On Aug. 8, 1974, President Richard Nixon announced his immediate resignation from the office of the presidency following an almost two-year investigation into the Watergate break-in, which was wrought with wiretapping schemes aimed at thwarting the Democratic National Committee. Over 40 years later, we are met yet again with allusions to wiretapping and charges of collusion to hinder the chances of an opponent. But there is something different about this scandal.
Following FBI Director James Comey’s March 20 hearings that confirmed an investigation into Russian ties to President Donald Trump and his campaign committee, CNN reported days later that the FBI has “information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”
Contributing to this report are not only human intelligence and personal accounts, but also “travel, business and phone records” that are giving U.S. intelligence officials reason to believe that Trump and his team may have coordinated with Russia to obstruct Clinton’s chances at winning the White House. Those phone records, CNN reports, were not a product of former President Obama engaging in wiretapping, but instead the result of call monitoring waged on foreign targets — proceedings that were protected by FISA warrants, which allow the United States to conduct such acts for foreign intelligence reasons.
Trump, however, continues to cry “fake news” on these allegations, attempting to divert attention away from this most unfavorable press. But his attempts to clear the smoke from these simmering claims and chalk it up to dishonest media cannot last long. As they say, where there’s smoke, there’s fire — and the mounting evidence only fans the flames.
Consider two of Trump’s former colleagues: ex-national security advisor Michael Flynn and former campaign manager Paul Manafort. Not even a month into Trump’s presidency, Flynn resigned from his position after information indicated he “misled Vice President Mike Pence and other top White House officials about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States,” according to The New York Times. Those conversations Flynn had took place before he was officially installed as national security advisor; the Times says he spoke with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December about American sanctions against the country, though he denied that those conversations were “substantive.”
Over a month after Flynn’s resignation comes a report from the Associated Press that Manafort had been paid $12 million dollars by a pro-Russian political party. According to NPR, Manafort’s name surfaced on a secret pay ledger in Ukraine this past summer, indicating that he was paid for work done for the party. At the time, Manafort said the ledger was false (and Trump later fired him from his campaign), but NPR says a member of Ukraine’s Parliament unveiled documents proving that Manafort tried to keep the payment under wraps. By the time the AP’s report was published last week, they found that he “secretly worked for a Russian oligarch who wanted him to promote Russian interests” in former Soviet territories and to work to benefit President Vladimir Putin’s regime.
These are far from the Trump administration’s only connections to Russia. In fact, Politico has published a series of seven charts that outline Trump’s connections to Putin by way of his administration, his campaign advisors and even his business ties. Beyond Flynn, Politico cites both attorney general Jeff Sessions and secretary of state and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as having ties to Russia: the former via a pair of meetings with ambassador Kislyak, and the latter through his business connections with Russian-owned oil and energy companies Rosneft and Gazprom. Trump’s own business ties present five more Russian connections, while two campaign advisors, excluding Manafort, hold contacts of their own — including one that circuitously links him to WikiLeaks editor-in-Chief Julian Assange, which may explain the “October surprise” of Clinton’s emails suddenly making their way to the forefront of public discourse once again.
Though the amount of connections made thus far may be startling, these are just the ones that had already been reported. For all we know, there may be more that have yet to be uncovered. What is important to remember in this case is why there is such interest in this investigation. It is, only in part, a function of media hype; turn on any cable news station and they will likely be speculating away. The crux of the matter is that we have never had a president enter office with so many covert ties to a nation with which the United States has had such a tumultuous relationship. Beyond his own business ties, Trump has chosen to surround himself with Cabinet members and advisors that — whether directly or indirectly — have had contact with Russian officials in some form. While the news media has dedicated countless hours of research and reporting to uncovering and understanding these connections, journalists should not be the only ones who are given pause. For the American people, this is not normal. This is not something we have seen before. This is not something we expected. It is, however, something we should focus on.
Surely there will be more information leaked, more breaking news reported on this matter in the coming days, weeks and even months, just as there was in the Watergate scandal. Eventually, Watergate concluded with several staffers officially pleading guilty to wiretapping charges and eventual imprisonment. In the current scandal, we have already seen Flynn resign and Sessions recuse himself of any investigation related to the recent election as a result of his contacts with ambassador Kislyak, reports The Washington Post. At the rate new information has been surfacing, more revelations may come to light and help illuminate the scope of the Trump administration’s connections with Russia.
Perhaps former CBS News anchor Dan Rather said it best when he wrote to his followers on Facebook last week, “The plot thickens. The drum beats increase. The pressure mounts. And a question I never thought I would ever hear asked again with such urgency and stakes looms large: ‘What did the President know and when did he know it?’”