As the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election presses on, we’re now getting an idea of what intelligence officials have seen – as in, the names of Americans that were mentioned by Russians in intercepted communications.
This was very likely what Rep. Devin Nunes alluded to when he called a press conference to say he’d seen evidence of U.S. intelligence gathering names of American citizens.
It was a lame attempt by Nunes to support President Trump’s March tweet, claiming that Trump Tower had been “wiretapped” by President Obama.
The absurdity of it is nothing suggests that they conspired with the Russians to disrupt the election, but rather, their names came up in conversation.
In a New York Times story on Wednesday, it was reported that the information intercepted suggested that the Russians were discussing how to utilize their relationships with Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, in order to influence Trump.
The conversations focused on Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman at the time, and Michael T. Flynn, a retired general who was advising Mr. Trump, the officials said. Both men had indirect ties to Russian officials, who appeared confident that each could be used to help shape Mr. Trump’s opinions on Russia.
Some Russians boasted about how well they knew Mr. Flynn. Others discussed leveraging their ties to Viktor F. Yanukovych, the deposed president of Ukraine living in exile in Russia, who at one time had worked closely with Mr. Manafort.
Some of the intelligence collected shows direct contact between Russian officials and members of Trump’s campaign team.
Was it collusion?
At this point, nobody is saying that, directly.
John Brennan, the former director of the CIA testified on Tuesday that there was enough intelligence gathered to prompt an investigation.
The newly appointed special counsel, Robert Mueller, is leading the investigation into whether there was actual cooperation between Russia and members of Trump’s team.
“If there ever was any effort by Russians to influence me, I was unaware, and they would have failed,” Mr. Manafort said in a statement. “I did not collude with the Russians to influence the elections.”
Manafort, for his part, recently turned over documentation to comply with the request of investigators.
Michael Flynn, on the other hand, is standing behind the Fifth and has, so far, refused to cooperate, prompting talk of subpoenas to his business.
Last week, CNN reported about intercepted phone calls during which Russian officials were bragging about ties to Mr. Flynn and discussing ways to wield influence over him.
Flynn had previously agreed to testify, on the condition that he be given immunity.
He was refused.
His pleading the Fifth now doesn’t really instill a lot of confidence in his innocence, although that’s his right.
Further along in Brennan’s Tuesday testimony:
“I was convinced in the summer that the Russians were trying to interfere in the election. And they were very aggressive,” Mr. Brennan said. Still, he said, even at the end of the Obama administration he had “unresolved questions in my mind as to whether or not the Russians had been successful in getting U.S. persons, involved in the campaign or not, to work on their behalf again either in a witting or unwitting fashion.”
To be clear, nobody is saying (yet) that members of Trump’s campaign team absolutely colluded with the Russian government.
What is being said, based on the intelligence made available, is that the Russians wanted to use members of Trump’s team.
Manafort and Flynn’s close relationships to dubious Russian players, monies received from Russian sources – these things give the kind of optics that raise red flags for U.S. intelligence.
We may not see an end to this for several years, mainly because the operation seems to have such deep roots, and so many of Trump’s team have some sort of entanglement with Russian players.
And here’s where I remind you: Russia is NOT our friend.