Donald Trump and Russia: what we learned this week

Spencer Ackerman in New York
Devin Nunes, the House select committee on intelligence chairman, talks to reporters about the inquiry into alleged links between the Trump campaign and Russia. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Discerning the ties between Donald Trump and Russia was already a complex task. But the second-order developments emerging from the Trump-Russia connection now risk displacing the central issue.

A dizzying series of developments tangentially related to Trump and Russia overtook Washington this week. Opaque and often confusing, they have added to what the chairman of the House intelligence committee has called the “big gray cloud” surrounding the Trump administration. (That cloud now also hangs over the chairman himself.)

This is a short guide to the periphery of the Trump-Russia question.

Devin Nunes

The chairman of the House intelligence committee had a catastrophic week. It emerged that Devin Nunes received surveillance-related documents – more on those in a moment – from White House officials, despite Nunes’s obfuscation of that critical detail.

Nunes served on Trump’s transition team and is now running one of the inquiries into Trump and Russia. After the inquiry’s first public hearing on 20 March demolished Trump’s allegation that Barack Obama placed him under surveillance, Nunes on 22 March announced he had seen “alarming” documents related to surveillance from an unnamed source that suggested some form of support for the baseless Trump claim. Without sharing the documents with the committee, Nunes said he had taken them to the White House.

Nunes, under pressure from Democrats who smelled a rat, denied that the White House was his source. That denial was false. At the very least, Nunes acquired the documents with the aid of National Security Council official Ezra Cohen-Watnick and White House Counsel attorneys John Eisenberg and Michael Ellis. (“He misled me,” wrote Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake, to whom Nunes denied White House involvement.) Effectively, the White House was laundering a false intelligence claim through Nunes.

With Nunes now appearing to collude with the White House in defense of a debunked Trump tweetstorm, it is difficult to see how Nunes can credibly run an inquiry into Trump and Russia. For now, he is rejecting Democratic calls to recuse himself, though his reputation has suffered tremendously.

About those documents

Only Nunes and the White House really know what the documents Nunes alluded to show. But Nunes himself described them as detailing “lawful” surveillance that does not relate to Trump and Russia. Nunes’s stated concern is that they insufficiently masked names of Trump associates once they were disseminated through intelligence circles.

It appears from subsequent reporting that the intercepts concerned communications between foreign officials that mention Trump or his associates, which would in no sense validate the surveillance accusations Trump thrust on to Obama. Nor would they validate Nunes’s public anger over leaks that cost Michael Flynn his job as national security adviser, since Nunes himself said these documents aren’t about Russia.

In other words, they distract from the Trump-Russia question while leaving a vague-but-false impression that Trump’s accusations against Obama have merit. (Those accusations appear to stem from a Breitbart summary of a rightwing radio host’s argument that contained no original reporting.) If these are the same documents, that might help explain why the White House is now offering them up to the House and Senate intelligence committees.

But it’s not clear that what the White House is offering up actually are the documents Nunes reviewed. Schiff left a viewing invitation unsure. He said only that if the White House was alarmed by the documents – the contents of which he would not discuss – it should have shared them with the committee rather than providing them to Nunes “only for their contents to be briefed back to the White House.”

Michael Flynn

It has not been easy being Mike Flynn. After Trump fired him for misleading Vice-President Mike Pence over Flynn’s discussions of sanctions easement with the Russian ambassador, Flynn filed paperwork with the justice department indicating that he had done work for a firm owned by a close ally of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. (It subsequently emerged that Flynn had told the Trump transition he might need to register as a foreign agent, which the White House had denied knowing.) The House oversight committee is now seeking his disclosure forms.

Flynn is seeking an immunity guarantee from the FBI and the House and Senate intelligence committee inquiries. Lawyers have said the request is unusual, both because it was public and because Flynn has not made a so-called “proffer” offer detailing what he is willing to disclose in exchange. Schiff said on Friday that he has yet to receive Flynn’s disclosure forms, which would indicate if Flynn properly reported any work on behalf of a foreign power, and said any consideration of immunity “will of course require a detailed proffer of any intended testimony”.

For Congress to accept the offer would mean granting Flynn “use immunity”, thereby making it difficult to use whatever he tells Congress in any subsequent prosecution. Attorney Alex Whiting wrote that the justice department would normally object to such an agreement. Although no one appears to be taking Flynn up on the offer, whether they do so will accordingly provide an indication of their seriousness.

Twitter

While the Nunes and Flynn controversies distracted Washington, the Senate intelligence committee held a substantive public hearing into Trump-Russia that portrayed Trump’s favorite social media platform as an adjunct of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Counter-terrorism analyst Clint Watts testified that as far back as 2009, false Twitter accounts eventually associated with Russia came to be visible. Those accounts observed and sought to mimic American rightwingers’ Twitter behavior. To push false and pro-Kremlin stories into users’ feeds, Russian bots used hashtags such as #nuclear, #media, #Trump and #Benghazi. “The most common words found in English-speaking Twitter user profiles were ‘God’, ‘military’, ‘Trump’, ‘family’, ‘country’, ‘conservative’, ‘Christian’, ‘America’ and ‘constitution’,” Watts testified.

Thomas Rid, a security professor at King’s College London, told senators Twitter had functioned as an “unwitting agent” of Russia in the 2016 election. As Twitter seeks to attract advertisers, the proliferation of Russian automatons might prove inconvenient.

“How many of the social media interactions, especially Twitter interactions, during the campaign, of the most important Twitter accounts, were created by bots, by automated scripts, and not humans? We don’t know the answer to that question, because Twitter and other social media networks have not provided the data,” Rid testified.

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