The President of the United States is in big trouble. We have been given an extraordinary amount of detail as it relates to “collusion,” and intent to collude with a foreign adversary was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt the moment that Donald Trump Jr. released the e-mails saying he’d “love” to meet with members of the Russian government to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. With the reports of Trump Tower Moscow being considered deep into 2016, it’s clear what Team Trump got out of the deal: potential business and an election victory. What has received less coverage is exactly what Russia tried to get out of this collusion mess.
According to The Daily Beast, Robert Mueller is about to give us more information on that front:
For more than a year, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office has questioned witnesses broadly about their interactions with well-connected Russians. But three sources familiar with Mueller’s probe told The Daily Beast that his team is now zeroing in on Trumpworld figures who may have attempted to shape the administration’s foreign policy by offering to ease U.S. sanctions on Russia.
The Special Counsel’s Office is preparing court filings that are expected to detail Trump associates’ conversations about sanctions relief—and spell out how those offers and counter-proposals were characterized to top figures on the campaign and in the administration, those same sources said.
As I write this, Michael Flynn is in court for his sentencing hearing, and he is the obvious player at the heart of potential sanctions relief. We know that he spoke to the Russian Ambassador during the transition period, since lying about that to the FBI is what initially got him into this whole mess—and by all accounts—sanctions relief was at the heart of the discussion. It also seemed to be a centerpiece of the infamous Trump Tower meeting, as Trump himself initially said that it was about adoptions, referencing one of the ripple effects of the sanctions placed on Russia known as the Magnitsky Act. However, there are more members of Team Trump being scrutinized over Russian sanctions, as The Daily Beast continued:
Several individuals in Trump’s inner circle were developing their own plans to put pressure on other parts of the government to roll back the sanctions. which have cost the Russian economy more than a hundred billion dollars, according to Kremlin estimates.
It’s still unclear if Trump adviser Erik Prince and Kirill Dmitriev, the head of one of Russia’s sovereign wealth funds, spoke about sanctions in their now-infamous meeting in the Seychelles held during the last days of the transition. But The Daily Beast previously reported that the two spoke broadly about Russian investment opportunities in the U.S. and the potential for peace in Ukraine.
Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii V. Artemenko handed Michael Cohen a “peace plan” about a week after Trump took office, and around the same time, Michael Isikoff of Yahoo reported that Trump was asking the State Department to come up with a plan to roll back sanctions. Per Isikoff in June 2017:
In the early weeks of the Trump administration, former Obama administration officials and State Department staffers fought an intense, behind-the-scenes battle to head off efforts by incoming officials to normalize relations with Russia, according to multiple sources familiar with the events.
Unknown to the public at the time, top Trump administration officials, almost as soon as they took office, tasked State Department staffers with developing proposals for the lifting of economic sanctions, the return of diplomatic compounds and other steps to relieve tensions with Moscow.
These efforts to relax or remove punitive measures imposed by President Obama in retaliation for Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and meddling in the 2016 election alarmed some State Department officials, who immediately began lobbying congressional leaders to quickly pass legislation to block the move, the sources said.
Now, the key thing to keep in mind is that despite all this activity surrounding sanctions relief for the Kremlin, the Treasury Department has actually increased the amount of sanctions on Russia since Trump took office. The Daily Beast’s report details a transition team too disorganized and incompetent to implement their sanctions relief, and after the presidency officially began, they turned their efforts to lobbying congress to lift sanctions (to no avail).
After a year and a half of digging by the special counsel, it's clear as day that there was some level of collusion between Team Trump and the Kremlin. The only question is how far they went. Michael Flynn's sentencing hearing today demonstrates that our judicial system believes that the conspiracy goes as high up as Trump's National Security Adviser, and given the comments of a judge who MAGAland expected to be friendly to Flynn, Team Trump should be concerned.
As national security reporter Marcy Wheeler wrote, what we have learned about Michael Flynn this week is incredibly damaging to Team Trump:
In response to Judge Sullivan’s order, the government filed Flynn’s 302 under seal [a 302 is an interview report with the government]. After Sullivan reviewed it, he deemed it pertinent to Flynn’s sentencing, and had the government release a redacted version.
And it is unbelievably damning, in part because it shows the degree to which Flynn’s lies served to protect Trump.
The 302 shows how the FBI Agents first let Flynn offer up his explanation for his conversation with Kislyak. He lied about the purpose for his call to Kislyak on December 29 (he said he had called to offer condolences about the assassination of Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey) and he lied about the purpose of his call about Israel (he claimed he was, in part, doing a battle drill “to see who the administration could reach in a crisis” and in the process tried to find out how countries were voting on the Israeli motion; Flynn denied he had asked for any specific action).
Flynn’s sentencing today was postponed to give him time to fully finish cooperating with prosecutors, and it sure seems as if we have barely breached the tip of the iceberg of the Russian side of the collusion investigation. Given all we know about Team Trump’s side of the deal (like the Moscow Trump Tower that Michael Cohen admitted was still being pursued during the 2016 campaign), it’s highly unlikely that there is no fire at the base of the plume of smoke hanging over the topic of Russian sanctions. Trump’s incompetence in trying to lift them, and the subsequent imposition of more sanctions out of congress may be Team Trump’s best argument that they are innocent on this front. That said, our judicial system has criminalized “attempts” at crime for a reason, because incompetence is not a defense of innocence, as we may find out through more probing of Team Trump.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.