The most important under-investigated story of the presidential campaign could ultimately become the greatest political scandal in U.S. history: how the Trump administration may have conspired with top Russian intelligence officials, and perhaps Vladimir Putin himself, to interfere in the election, get Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMcConnell’s gambit to save the Supreme Court paid off Tillerson to embassies: ID groups for tougher screening US probes Manafort’s banking: report MORE elected President, and undermine U.S. foreign policy. As revelations about these Russian contacts slowly leak out, some legal scholars are beginning to suggest that Trump campaign officials might have broken the law or even committed treason.
That sounds like partisan hyperbole, but it may eventually become an inescapable legal conclusion that Democrats and Republicans alike will need to face. Consider what we now know.
According to The New York Times, phone records and intercepted calls show that senior members of the Trump campaign, his transition team, and his associates were in regular contact with Russian intelligence officials throughout 2016. This should not surprise anyone, given that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is actually the third top Trump staffer who has had to resign because of ties to Russia, following former campaign manager Paul Manafort and campaign advisor Carter Page.
We also now know that Flynn continued speaking with Russian officials after the election, providing back-channel information to the Russians in order to undermine then-President Obama’s sanctions on Russia for the very same hacking that was orchestrated on Trump’s behalf.
To be sure, there is, so far, no proof that any of these communications happened under Trump’s orders or with his knowledge. Yet, it is hard to believe that so many interactions by such high-level members of Trump’s campaign or his administration could possibly have occurred without Trump’s knowledge or his tacit or explicit consent.
In addition, we now know that when Acting Attorney General Sally Yates reported on Flynn’s illegal conversations, Trump not only did not fire Flynn, he instead fired Yates, four days later. And even now, the White House states that Flynn was fired for being untrustworthy with his superiors, not for breaking the law by conspiring with the Russians in the first place.
These ongoing Russia connections might also help explain other mysteries of the past year. For example, why has Trump continued to refuse to release his financial records? Would those records, as Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) suggested on Wednesday, provide evidence of deep financial ties to Russia, or even direct payments? And why has Trump himself been so strangely unwilling to criticize Putin despite being given many easy opportunities to do so?
We don’t have the answers to these questions. But they clearly require bipartisan investigation and an independent counsel with no ties to Attorney General Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsIsraeli police arrest suspect in connection to JCC bomb threats FBI has info suggesting coordination between Trump aides, Russia: report Poll: By 2 to 1 margin, registered voters reject Comey MORE or the administration. After all, if the Trump campaign used back channels to secretly conspire with the Russians to impact the election and undermine the sitting president of the United States, it is not only improper, it is the definition of treason. Moreover, it suggests that this administration might now owe more allegiance to Putin than to the U.S. Constitution it is sworn to protect and defend.
Such an allegation is chilling, particularly at a time when Russia is deploying missiles in violation of its treaty obligations, leaving a compromised Trump administration without a credible response. Indeed, any allegation of treason seems almost unfathomable. Yet, that is the unfortunate state we are in. The fall of Michael Flynn is only the beginning of the slow unraveling.
Paul Schiff Berman is the Walter S. Cox Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School and the author of Global Legal Pluralism, published by Cambridge University Press in 2012.
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