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The Questions Donald Trump Needs to Answer About Russia

The U.S. government has made it clear that Russia worked to get Donald Trump elected, but there are still some very troubling questions for our president-elect.

01.07.17 8:39 PM ET

Just call him “Moscow Don” … 

Donald Trump’s strange responses to increasingly detailed evidence that Russian intelligence services hacked into the email accounts of both Democratic and state and federal government targets during the 2016 election should cause alarm across party lines. 

His odd exhortation last week for the country to just “move on to bigger and better things” got worse this week, with his bland reaction to meeting with top intelligence officials, who went to Trump Tower to tell him in no uncertain terms what the rest of us already know: that Russia actively sought to interfere in the election by deploying hackers to steal Democrats’ emails, both to undermine Hillary Clinton should she become president, or to elect Donald Trump. 

For his part, Trump seemed only capable of focusing on reasserting the legitimacy of his election, clinging to the lack of a finding that Russians hacked into actual voting machines. But that was never the point. The point was that Russia deployed cybercriminals, who fed stolen emails to Wikileaks, and deployed trolls who spread made up, damaging news stories, including through the Russian propaganda arm RT and through American conspiracy theory peddlers like Infowars and random sites online, specifically to help him. And while he is not portrayed as an accomplice to the Russian operation in the intelligence report, the fact is, Trump actively pitched and sold the products of the Russian hackers and trolls and Wikileaks. He did so every day of the campaign, sometimes even going beyond the content and exaggerating it to his own benefit. 

It’s left unsaid in the intelligence report, but the truth is, the Russian operation could not have succeeded without the help of Donald J. Trump. He alone among the Republican primary candidates, during the period of active hacking and email theft, was willing – no, eager – to use the looted material for the benefit of his campaign. 

Maybe that’s why he can’t walk away from Vladimir Putin and Julian Assange.

But this bizarre coda to the campaign leaves still more questions, which should not cease being asked once the Kremlin’s candidate, whose victory touched off raucous cheers in the Russian Duma, takes the oath of office on January 20th

For one: when did Trump develop his pro-Russia ideology, and what drove it? Clearly, his affinity predates his good fortune at being the favorite of an adversarial foreign power determined to prevent its adversary from becoming the U.S. president.

Journalist Sarah Kendzior has written extensively about Russia’s authoritarian kleptocracy and Trump’s longtime attraction to it. She has dug up lots of documentation from the archives of mainstream and other U.S. media outlets showing Trump’s attraction to Russia dating back to 1987, when he visited the then Soviet Union as a businessman, along with fellow political gadfly Ross Perot and their wives (in Donald’s case, his first wife, Ivana.)

The visit came while the Cold War was still simmering, and Vladimir Putin was active in the KGB. Was there something about that meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev that attracted Trump? Or did it happen before. We know from the public record that Trump once offered himself as America’s nuclear negotiator, and, having been turned down by the Reagan administration, was a vicious critic of the 40th president, under the tutelage of his still-henchman Roger Stone, over Reagan’s policy toward the then-U.S.S.R.

According to Scott Dworkin, who is building up a file on Trump’s business entanglements and conflicts of interest, the late 1980s was a period when Trump’s crumbling empire, which was mired in bankruptcy found rescue. There are real questions to be asked whether that rescue came at least in part in the form of Russian oligarchs. Trump certainly had a fascination; even getting fooled in 1988 by a fake Gorbachev who Trump thought he had lured to a tour of his gleaming new Manhattan building: Trump Tower.

Along the road to his present political success, Trump has faced numerous business failures, and been associated with some pretty shady characters, including one who reportedly ran a crime ring out of Trump Tower

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Trump’s eldest son and namesake has bragged that a substantial share of the family business is conducted with Russians. When Trump vastly overpaid for a Florida mansion, a Russian oligarch helped him unload it by snapping it up for a cool $95 million

Which leads to question number two:

To whom does Donald Trump owe money, how much, and could that explain his fealty to Russia and its leaders?

