Foreign and Security Policy

Understanding the Russia Investigation

by Max Bergmann

Looking back across the Atlantic, Europeans may understandably assume that America has lost its mind. Not only did America elect a President that is unfit for office, but now the country is obsessed with an utterly bewildering Russia scandal, seemingly pulled from a conspiratorial spy thriller.

This scandal, however, is actually quite real and quite straightforward. On January 6, 2017, the US Intelligence Community issued a report that said that Russia in effect ran a campaign to help elect Donald Trump in the 2016 election. There were therefore two campaigns to elect Donald Trump in 2016 – the Trump campaign and a Russian campaign. The current investigation is focused on whether these two campaigns worked together. It looks increasingly certain that they did.

To date, 22 people have been indicted, including Trump’s campaign chairman (Paul Manafort), his deputy (Rick Gates), his first National Security Advisor (Michael Flynn), and a campaign foreign policy advisor (George Papadopolus). Flynn, Gates, and Papadopolus have all pled guilty and are cooperating with Mueller.

But there’s more, Trump’s own personal lawyer just had his office, his apartment, and the hotel where he was staying raided by FBI agents. We also now know that the FBI suspected another one of Trump’s main campaign foreign policy advisors, Carter Page, of being a Russian agent and even got a warrant to monitor him. And the warrant produced results good enough to renew that warrant three times.

While Trump rails against this being a partisan “WITCH HUNT,” this is an investigation started by a Repulican, overseen by a Republican, and run by a Republican.

President Trump has insisted that this investigation is some Democratic plot. Others have suggested that this is really about the Democratic Party trying to get rid of Trump or make excuses for their electoral defeat. But Democrats have no power in Washington. After Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last May, the Deputy Attorney General – a Republican who Trump himself appointed – decided to establish a Special Prosecutor to investigate whether there was collusion with Russia and appointed not a low level figure, but another former FBI Director – Robert Mueller, a Republican who was appointed by George W. Bush. While Trump rails against this being a partisan “WITCH HUNT,” this is in fact an investigation started by a Repulican, overseen by a Republican, and run by a Republican.

What has made this scandal so confusing is that we are watching an investigation unfold in real time. There is therefore a lot we do not know. The Mueller investigation has shocked Washington for the lack of leaks to the press. The press are uncovering information piece by piece by talking to defense lawyers and witnesses, and through great investigative reporting. So there is a lot of information coming out about different investigative threads that Mueller is looking into: Trump’s data digital firm, Cambridge Analytica; the Trump campaign’s coordination with WikiLeaks; Russians providing funding through to the National Rifle Agency; deals with sketchy UAE figures; and meetings with Russian officials in Trump Tower and places like the Seychelles. Therefore, figuring out where this scandal is headed requires reading some of the tea leaves and speculating. What has become clear, though, is that there is a tremendous amount to investigate. Trump was a shady businessman, operated a shady campaign, and looks like he’s operating an incredibly corrupt administration. The hard part for this investigation seems to be deciding what sketchy behavior not to investigate.

The Russia scandal has all the bearings of the greatest political scandal in American history.

The Russia scandal has all the bearings of the greatest political scandal in American history. It is unfolding in similar ways to the Nixon Watergate scandal, which enveloped the country for two years from 1972-74. There, a White House-directed effort to break into and bug the Democratic Party headquarters was exposed in 1972. But the question of what the White House knew and when it knew took two years to unfold.

Following Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, America turned to Europe for guidance. Many in Europe wisely explained to Americans the nature of Russian interference – something that Europe has lived with for decades. Yet over the past year, America has done something that European countries haven’t done – it established a robust criminal investigation into the depth and breadth of Russian influence efforts and whether their efforts were abetted by Americans. The Russia investigation is exposing the depths of Russia’s efforts and the depravity of Donald Trump. Far from America losing its mind, this investigation attests the strength of America’s democratic institutions – where no one is above the law, even the President of the United States.

Max Bergman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Co-Founder and Director of The Moscow Project.

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