With President Trump, all roads now lead to Moscow, whether it’s Michael Flynn’s resignation as national security adviser over contacts with the Russian ambassador or the latest revelation that Trump campaign staffers were in regular contact with Russian intelligence.
Behind these revelations lies a fundamental and unanswered question: Why has Trump taken such a conciliatory approach to Vladimir Putin’s illiberal regime — a regime that muzzles dissent, abets war crimes in Syria, supports an ongoing rebellion in Ukraine, and nakedly interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
Forging an alliance with such a regime might still make sense, if it were necessary to achieve some grand, geo-strategic goal. But beyond loose talk of fighting terrorism together, Trump has never clarified what he expects to get from Moscow. What exactly does the United States need — and need so badly that Trump would go out of his way to praise Putin as a “strong leader,” wave away questions about Putin’s use of violence, select staff with strong Russian ties, question the value of NATO, and raise doubts about Russia’s efforts to swing the 2016 election — even after US intelligence agencies determined that this was precisely Russia’s goal?
Without a clear realpolitik explanation for Trump’s Russophilia, it’s hard to silence questions about whether he’s actually motivated by something else. Hidden business ties with Russian oligarchs? A close adviser who’s been compromised? Even blackmail inside the White House? The reason such wild theories are being mooted in many quarters, despite a lack of evidence, is because as yet there is no clear and straightforward explanation for Trump’s behavior toward Russia.
Given the murky circumstances surrounding Trump and Russia, here are the five big questions still waiting to be answered.
What’s in Trump’s tax returns?
Tax returns contain a wealth of information, far more than is available through Trump’s other financial disclosures. That includes any investments in Russia — or any debts.
Without those tax returns, we’re left to extrapolate from statements like the one Trump’s son and business partner made in 2008, when he said that Russian investment made up a disproportionate share of their assets, adding, “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
Presently, there’s little of hope of seeing Trump’s returns. Not only has he refused to provide them — bucking 40 years of presidential practice — but on Tuesday Republicans in Congress decided not to release the returns themselves, which they had the power to do.
Was Flynn acting on orders from higher-ups?
Inappropriately talking shop with the Russian ambassador is not what got Flynn fired, according to the White House. It was excluding details when briefing the vice president and others.
The question is: Was he really acting on his own? Or was he being directed by someone else in the administration?
We may well find out, since the matter is still being investigated by the FBI and Congress is preparing its own probe. It’s even possible Flynn will be offered a deal if he agrees to testify against those who just pushed him out as National Security Advisor.
What did Trump’s campaign discuss with Russia?
In the latest bombshell, The New York Times reported Tuesday that members of Trump’s campaign staff were in regular contact with Russian intelligence. It’s not yet clear who was involved, or what was discussed. But to say the least, campaigns rarely engage in ongoing communications with foreign governments under sanction by the United States.
The most explosive possibility — and the thing to watch for — is whether Trump’s advisers knew about Russia’s propaganda efforts to swing the election in his favor, or perhaps even joined those efforts.
What’s happening in the intelligence community?
The only reason we know so much about the connections between team Trump and team Putin is because US intelligence officials are letting it slip. They’re sharing details about all manner of things that would usually remain between closed lips, including intercepted phone calls and ongoing investigations.
Some Republicans in Congress are more worried about these intelligence leaks than they are about the president’s ties to Russia, going so far as to threaten an investigation.
There is a real question here about motivation. Are intelligence agencies leaking damaging information as a form of revenge against a president who has questioned their conclusions in the past? Could it be a partisan act by Obama-Clinton loyalists in the ranks? Or is it really motivated by profound concern about the integrity and independence of the commander in chief?
Will Republicans turn against their president?
A lot hinges on the behavior of congressional Republicans. The founders put Congress in charge of disciplining the president through investigations and, if necessary, impeachment. But exercising these powers requires a fierce sense of congressional independence and a willingness to hold the president accountable, regardless of party or ideology.
At this point in American history, such disinterest may not be possible. While Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate is likely to undertake some kind of investigation into the Flynn affair, not everyone is on board. Senator Rand Paul articulated one driving concern, namely that Republican infighting poses a serious risk to the party’s agenda: “We’ll never even get started with doing the things we need to do like repealing Obamacare if we’re spending our whole time having Republicans investigate Republicans.”
Time spent opposing Trump is time Republicans can’t spend on tax cuts or other priorities. Worse, it could poison Congress’ relationship with the mercurial president.
This, then, may be the most pivotal question of all, for efforts to understand the relation between Trump and Russia: Where is the red line for congressional Republicans? What sort of revelation would prompt them to aggressively investigate their own president?
Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.