Jay Bookman

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

Opinion: Trump campaign 'had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials'?

The U.S. intelligence community seems to have sprung a small leak or two.

A few days after the Washington Post broke the news of secret transcripts of phone calls between National Security Advisor Mike Flynn and the Russian ambassador, the New York Times reports that phone records and intercepted calls prove that members of the Trump campaign "had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials."

Let that sink in: " ... repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials."

It's important to note that those contacts do not in themselves constitute evidence of actual collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, although the investigation is continuing.  However, these revelations come on the heels of a CNN report that investigators have corroborated many "non-salacious" details in the infamous dossier alleging multiple contacts and even collusion between the Trump campaign and high-level Russian officials. For example, according to CNN, calls that were alleged to have taken place in the dossier have now been documented as occurring at the time and place that the dossier reported.

Meanwhile, fighting in Ukraine continues, a Russian spy ship lingers off the U.S. coast and the Russians have reportedly tested a cruise missile in violation of a longstanding arms treaty, with no official response yet from the Trump White House.

If it's hard to wrap your head around all of that, join the club.  I don't think we've ever seen this level of discord and disorganization in a presidential administration, at least not in living memory. But here are a few points of potential clarity:

-- So far, three people with ties to the Trump campaign -- former foreign policy adviser Carter Page, former campaign manager Paul Manafort and now Flynn -- have had to sever those ties after their dealings with Russian officials became too difficult to defend in public any longer. In a normal administration, just one such incident would be deeply troubling. As you may have noticed, this is not a normal administration.

-- Just a few weeks ago, President Trump visited CIA headquarters, stood before the wall of the fallen and proclaimed that he enjoyed the love, affection and support of America's intelligence professionals, dismissing any allegation to the contrary as a media invention. Based on what has since been leaked to the media, Trump appears to have been wrong about that level of support.

-- Conservatives would like to believe that these leaks are coming from Obama administration holdovers, and I guess that's plausible to a degree. On the other hand, the spy services are not exactly known as hotbeds of liberalism, and sometimes what doesn't happen can be more instructive than what does. In this case, we're seeing no pushback against these leaks from within the intelligence community as a whole, suggesting that they are not the work of rogue employees or those with a political agenda, but rather represent the consensus of our intel apparatus. I've also seen no claim from intel professionals that the reports are inaccurate.

-- Government by leak is a terrible way to run a country, and every American ought to be alarmed by the sense of chaos that these leaks create. We don't know who the leakers are or what their agenda might be. On the other hand, if the intelligence community had grounds to question the honesty, loyalty and competence of those at top levels in the Trump administration, what avenues would be open to it to communicate that concern to the American people? Through the Justice Department, where Trump ally Jeff Sessions has made clear that he will not recuse himself from leading the investigation? Through a Republican Congress that is largely deaf to such concerns?

I've been troubled by Trump's attitude toward Putin and Russia for a long time now, but for the most part I've tried to attribute it to political naivete and to Trump's own eccentricities. The notion of it being something deeper and more sinister seemed unlikely, and the consequences to our system too profound to take seriously.

But with each new revelation, one after another after another, that approach becomes harder to sustain.



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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.