From Mother Jones
Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in Helsinki
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One of the key lines in the House Democrats' impeachment report distills the Trump-Ukraine scandal to a simple idea: "[T]he impeachment inquiry has found that President Trump, personally and acting through agents within and outside of the U.S. government, solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, to benefit his reelection."
And in the report's preface, the Democrats place Trump's Ukrainian caper within the larger context of foreign intervention in US elections, namely Russia's covert attack on the 2016 contest, which was mounted in part to help Trump win the White House: "we were struck by the fact that the President's misconduct was not an isolated occurrence, nor was it the product of a naïve president. Instead, the efforts to involve Ukraine in our 2020 presidential election were undertaken by a President who himself was elected in 2016 with the benefit of an unprecedented and sweeping campaign of election interference undertaken by Russia in his favor, and which the President welcomed and utilized."
Made secret contact with the Kremlin: Throughout the summer of 2016, the Trump campaign tried to set up a secret connection with Putin's government. The campaign did this after cyber-security experts had identified Russia as the culprit in the DNC hacking and after news reports had noted that US intelligence agencies had reached the same conclusion. A little-noticed portion of the statement of offense in Muller's case against George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, lays this out. (Papadopoulos' April 2016 conversation with a suspected Russian asset who said Moscow possessed Clinton's emails later triggered the FBI's Russia investigation.) The legal filing notes that Papadopoulos "from mid-June through mid-August 2016...pursued an 'off the record' meeting between one or more Campaign representatives and 'members of president Putin's office'" and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Papadopoulos' effort, according to the document, was no rogue action; other campaign officials knew about it, and one even encouraged him to travel to Russia to meet with Russian officials to make this contact "if it is feasible." (Papadopoulos did not take such a trip.) The Trump campaign was attempting to establish a backdoor channel with Putin, even as Putin was attacking the 2016 election. This overture was probably seen by the Kremlin as yet another sign that the Trump campaign accepted -- and welcomed -- Moscow's intervention in the US election. (Also, in early August, Manafort met with a former business associate who was a suspected Russian intelligence asset, and Manafort shared internal campaign polling data with him and discussed a pro-Putin peace plan for Ukraine. This, too, could have been seen by Moscow as a signal that the Trump campaign was willing to play ball with Russia, as Russia was trying to subvert the election.)
Embraced Moscow disinformation: In mid-August, Trump, as the Republican nominee, received a briefing from the US intelligence community that included the intelligence agencies' conclusion that Russia was behind the DNC hack. Nevertheless, in the following weeks, Trump repeatedly denied Russia was the perp. During his first debate with Clinton, Trump declared, "I don't think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC... I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK? You don't know who broke into DNC." At the second debate -- days after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security released a statement saying that "the Russian Government directed" the hacks of the DNC and other Democratic targets -- Trump, referring to Clinton, exclaimed, "She doesn't know if it's the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking." (He added, "I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia. I don't deal there. I have no businesses there." Trump neglected to mention that earlier in the year he had tried to develop a massive tower project in Moscow and his company had sought help for the project from Putin's office.) With these remarks, Trump was parroting Putin's false claims. Such comments likely emboldened Russia. (Looking to stay in sync with Trump and his comments, Republican congressional leaders, most notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, avoided joining with the Obama administration to forcefully oppose Putin's intervention in the election.) And after WikiLeaks in October 2016, as part of the Russian scheme to help Trump, began its daily release of emails stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta by Russian hackers, Trump repeatedly proclaimed he loved WikiLeaks -- embracing this foreign intervention in the election.
Again and again during the 2016 campaign, Trump and his aides denied Russia was intervening in the election, but they also praised this interference and sought to secretly hook up with the foreign adversary that was waging information warfare against the United States. (The recent trial of longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone showed that Trump and his advisers sought to use Stone as contact with WikiLeaks.) This part of the Trump-Russia affair has never received the attention it warrants, in part because much of the scandal came to be defined by the question of whether Trump directly colluded with Moscow. But he didn't have to in order for the Russians to mount the operation that succeeded in helping Trump become president.
All of these actions detailed above -- which may not have been criminal -- deserved full congressional investigation and could be part of an impeachment case against Trump (as could the report that Trump, once elected, told Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting that he didn't care about Russia's attack on the election). But the House Democrats have not followed through on their promise to revive the Trump-Russia investigation. Instead they relied on Mueller's report -- which was limited -- and generally concluded after Mueller's lackluster appearance on Capitol Hill that the Russia scandal was kaput. They then trained their impeachment sights on the narrow Ukraine caper. Still, Democrats have recently been noting that there is a strong tie between the two scandals -- "All roads lead to Putin," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this week -- and that Trump's conduct in the Ukraine episode follows his pattern of accepting, welcoming, and requesting foreign intervention during the last presidential election.