Donald Trump’s carelessness about Russia is coming back to haunt him

David Usborne
Donald Trump with Jeff Sessions before the US Attorney General's swearing in ceremony last month: Getty

If you are looking for some kind of foothold in the maelstrom of Donald Trump’s Russia problem you’re better off looking to Moscow than to Washington, where nothing is clear. The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said it’s impeding the promised reset between the two countries. I’d say.

Peskov was fretting specifically about the latest detonation in Washington – the news that Jeff Sessions, the US Attorney General, twice met with the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak, towards the end of last year’s campaign, something he failed to own up to – or flat out lied about – in his nomination hearing for his new job. “An emotional atmosphere” has taken over in the US that “leads to resistance to the idea of some kind of US-Russia dialogue”, Peskov added.

He is right – and how ironic that is. Vladimir Putin’s intelligence henchmen went full bore to meddle in the US elections – or so the entire US intelligence community believes - in hopes that Trump would be the 45th president, not Hillary Clinton. Yet the fallout from that ultimately successful effort means that everything he expected from his favoured horse is now far out of reach. No make-up sex after Crimea. No forgiveness for Ukraine.

Emotional is one way of putting it but toxic and all-consuming might better describe the newly revved uproar in Washington over the Russia question. Squid-like, it has wrapped its tentacles around this administration and blinded it with black ink.

It’s a tenebrous murk, indeed. Democrats are daring to hope that a smoking gun will eventually emerge proving that the Trump campaign was both aware of Russia’s skullduggery and possibly colluded in it. They even ask if Trump himself encouraged it. That could trigger calls for his impeachment.

They should not get ahead of themselves. Nowhere in the deluge of reporting on the affair has there been any evidence to support any of that. It’s also true that Trump’s supporters are unmoved by the whole affair. Indeed, it is serving to feed their disdain for the mainstream media, which in their minds is concerned not with the truth but with destroying the man they elected.

But regardless of how this plays out, the harm to this White House is already severe. The finely tuned machine looks anything but – just three weeks in national security adviser Michael Flynn, was forced to resign precisely because he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about telephone conversations he had had pre-election also with the very same Ambassador Kislyak. Now calls are out for his Attorney General’s scalp for much the same reason.

At the very least Trump and some around him have been guilty of calamitous carelessness. He was careless when he egged on Russia during a press conference at one of his golfing properties last July, musing that it might help with emails absent from Clinton’s infamous email server. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he ventured. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

He has repeatedly been careless in his praise of Putin, especially when a Fox News anchor challenged his perception of the Russia leader last month calling him a “killer”. “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers,” Trump said. “You think our country is so innocent?”

That drew rebukes from all around, including from Senator John McCain who, with his friend Senator Lindsey Graham, has emerged as the Republican Party’s conscience at least on foreign policy. “There is no moral equivalence between that butcher and thug and KGB colonel and the United States of America, the country that Ronald Reagan used to call a shining city on a hill. And to allege some kind of moral equivalence between the two is either terribly misinformed or incredibly biased,” he thundered.

A still broader chorus now assails Sessions. Democrats including Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the top Democrats in the House and the Senate, say his testimony at his nomination hearing was blatantly untruthful and are demanding he now resign. Sessions tried to clarify that he had responded as he did because his meetings with the envoy had been in his capacity as a senator, as he was then, not as a representative of the Trump campaign. “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign,” he said in a statement after the furore first erupted on Wednesday evening. “I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.” That won’t wash with the Democrats.

Probably, he will keep his job. However, even some Republicans were quick to break ranks with the White House to back calls for him to recuse himself from Department of Justice investigations into the alleged canoodling between Russia and the Trump campaign last year. “Jeff Sessions is a former colleague and a friend,” noted Senator Rob Portman, “but I think it would be best for him and for the country to recuse himself from the DOJ Russia probe.”

“If there is something there and it goes up the chain of investigation, it is clear to me that Jeff Sessions, who is my dear friend, cannot make this decision about Trump,” Senator Graham observed. He also noted the obvious: a Sessions recusal would make it all the harder for the administration to resist demands for a special prosecutor to try to get to the bottom of all this.

By late Thursday Sessions had fallen on half a sword; not resigning but indeed recusing himself from the affair. If the appointment of a special prosecutor does now ensue, it is likely that the topic will linger not just for weeks but for months and possibly much longer. The Kenneth Starr investigation into Bill Clinton began in 1994. By the time it ended it had grown into a something much bigger than was originally intended, extending even to the liaison with Monica Lewinksy. It rumbled on for a full five years. Could an independent investigation into Trump and Russia similarly balloon? Just like a venomous squid? It could.

And to think that just a few weeks ago we were speculating about where the Trump-Putin love-in summit would be.