Russia: The problem President Trump can’t escape
The first weeks of a US presidency are usually filled with optimism — a fresh face with a clean slate settles into the White House and maps out a vision for the next four years.
A scandal over communications between key Trump aides and Russian officials ahead of the President’s inauguration has widened yet again — this time to include Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The revelation comes just two weeks after Trump’s top national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign after misleading Vice President Mike Pence about a conversation with Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak — the same diplomat who Sessions met with twice last year, according to the Justice Department.
Here’s a rundown of the latest Russia issues dogging the Trump administration.
Kislyak is proving poisonous for the Trump administration — two senior officials appointed by the President were found to have spoken with the ambassador before the administration’s first day on the job, and then failed to disclose those talks when asked about communications with Russia.
Kislyak is considered by US intelligence to be one of Russia’s top spies and spy-recruiters in Washington, according to current and former senior US government officials.
Russian officials dispute this characterization of Kislyak.
In a conference call with journalists Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said: “Nobody has heard a single statement from US intelligence agencies’ representatives regarding our ambassador. Again, these are some depersonalized assumptions of the media that are constantly trying to blow this situation out of proportion.”
When asked about Russia during his confirmation hearing, Sessions responded that he “did not have communications with the Russians.”
But a Justice Department official later confirmed that Sessions had met with Kislyak twice — in July on the sidelines of the Republican convention and in September in his office when he was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sessions responded to the allegations swiftly on Wednesday, saying he had “never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign,” saying the allegations were “false.”
Sessions’s spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, said there was nothing “misleading about his answer” as he was not asked specifically about “meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee.”
Opposition Democrats have been quick to call for Sessions to step down, pointing out that he oversees the Justice Department and FBI, which have been leading an investigation into Russia’s activities in the US.
The story with Flynn is similar.
The Washington Post first reported that Flynn had made several calls to the ambassador in December before Trump took office, including some on the same day that the Obama administration placed fresh sanctions on Russia over the alleged election meddling.
Law enforcement and intelligence officials also told CNN that the calls were made that day — he had told then Vice President-elect Mike Pence in a briefing that he had not been in communication with Russian officials, the White House says.
He admitted to briefing Pence “with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador” and was forced to resign on February 13 after just 23 days on the job.
A US official confirmed to CNN that Flynn and Kislyak spoke about fresh sanctions placed on Russia by the Obama administration.
An ongoing investigation into Russia’s activities in the US — following the country’s alleged interference in the 2016 US election — has opened up a Pandora’s box for the Trump administration.
Flynn’s resignation came after reports emerged that the Justice Department had told the White House about Flynn’s phone calls with the ambassador.
Just two days later, law enforcement, administration and intelligence officials told CNN that high-level advisers close to Trump were in constant communication with Russians known to US intelligence during the election campaign.
They named Flynn as well as then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who denies the accusations.
“That is 100% not true, at least as far as me,” Manafort said.
“I cannot believe that they are including me in anything like that. I have not been involved in any of these activities.”
Flynn did not respond to CNN’s request for comment regarding the report.
The frequency of their communications during early summer “raised a red flag” with US intelligence and law enforcement, according to the officials CNN spoke with.
The communications were intercepted during routine intelligence collection targeting Russian officials and other Russian nationals known to US agencies.
Trump dismissed the claims in a tweet, saying the “Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign.”
The President has complained of the leaks coming out of intelligence agencies, branding them as a threat to security and calling the media stories that followed “fake news.”
Just over a week before Trump was sworn in, CNN reported that Trump and then-President Barack Obama were briefed on the existence of a dossier making damning but unsubstantiated allegations, including that Russian operatives had compromising information on Trump.
In February, US investigators said they had corroborated some details in the 35-page document, compiled by a former British intelligence agent, through intercepted communications, giving some weight to the veracity of at least parts of the document as other allegations are investigated.
Investigators did not confirm some of the more salacious allegations, but did detail around a dozen conversations between senior Russian officials and other Russian individuals mentioned in the document, multiple US officials with direct knowledge of the briefings told CNN.
The two-page synopsis originally presented to Trump and Obama included allegations of a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government, according to two national security officials.
The White House has denied the allegations made in the dossier and also dismissed them as “fake news.” Russian President Vladimir Putin also shrugged off the allegations as “rubbish.”
Both Trump’s team and Russian officials had called for better relations between the old Cold War adversaries, and Trump and Putin openly exchanged compliments during the campaign.
Despite the Kremlin’s calls for warmer relations, Russia has made a string of provocative moves since Trump took office. On February 14, a senior military official told CNN that Russia had deployed a cruise missile in an apparent treaty violation.
The Kremlin denied that it had violated the treaty.
Moscow has also positioned a spy ship off the coast of Delaware and carried out flights near a US Navy warship, concerning American officials. The US administration has not officially drawn any links between the three events.
The ground-launched cruise missile seems to run counter to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the military official said. The New York Times first reported is deployment.
While declining to speak on intelligence matters, a spokesman for the US State Department said that Russia was in violation of the treaty.
Acting spokesman Mark Toner said that Russia was obliged “not to possess, produce or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500 to 5,500 kilometers, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.”
He said the White House had “made very clear our concerns about Russia’s violation.”
Russia is believed to have tested one such missile in 2014.
On February 10, a US Navy warship in the Black Sea had three encounters with Russian aircraft Friday that were deemed to be unsafe and unprofessional because of how close the Russian planes flew to the US, according to a senior defense official.
Moscow pushed back on the allegation, with Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov telling state media there had been no such incident.
THE CRIMEA PENINSULA
The Trump administration and the Kremlin have already found themselves in back-and-forth commentary over Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
As scrutiny over the Trump administration’s ties to Russia grows, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump had on the contrary been “incredibly tough on Russia.”
“He continues to raise the issue of Crimea, which the previous administration had allowed to be seized by Russia. His ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, stood before the UN Security Council on her first day and strongly denounced the Russian occupation of Crimea,” he told reporters at a press briefing.
He said that Trump had made it clear he expected the Russian government to “deescalate violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea,” while at the same time pursuing better relations with Russia.
Trump had previously buoyed the Kremlin’s claim on Crimea.
The Kremlin shot back at Spicer’s comments. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Russia was “not returning our territory. Crimea is part of the Russian Federation.”
Russia annexed Crimea, a territory in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine, in March 2014 following tensions with its neighbor. The US, the European Union and several other Western countries placed sanctions on Russia over the annexation.