Commentary: Can new appointees fix Trump's Russia problem?

The investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election almost certainly hasn’t claimed its last Washington scalp. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have recused himself from any official investigations into the topic, but his position still looks vulnerable.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, U.S., March 2, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Within minutes of Sessions concluding his Thursday press conference, the New York Times published an account of yet another previously undocumented meeting, this time between Russian officials and Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner.

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The truth behind the allegations, innuendo and rumor is less important than the problems they are causing. Within the White House, there is clearly concern. And, it seems, something of a change in both personnel and tone.

The Trump administration picked Fiona Hill, former National Intelligence Officer for Russia under the George W. Bush administration, as their point person on Russia. Author of a hard-hitting biography on Vladimir Putin that focused heavily on his background as a former intelligence operative, she is one of the brightest and most no-nonsense regional specialists around.

Within her field, she is at least as respected as new National Security Adviser Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, also brought in by Trump after the resignation of Mike Flynn. While Flynn was seen as uncomfortably close to Moscow, the new arrivals are likely to recommend a tougher stance.

Their positions are similar to former U.S. Marine and Defense Secretary James Mattis, who made a point of reassuring allies in Europe that he, too, favored a strong approach toward Putin.

These appointments suggest that the Trump administration could take a different stance toward Russia than that which many expected. At the very least, they provide a counterbalance to the White House’s ongoing and escalating Russia problem.

It’s hard, meanwhile, to see how Sessions can survive for long. During his confirmation hearing, Sessions was asked what he would do if he learned of evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign had communicated with representatives from Moscow during the 2016 campaign. He replied, “I did not have communications with the Russians” during that time. According to Justice Department officials, we now know that he spoke twice with Sergei Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States.

Sessions says he believed he was answering a question specifically on whether he met with Russians as an emissary of the Trump campaign, something he denies. It seems unlikely his recusal from specific probes will be enough to satisfy his critics.

If recent reporting in the New York Times is correct, the fact that Sessions – like Flynn before him – has been caught out so quickly is no coincidence. According to the paper, members of the Obama administration went to considerable lengths to document contacts between Russian officials and those close to Trump.

Russia almost certainly has intelligence operatives in the United States and elsewhere that have so far eluded Washington’s intelligence community. But Washington had been keeping close tabs on Kislyak, as well as documenting a range of contacts between those around Trump and Russian officials as well as others linked to the Kremlin. Much of this material remains classified, but the Times reporting suggests many are able to access it.

Trump has already expressed outrage at current and former officials sharing classified information. But more leaks are inevitable. And in attempting to distance themselves from Russia, it is possible that others close to Trump will be caught out by untruths.

The irony is that all of this is still unlikely to produce the kind of “smoking gun” evidence that Trump’s enemies so clearly wish existed, proof that the president conspired with Putin or others in Moscow to win the election. If such information truly existed – for example, in the form of intercepted emails, telephone calls or other communications – then the Obama administration would probably have found and revealed it.

Those who really know what has happened may be increasingly unlikely to talk. Over the last four months at least six Russian diplomats have turned up dead around the world, sometimes in unclear circumstances. So did a former Russian spy chief linked to the dossier produced by a former British intelligence official that made a string of salacious – but still unproven – allegations about Trump.

What almost certainly does exist is a chain of suspicious-looking meetings, which doesn’t in itself prove anything. In a country such as Russia, most sensitive discussions are handled face-to-face, with few businessmen, political or intelligence operatives trusting anything confidential to telephone lines or email.

If Sessions falls, then former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort – who conducted business in Russia for years – may be the next target. Anything that happens to him will damage the president. But Manafort has no current government role, so he cannot be forced to resign.

He could be prosecuted should he be found to have committed some kind of criminal activity. According to another New York Times story published shortly before the election, he is under investigation by multiple law enforcement and intelligence agencies, at least in part related to his business dealings in Russia. Finding proof of wrongdoing – let alone proof of wrongdoing linked to the election and Trump – is a very different matter.

The problem is that all this sound and fury makes any kind of reasonable diplomacy that much harder. It seems increasingly likely that relations with Russia may define the Trump era. But we have less idea than ever what that might ultimately mean.

For more Reuters Commentary coverage of Trump’s first 100 days, click here.

About the Author

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party.  @pete_apps

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.