still President. That’s not something you do if you believe a matter frivolous. But there’s a big gap, of course, between not frivolous and true.
Theory of the Case #7: The President of the United States is a Russian Agent
One last theory could account for the facts at hand. In this version of reality, there is a unifying reason why Trump has consistently praised Putin; why he has surrounded himself with people who represent Russian interests, meet with Russian officials, and take money from Russian interests; why he publicly encouraged the Russian operation; why he denied Russian involvement in the hacking operation; and why he has thrown up so much dust to distract attention from the underlying issue—dust in the form of the Nunes imbroglio and the “wire tapping” allegations.
As we said above, we consider this scenario highly unlikely. It simply strains credulity to imagine that a president would be in service of an adversary nation. That said, it is an interpretation at least consistent with the known facts.
And a lot of people are saying . . . .