The obsession with Donald Trump’s alleged Russia links is a dangerous distraction from more vital matters

Andrew Buncombe
A poster in Dubrovnik, Montenegro, toasts an new era led by Trump and Putin: Reuters

A confession: I’ve no secret sources at the CIA, know nobody at the NSA to treat for coffee, and have yet to receive an encrypted file from anyone at one of the 15 or so other US intelligence agencies.

Some people do, though. And it’s their stories that have dominated the media in recent weeks – a steady drip of anecdote and innuendo, with some supporting facts and an attendant caveat, suggesting the 45th US president may be an agent of Moscow; the so-called “Siberian Candidate”.

For millions, such stories are a welcome balm. However disturbing and treasonous a proposition they represent, to supporters of Hillary Clinton, they assuage the still sharp pain of defeat.

Mr Trump has dismissed claims of having links to Russia (Getty)

It enables them to explain the seemingly inexplicable; how did perhaps the most prepared presidential candidate in US political history lose to the host of The Apprentice?

There are two problems with this. Firstly, to date, there remains no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government to influence the election.

Yes the Russians may have wanted to sway its outcome, just as the US and the UK have for decades – and with greater impact – interfered with elections around the world. Yet there is no evidence they succeeded.

Yes Trump said very early on that he wanted to reset the strategic relationship with Russia, a relationship he believed had been hampered by a Cold War mind-set. He said it would be better for everyone if he got along with Vladimir Putin.

And yes members of his team may have have met Russian officials in the run up to the election, something diplomats say is common for all prospective administrations. And indeed, some of those officials may have failed to come clean about those meetings or conversations, an error or miscalculation that cost General Michael Flynn his job as National Security Adviser.

There is lots we don’t know about Trump’s relationship with Russia, and more may come out. Releasing his tax returns would go some way to providing us with a better insight. But for now, there remains no evidence – at least not evidence that has been made public – that might lead to Trump’s impeachment.

The point was underscored by James Clapper, who served as the director of the National Intelligence Agency for Barack Obama and who stood down on 20 January.

Appearing on NBC's Meet the Press on March 5, Clapper, who appears to have had a testy relationship with Trump, was asked directly if intelligence existed of “improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials”.

“We did not include any evidence in our report,” Clapper replied. He continued: “I say, ‘our’, that’s NSA, FBI and CIA, with my office, the Director of National Intelligence, that had anything, that had any reflection of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians”.

His interviewer persisted: “I understand that. But does it exist?"

“Not to my knowledge,” said Clapper, who conceded it was possible that evidence had emerged since he stood down in January.

Graphiq

In the absence of genuine evidence, for journalists trying to make sense of the chaos of first 50 days of the Trump administration, Clapper’s comments may the best we have for now.

The second reason the Siberian Candidate theory is so dangerous is that it is a distraction from more pressing issues. Based on Trump’s first weeks in office, it is clear he is a threat to many things that Americans value – the independence of the press, America’s history of welcoming refugees, the primacy of science, protection of the environment.

Trump’s rhetoric is based on bigotry and divisiveness and it has already proved toxic. Reports of hates crimes against Muslims and other minorities are on rise, the hard won rights of the LGBTQ community may be threatened.

For people who care about protecting such values, the challenge is huge.

The Russia obsession also distracts from something else – the genesis of Trump’s route to the Oval Office. Many factors led to the New York tycoon’s victory over the Democrats – complacency on the part of Clinton, tactical errors by her campaign team, and the dramatic 11th-hour intervention of FBI director James Comey who announced the probe into the her use of a private email server had been reopened.

But beyond that, Trump tapped into an anger and desperation of millions of Americans, many of them from small towns, many of them white, many without college degrees, but who decided the brash billionaire was their best chance.

In the same way that many people in Britain who voted to leave the EU felt they had little to lose by leaving, so millions of Americans believed Trump was the best shot at generating jobs in parts of the country that had suffered from globalisation. Some may have been attracted by the harsh language of his immigration stance, but hundreds of thousands of decent, hard-working people believed he was worth a roll of the dice.

To believe that Trump’s journey to the White House started in Moscow, rather than in places such as Weirton, West Virginia, or East Liverpool, Ohio, is an insult to those people.

And for those opposed to Trump, the longer they refuse to see where his victory came from, the harder it will be to stop him winning in four years.

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