One of the key lines in the House Democrats’ impeachment report distills the Trump-Ukraine scandal to a simple idea: “[T]he impeachment inquiry has found that President Trump, personally and acting through agents within and outside of the U.S. government, solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, to benefit his reelection.”
And in the report’s preface, the Democrats place Trump’s Ukrainian caper within the larger context of foreign intervention in US elections, namely Russia’s covert attack on the 2016 contest, which was mounted in part to help Trump win the White House: “we were struck by the fact that the President’s misconduct was not an isolated occurrence, nor was it the product of a naïve president. Instead, the efforts to involve Ukraine in our 2020 presidential election were undertaken by a President who himself was elected in 2016 with the benefit of an unprecedented and sweeping campaign of election interference undertaken by Russia in his favor, and which the President welcomed and utilized.”
The point was clear. Trump muscling Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to produce political dirt that could influence the 2020 election for Trump’s personal advantage was a continuation of Trump’s behavior in 2016. This contextualization brings back into the spotlight Vladimir Putin’s clandestine assault on American democracy—and how Trump encouraged and exploited that attack. So now, as Trump is under scrutiny for pressing Ukraine to influence the 2020 race, it’s a good time to review all the ways that Trump aided and abetted a foreign adversary’s scheme to subvert a US election the last time the nation was choosing a president.
Signaled to Moscow that its intervention in the election was desirable: On June 9, three top Trump advisers—Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort—held a secret meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian emissary whom they were informed would provide them dirt on Hillary Clinton. Trump Jr., who arranged this get-together, much later claimed that this Russian lawyer, who had ties to the Kremlin and a Russian security service, provided them no useful information. But this meeting had more significance than what was actually discussed. During the preparation for this event, Trump Jr. had received an email from the middle-man who set it up saying the meeting came out of an offer from Russia’s top prosecutor and was “part of Russia and its government support for Mr. Trump.” This means Trump’s son was informed that Russia was angling to secretly help Trump—and that Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort were fine with that. And by taking the meeting, Trump Jr. and the others were conveying a message to Russia that the Trump campaign didn’t mind—and would welcome—covert assistance from the Russian government. (Trump has claimed that he was unaware of this meeting. But Michael Cohen testified to Congress that he believed Trump was aware of the meeting before it occurred.)
Denied Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee: On June 14, 2016, the Washington Post reported that the DNC had been attacked and penetrated by Russian government hackers who gained access to “all email and chat traffic.” The Kremlin, naturally, denied this. Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s top spokesman said, “I completely rule out a possibility that the [Russian] government or the government bodies have been involved in this.” The next day, Trump’s campaign echoed Moscow’s line. It put out a statement declaring, “We believe is was the DNC that did the ‘hacking’ as a way to distract from the many issues acing their deeply flawed candidate and failed party leader.” That is, there had been no hack; this was all a hoax. The Trump statement accepted and boosted Moscow’s disinformation and its cover-up. Putin and his covert operators must have been pleased.
Denied Russia was attacking Clinton’s campaign: In July, three days before the start of the Democrats’ presidential convention, WikiLeaks dumped tens of thousands of emails and documents the Russian hackers had stolen from the DNC. This was an attempt to disrupt the Democrats’ gathering. Senior Clinton campaign officials publicly contended that their camp was being targeted by Moscow. Team Trump contended that was hogwash. On CNN, Trump Jr. blasted the Democrats for suggesting Russian involvement: “It just goes to show you their exact moral compass. I mean they’ll say anything to be able to win this. This is time and time again, lie after lie. It’s disgusting. It’s so phony.” And on the same network Manafort dismissed the Democrats’ claim, saying, “It’s just absurd…it is crazy,” Yet the previous month, they and Kushner had met with the Russian emissary whom they were told was part of a secret Kremlin effort to assist the Trump campaign. Once again, the Trump campaign was reinforcing Putin’s we-didn’t-do-it stance—which, no doubt, was heartening for Moscow.
Encouraged Russia to hack Clinton: The denials of Russia’s involvement from Trump’s top advisers could well have been read by Moscow’s operators as a green light from the Trump campaign. But Trump made it explicit at a press conference on July 27, while the Democratic convention was still underway in Philadelphia. He repeated his campaign’s denial—”Nobody knows who it is”—and then went further: “I will tell you this—Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the thirty thousand [Clinton] emails that are missing. I think you’ll probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” Trump was essentially encouraging another government to hack his political rival. He was openly requesting foreign intervention in the US election. And within five hours of Trump’s statement, according to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report, Russian government hackers did try to break into email accounts associated with Clinton and her personal office. This shows the Russians were paying attention to what Trump was saying.
