With the Justice Department now instructed by the president to investigate the investigators of Russian intervention in the U.S. elections, an alternative interpretation of Trump campaign “collusion” may emerge.
Far from vindicating the president, it may actually disclose that Moscow’s intelligence services are more devious and that Trump and his advisors are more credulous than many supposed.
Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE’s report concluded that while there was no provable criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, both sides benefited from Moscow’s interventions through email hacking of the Democratic Party and disinformation campaigns on social platforms.
In addition to begging the question of when does knowledge of a crime perpetrated by a foreign adversary become complicity in that crime, the Mueller report appears to assume that the Kremlin simply wanted Trump to win the elections. The truth appears to be much more nuanced.
Russian intelligence services primarily sought to exacerbate partisanship and polarization in American society and nurtured various conspiracy theories during the election campaign for that purpose. What better way to deepen political divisions then by publicly discrediting both major presidential candidates?
Although the Kremlin focused on Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty MORE, as it was convinced she would win the elections and sought to delegitimize her presidency among a sizeable segment of the electorate, it also devised a backup plan in case Trump was the surprise winner.
Indeed, could the Trump collusion narrative in itself be a conspiracy purposively manufactured not, as the President claims, by “angry Democrats” but by Russian services intent on disrupting the U.S. political system and paralyzing policymaking?
While cultivating business ties with Trump for many years, the Kremlin must have gathered compromising information that could be used for potential blackmail, as they do with all politicians and businessmen dealing with Russia.
During the campaign and transition, Moscow courted Trump to test whether he would be more compliant in lifting economic sanctions and more agreeable to Russia’s geopolitical ambitions.
But Kremlin operatives would have acted as amateurs without a parallel plan to undermine American decision-making in case Trump gained the White House but did not reverse U.S. policy toward Russia.
The “Steele dossier,” which was the first public document to chronicle Trump-Moscow connections and detail various allegedly nefarious and salacious Trump activities, could well have been a deliberate plant by Russian services.
Why would Christopher Steele, regardless of his past British intelligence background, acquire such easy access to secret information from Russian services unless he was cultivated as a conduit for Moscow’s subversive influence operations?
The GRU (military intelligence) and the SVR (former KGB, or state security service) had a motive to engineer and publicize the “Steele dossier” through an unwitting surrogate, regardless as to whether the information it contained was true or false, or some combination of fact and fiction.
They also arranged numerous unprofessional and easily traceable “Russian contacts” with the Trump campaign and transition teams in order to establish a record for investigators and for the media in case Moscow needed to discredit the president by embroiling him in potential collaboration with a foreign power.
In many respects, Trump was the classic “naïve American” who fell into a trap of seemingly cooperating with Russia in order to enhance his own political ambitions. This sowed the seeds of Trump’s illegitimacy in the eyes of many Americans.
Trump's attacks on Democrats for allegedly manufacturing the ”Russia hoax” have also played fully into Moscow’s hands by deepening partisan divisions and public outrage.
Paradoxically, the sweeping powers that Trump has given Attorney General William BarrBill BarrBarr-Durham investigation again fails to produce a main event Virginia governor's race enters new phase as early voting begins Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' MORE to probe the intelligence community in its investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 elections and its surveillance of the Trump campaign may prove even more damaging for the president.
If Barr actually allows information to be made public, it could reveal more extensively how the campaign was manipulated and exploited by Russian intelligence services to fracture American democracy. This will be valuable material for analysts of Moscow’s subversive operations but not for the prestige and authority of the White House.
Moscow will further benefit from the Barr investigation because it is likely to foster friction and even conflict between and within law enforcement and counterintelligence agencies.
The potential release of classified information could undermine the FBI and other bodies, unveil key sources and agents in the field and enable even deeper Russian penetration of the American system.
The White House would be well advised to rethink the Barr probe. Instead, it could outsmart the Kremlin by taking a harder line on Russia’s regime for its attempts to weaken America and to use Trump as a patsy.
The president has assembled a national security team that well understands Moscow’s policies and has pushed back on its expansionist aspirations by toughening economic sanctions and strengthening NATO’s eastern flank. They should also understand the potential political consequences of another “Russia collusion” investigation.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. He is the former director of the New European Democracy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is "Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks" (Jamestown Foundation).