Trump has refused to release his tax returns, and is unlikely to do so, ever. Republicans in Washington, who are completely at his service, and busily scrambling to find U.S. tax dollars to pay for his “Great Wall” – won’t ever demand them. So we’ll never know the extent of Trump’s financial entanglements, absent some plum finds by investigative journalists. But we do know that Trump owes more than $650 million to foreign banks and entities, based on the reporting of the New York Times,  on top of some $1.5 billion in liabilities to various Wall Street Banks. Russian officials claim to have had contact with members of Trump’s team during the campaign++ although that is not easy to verify. And the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike reported finding apparent pings between a Russian bank and servers associated with the Trump campaign. 

Which leads to question number three:

Why has Trump surrounded himself with so many Russian apologists, from Gen. Michael Flynn, his soon-to-be National Security Advisor, who was hired as a paid contributor by Russian propaganda outlet RT after being pushed out of the Defense Intelligence Agency for his recklessness with classified information and poor management skills; to Carter Page, the Trump campaign advisor who allegedly changed the RNC platform to remove a plank condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea, to Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Exxon Mobil oil man Rex Tillerson; a personal friend of Putin’s whose company had a $500 billion oil deal with Russia scuttled by U.S. sanctions over Putin’s invasion of Crimea. 

Even Trump’s ubiquitous TV flack and now the communications director for the inaugural committee, Boris Ephshtein, is a Russian-born investment banker who once served as the moderator of an “Invest in Moscow!” conference in New York in 2013 before becoming a Republican talking head on cable TV.

And there’s Paul Manafort, the Trump Tower resident and paid apparatchik of Putinworld, who exited the campaign in the summer, except that he really didn’t

It’s not just the personnel. Trump’s own actions raise the question of why he seems so compelled to make demonstrations of loyalty to Russia and its leader. 

Which brings us to question four: 

Were any of Trump's team aware of the plan Russia was executing to upend the presidential election? Stone, for one, has repeatedly boasted that he was in contact with Assange and privy to Wikileaks disclosures before they happened. And Russian officials claimed to have had contact with members of Trump’s team during the campaign  although that is not easy to verify. And the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike reported finding apparent pings between a Russian bank and servers associated with the Trump campaign

It’s not just the odd confluence of connections. Trump’s own actions raise the question of why he seems so compelled to make demonstrations of loyalty to Russia and its leader. 

Which leads us to a final question: on what basis does Trump seem to so thoroughly trust Russia and Wikileaks? And what happens if Russia and Wikileaks someday turn on him? What if, say, his administration is ultimately unwilling to help spring Assange from that Ecuadorian embassy in London where he’s hiding from rape charges, or in some other way crosses an organization that frequently takes a threatening tone with those who disagree with their tactics? What might the Russian government, and its cutout, have, or acquire, to use against the American president, or members of his party, or other Democrats who displease them or their friends in Moscow? (Wikileaks is now vowing to build a “database” of verified Twitter users, including their personal and financial information, which sounds an awful lot like a threat to “dox” its opponents. Could that threat extend to any opponents of Trump or Putin, too?)

For now, Trump has transferred his trust and loyalty to Russia and Wikileaks onto his Republican followers and to his sycophants like Sean Hannity, who like Trump (and an apologetic Sarah Palin) have fallen in line behind Trump’s newfound support for the disclosure of stolen material injurious to the United States. He’s even cowed some Republican lawmakers into going along: Alabama congressman Mo Brooks, who wanted to ”pre-impeach” Hillary Clinton before she even got sworn in if she’d won, refused this week to say whether he trusted America’s intelligence services more than he does Assange.

But things change. Interests change. And while it’s unlikely that the 70-year-old Russophile in the White House will do much changing, things are bound to happen over the next four years that he, and the country, don’t expect. And in life, the friends you make in the mud tend be even dirtier when they become your enemies.