Made secret contact with the Kremlin: Throughout the summer of 2016, the Trump campaign tried to set up a secret connection with Putin’s government. The campaign did this after cybersecurity experts had identified Russia as the culprit in the DNC hacking and after news reports had noted that US intelligence agencies had reached the same conclusion. A little-noticed portion of the statement of offense in Muller’s case against George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, lays this out. (Papadopoulos’ April 2016 conversation with a suspected Russian asset who said Moscow possessed Clinton’s emails later triggered the FBI’s Russia investigation.) The legal filing notes that Papadopoulos “from mid-June through mid-August 2016…pursued an ‘off the record’ meeting between one or more Campaign representatives and ‘members of president putin’s office'” and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Papadopoulos’ effort, according to the document, was no rogue action; other campaign officials knew about it, and one even encouraged him to travel to Russia to meet with Russian officials to make this contact “if it is feasible.” (Papadopoulos did not take such a trip.) The Trump campaign was attempting to establish a backdoor channel with Putin, even as Putin was attacking the 2016 election. This overture was probably seen by the Kremlin as yet another sign that the Trump campaign accepted—and welcomed—Moscow’s intervention in the US election. (Also, in early August, Manafort met with a former business associate who was a suspected Russian intelligence asset, and Manafort shared internal campaign polling data with him and discussed a pro-Putin peace plan for Ukraine. This, too, could have been seen by Moscow as a signal that the Trump campaign was willing to play ball with Russia, as Russia was trying to subvert the election.)
Embraced Moscow disinformation: In mid-August, Trump, as the Republican nominee, received a briefing from the US intelligence community that included the intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia was behind the DNC hack. Nevertheless, in the following weeks, Trump repeatedly denied Russia was the perp. During his first debate with Clinton, Trump declared, “I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC… I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK? You don’t know who broke into DNC.” At the second debate—days after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security released a statement saying that “the Russian Government directed” the hacks of the DNC and other Democratic targets—Trump, referring to Clinton, exclaimed, “She doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking.” (He added, “I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia. I don’t deal there. I have no businesses there.” Trump neglected to mention that earlier in the year he had tried to develop a massive tower project in Moscow and his company had sought help for the project from Putin’s office.) With these remarks, Trump was parroting Putin’s false claims. Such comments likely emboldened Russia. (Looking to stay in sync with Trump and his comments, Republican congressional leaders, most notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, avoided joining with the Obama administration to forcefully oppose Putin’s intervention in the election.) And after WikiLeaks in October 2016, as part of the Russian scheme to help Trump, began its daily release of emails stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta by Russian hackers, Trump repeatedly proclaimed he loved WikiLeaks—embracing this foreign intervention in the election.
Again and again during the 2016 campaign, Trump and his aides denied Russia was intervening in the election, but they also praised this interference and sought to secretly hook up with the foreign adversary that was waging information warfare against the United States. (The recent trial of longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone showed that Trump and his advisers sought to use Stone as contact with WikiLeaks.) This part of the Trump-Russia affair has never received the attention it warrants, in part because much of the scandal came to be defined by the question of whether Trump directly colluded with Moscow. But he didn’t have to in order for the Russians to mount the operation that succeeded in helping Trump become president.
All of these actions detailed above—which may not have been criminal—deserved full congressional investigation and could be part of an impeachment case against Trump (as could the report that Trump, once elected, told Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting that he didn’t care about Russia’s attack on the election). But the House Democrats have not followed through on their promise to revive the Trump-Russia investigation. Instead they relied on Mueller’s report—which was limited—and generally concluded after Mueller’s lackluster appearance on Capitol Hill that the Russia scandal was kaput. They then trained their impeachment sights on the narrow Ukraine caper. Still, Democrats have recently been noting that there is a strong tie between the two scandals—”All roads lead to Putin,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this week—and that Trump’s conduct in the Ukraine episode follows his pattern of accepting, welcoming, and requesting foreign intervention during the last presidential election. Trump did escape accountability for what he did in 2016, but the Ukraine scandal shows that he has been on a spree. He became president in part because of foreign interference he encouraged. As president, he sought additional intervention from overseas to boost his reelection prospects. It’s a straight line, and his critics are right to wonder what Trump—if (or when) he survives impeachment—might try to pull next to hold on to the presidency.