Less than a week ago, Politico Magazine published Susan Glasser’s piece: Russia’s Oval Office Victory Dance. At the time, there were three main narratives. First, there was the timing. Coming the day after the president unceremoniously fired FBI director James Comey for (many suspected) investigating his ties to Russia, it seemed a little inopportune to meet with Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in the White House. Second, since the American press was barred from the meeting there were no photographs. Yet, a Russian photographer was allowed in and his pictures quickly appeared on the Russian wire services, which even top Trump officials admitted was a boneheaded blunder, especially because it revealed that the controversial Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak was also in attendance. And, third, there was the question of why the meeting was happening at all, since it isn’t customary for our head of state to meet with another country’s foreign minister. Glasser explained this last part:
The chummy White House visit—photos of the president yukking it up with Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak were released by the Russian Foreign Ministry since no U.S. press was allowed to cover the visit—had been one of Putin’s asks in his recent phone call with Trump, and indeed the White House acknowledged this to me later Wednesday. “He chose to receive him because Putin asked him to,” a White House spokesman said of Trump’s Lavrov meeting. “Putin did specifically ask on the call when they last talked.”
The meeting was Lavrov’s first in the White House since 2013—and came after several years of the Obama administration’s flat-out refusal to grant him an Oval Office audience, two former senior White House officials told me. “The Russians were begging us for years to do that,” one of the former officials said. “They were constantly pushing for it and we were constantly saying no.”
This was interesting on several levels. Even before Russia was caught breaking into our political parties’ virtual filing cabinets and trying to affect the results of our presidential election, our government’s policy was to shun Sergey Lavrov. But Trump quickly granted the request. Originally, Lavrov was planning to come no closer to DC than Fairbanks, Alaska where he and Kislyak did in fact attend the Arctic Council. But suddenly he was being welcomed into the inner sanctum of the Oval Office with a photographer in tow.
It was also interesting that the Russians didn’t see the advisability of postponing this meeting in light of the Comey firing. In fact, Lavrov joked right before the meeting that he didn’t even know about Comey’s sacking. They had to know that it would harden anti-Russian feeling in Washington, but they either didn’t want to pass up the fulfillment of a long desired meeting or they actually saw an opportunity to create further division and humiliation for our country. Their cunning use of the photographer suggests the latter possibility is the more likely one.
That no one around Trump could dissuade him from going ahead with the meeting was also remarkable, as was the fact that Trump followed it up by meeting with Henry Kissinger, which he did invite the American press to cover and photograph. Everyone is comparing the firing of Comey to the Saturday Night Massacre during Watergate, and Trump’s meeting with Kissinger only bolstered that connection in everyone’s mind. You couldn’t design worse optics if you were writing a screenplay.
Some intelligence officials raised alarm bells that the visiting Russians might be able to leave behind some kind of listening devices, but that concern was quickly drowned out by the controversy over the photographs and the overarching focus on Comey.
The Russian visit should have been a full blown scandal in its own right, but it had too much competition. That is, it wasn’t getting the attention it deserved until it was revealed that during the meeting Trump divulged sensitive information that betrayed a friendly Middle Eastern intelligence service and perhaps imperiled a major penetration of ISIS in Syria.
Trump freely admits that he did so because he wanted to impress upon the Russians the threat to aviation ISIS presents in order to convince them to be more aggressive in assisting us in fighting them. In itself, that isn’t unreasonable even if it doesn’t necessarily represent a reality-based appreciation of Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East. If Trump badly blundered in how he chose to make his case, that might be forgiven if there was reason to expect similar mistakes won’t be repeated. Unfortunately, there is no rational basis for believing that Trump won’t do something similar again, and probably again and again.
We all need to debate that, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the curious facts surrounding the fact that the meeting occurred at all.
I’m still bothered about Michael Flynn. In fact, Michael Flynn bothers me a lot more than this latest flare-up. When I read about Sally Yates trying to warn the administration that Flynn was compromised, I get frustrated that it’s framed as concern about his conversations with Sergey Kislyak. That he lied about those conversations certainly opened him up to blackmail, but that he didn’t divulge that the Russians had already paid him tens of thousands of dollars seems to make that concern both too late and redundant.
President Obama personally warned Trump not to make Flynn his national security advisor, and Marshall Billingslea, “a former senior Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration who led Trump’s national security transition team from November until shortly before Trump’s inauguration,” was so concerned about Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador that he asked “Obama administration officials for a classified CIA profile of Kislyak” so he could use it to make sure Flynn had “a full appreciation of the extent of the threat” he posed.
Flynn was ultimately forced out by leaks from an apoplectic intelligence community, but Trump invited Kislyak into the Oval Office nonetheless. Of course, he didn’t disclose that he was going to do that. It was only disclosed by the Russian photographer who captured them both yukking it up with Lavrov.
Let’s put this in perspective. Flynn was compromised from the get-go, and far before Election Day. He was compromised because the Russians paid the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency a lot of money and he didn’t divulge that, which was illegal and a violation of Pentagon policy. The Russians could hold that over Flynn’s head, and the problem was only compounded when Flynn wasn’t honest during his application for a restoration of his security clearance. Whether he freely wanted to be or not, Flynn was a Russian agent from the moment he let them have control over his future. And that was both prior and concurrent with his decision to undermine President Obama’s sanctions by giving Kislyak reassurances on the same day the sanctions were issued. Flynn was a massive and certain intelligence risk before he ever lied about what he said to Kislyak in those conversations.
But Trump hired him anyway and then refused to fire him until his hand was forced, and then continued to defend him, and showed much more anger at the people who leaked than he did at his friend who had caused him so many problems.
So, when I see that Kislyak is secretly in the Oval Office and that Trump is giving him highly sensitive intelligence that he shouldn’t know, I can only only hope it’s because he’s stupid, which he certainly is. But if Trump is compromised himself (as the so-called Dodgy Dossier alleges), he could hardly give us a more clear demonstration of it.
At a certain point, though, it doesn’t matter whether Trump is compromised or not if we can’t tell the difference. Right?
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