Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: The strands linking Putin to Trump

It'll be a while before we know the truth, or some semblance of it. We will never know it all. But I'm beginning to think that the ouster of Mike Flynn as national security adviser had very little to do with his conversations about sanctions with the Russian ambassador or even his subsequent misleading denial to Vice President Mike Pence.

Those may turn out to be the public excuses, not the private reasons, for his ouster.

The private reasons, the real reasons, may include Flynn's own eccentricities, which even some in the Trump administration may have recognized as dangerous. In the event of an international crisis, you really don't want a half-cocked president seeking counsel from a half-cocked national security adviser, a paranoid deputy national security adviser and the likes of Steve Bannon sitting on the National Security Council. If Pence and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus conspired to engineer Flynn's removal, as some on the right allege, they deserve their country's thanks for at least that much.

Then there's the fact that Flynn, a retired three-star general, has acknowledged being paid by Russian state TV to make an appearance with Vladimir Putin in Russia in 2015. Late last week, after his ouster, news broke that Flynn did not clear that appearance or the financial arrangement with the Pentagon, as both the Constitution and military regulations require. And according to a new account by the New Yorker, the fee that Flynn was offered was $40,000.

With all the attention being paid to Trump's ties to Russia, the administration did not need Sean Spicer standing behind his podium trying to justify a national security adviser who had illegally taken $40,000 from Putin. At the very least, Flynn's timely ouster took some of the steam out of that revelation.  (It is a strange coincidence -- and surely only that -- that Flynn ended up as Trump's top foreign-policy adviser while Paul Manafort ended up as his campaign manager.)

Flynn's name also pops up in a startling new story published Monday by The New York Times that begins to peel back the network of ties linking Trump to Russia. The Times' account -- well-documented, using named sources -- involves Michael Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer, and Felix Sater, a Russian immigrant and convicted felon with long business ties to Trump.

Along with a pro-Putin Ukrainian legislator with political ties to Manafort, Cohen and Sater collaborated on a proposed "peace plan" for Ukraine along lines that would make Putin very happy. The Ukrainian, Andrii V. Artemenko, told the Times that top aides to Putin had signed off on the deal.

As Cohen admitted to the Times, he then hand-delivered that secret plan to Flynn at a meeting in the White House earlier this month, and was awaiting a response when Flynn was pushed out. (Cohen later offered the Washington Post a different version of events, claiming that he had agreed to deliver the plan but in the end did not do so).

If that all sounds bizarre to the point of being almost inconceivable, it should. With the Trump administration deeply embroiled in controversy about its Russia policy, the very idea that Trump private-sectorassociates are secretly dabbling in back-channel, unauthorized and pro-Russian diplomatic efforts just boggles the mind.

And here's the cherry on top: Cohen, a longtime Trump confidante, had been accused in that infamous intelligence dossier of having traveled to Prague in August to confer with Russian intelligence agents, a charge that he emphatically denies. Absent some evidence, I'm inclined to believe him. However, with that charge hanging over your head, with the FBI and other intelligence agencies investigating the dossier to try to confirm its details, what kind of naive numbskull raises the ante by getting involved in a separate pro-Russian outreach, in effect acting as an emissary between Putin and Trump?

I get the feeling that these folks are in way over their head, that they are amateurs who aren't nearly as smart as they like to think they are, playing a game where they don't understand the stakes.

On Friday afternoon, as members of Congress fled Washington for a recess, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Trump/Russia ties stayed behind for an unannounced, two-hour secret briefing by FBI Director James Comey. By all accounts, senators of both parties emerged from that briefing with grave faces and buttoned lips, refusing to say a thing.

The only hint of what they were told came from one of the panel members, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who tweeted this cryptic message a few hours later:

Reading that, you'd have to conclude that something important has changed.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.