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politics

Trump's Russia Problem Isn't Going Away

Donald Trump dismissed a salacious series of memos about his campaign's Russian ties, but that's not the end of what promises to be a convoluted controversy.

by Harry Cheadle
12 January 2017, 5:00am

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

On Tuesday afternoon, a long-awaited Wednesday press conference from Donald Trump got a lot more exciting, when unverified but almost unimaginably lurid reports alleged that the president-elect's campaign had been in contact with Russian intelligence operations, that Russia had been grooming Trump for years, and that the Russians had secretly filmed a piss party with prostitutes hosted by Trump in a St. Petersberg hotel, presumably in order to blackmail him in the future.

Those unproven allegations, which Trump denied, traveled around social media in a matter of minutes and changed the tenor of the press conference, Trump's first since the election. Though he talked about giving control of his business to his sons and criticized Obamacare harshly, most of the questions centered on Russian involvement in the presidential campaign, this new controversy, and how he would deal with Russian president Vladmir Putin—and on this last question especially, the president-elect dodged like a pro.

What started the ball rolling on Tuesday was a CNN report alleging that Trump and President Barack Obama had been briefed by intelligence chiefs on "allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump."

That's a lot of claims and allegations and reports. The meat of the thing is this: Months ago, a former British intelligence officer, who now works for private clients, apparently went about collecting information on Trump's Russia ties, first for an anti-Trump Republican, then for a Democrat. (The Wall Street Journal reported that this former spook is named Christopher Steele.) The information he gathered was put into a series of memos that circulated in journalism and political circles in DC. Mother Jones reported on the existence of these memos in October, but didn't discuss the specific claims it contained—probably because, like other journalists and outlets, it couldn't confirm any of those claims.

Then, on Tuesday evening, BuzzFeed published the memos "so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect," though it admitted that these allegations were "unverified, and potentially unverifiable."

Trump and Putin dismissed these memos in their entirety. At his press conference, the president-elect called them "fake news" that shouldn't have been written or released. By Wednesday, some of the memos' details were already falling apart—for instance, they claimed that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had met with Kremlin surrogates in Prague, but Cohen said he'd never been to Prague, and CNN later reported that intelligence agencies determined that the memos had the wrong Michael Cohen.

At the same time, there are reasons not to dismiss 100 percent of the memos out of hand. As detailed by the Lawfare blog, one of the outlets that had access to the documents before they were published by BuzzFeed, the fact that the intelligence community was taking these allegations seriously—that is, they might be wrong, but they weren't as transparently BS as your average Facebook hoax—is reason to give them due consideration.

To take one example, the memos claim that a man named Carter Page acted as a messenger between the Russians and the Trump campaign. Whether Page met any Russian officials or what he spoke to them about was already the subject of controversy before Tuesday. At the press conference, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said the president-elect "does not know" Page—even though Trump put Page's name on a list of advisers he showed the Washington Post during the campaign—and added Page "was put on notice months ago by the campaign."

Another memo, dated from July, says that the Trump team "agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue" in exchange for the Russians leaking damaging Democratic National Committee emails to WikiLeaks. Though that level of quid pro quo arrangement is frankly pretty hard to imagine, it's true that that same month Trump's people prevented a plank about arming Ukraine against Russia from being added to the GOP platform—a notable break with other Republicans that was noted at the time.

At the press conference, Trump was asked how he would handle relations with Russia, and he replied, "If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability." He added, "Do you honestly believe Hillary would be tougher on Putin than me?"

That was obviously a rhetorical question, but at this point, most people would say yes. Even if the memos are wrong about everything, Putin has ample reason to cheer a Trump presidency. Trump seems predisposed to liking Putin right back: Last year, he called the Russian president "bright and talented," his former campaign manager Paul Manafort worked for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, and though Trump admitted (sorta) on Wednesday that Russia was behind the DNC hack—finally accepting what the intelligence community has been insisting—he immediately went on to talk about other instances of hacking by other countries. Trump didn't respond to questions about whether he was in favor of existing sanctions against Russia, a noncommittal stance echoed by his secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson. Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, has his own Russian ties from his years of doing business with the government there and once received the Order of Friendship award from Putin.

Congressional Republicans have called for investigations into both the alleged Russian hacking and the memos's allegations. Trump is unlikely to cooperate, given his habit of stonewalling—he still hasn't released his tax returns, which could help prove both his claims about his charitable donations and his assertion that he has no investments in Russia. ("The only ones who care about my tax returns are the reporters, OK?" he said at the press conference, to applause from his supporters.)

But as Hillary Clinton could tell Trump, it's awfully hard to dislodge a narrative like this, even—or especially—if it's fueled by unconfirmed reports. The media will certainly continue to report whatever they can about the Trump camp's Russian ties, and if Republicans want to hold hearings on the subject—whether out of genuine anti-Russian feeling or just as a way to check Trump's power—the president won't be able to stop them. It's going to be a long four years.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.