President Trump has sought warmer ties with Russia since taking office, but the relationship hasn’t improved much. A reminder of why came on Monday when a Moscow judge found Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine from Michigan, guilty of spying and sentenced him to 16 years in a high-security prison. “This is all a political theater,” Mr. Whelan said afterward.
Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested the American citizen in December 2018. Mr. Whelan says he was in Moscow for a friend’s wedding, but Russian authorities accused him of carrying a USB drive containing state secrets. He was working as head of security for a car-parts supplier at the time and told his lawyer he wasn’t aware of any classified material on the drive.
Russian officials limited his access to family and the American government while holding his mail for months at a time. When he grew sick behind bars, Russia’s Foreign Ministry claimed he was faking it. The proceedings Monday were conducted entirely in Russian, and Mr. Whelan understood nothing as they unfolded. President Vladimir Putin may claim the court ruled on its own, but Russia doesn’t have an independent judiciary.
“The United States is outraged by the decision,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He added that “the treatment of Paul Whelan at the hands of Russian authorities has been appalling.” The Whelan family thinks this farce is designed to give Moscow more leverage in a future prisoner swap.
Arbitrarily holding American citizens is a popular tactic among pariah states like Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. It isn’t acceptable behavior for a member of the elite Group of Seven nations, which Mr. Trump wants Russia to rejoin.
The President’s Russia policy has been uneven at best. His plan to withdraw some U.S. forces from Germany is an undeserved gift to Mr. Putin, as was his declaration that he wants the Russian to join the G-7 despite the opposition of other democratic leaders. Yet he has confronted the country over its violation of arms-control treaties and, despite recent controversies, provided Ukraine with critical assistance in its fight against Moscow.
Mr. Trump has made returning Americans held hostage abroad a priority—to the point of imposing sanctions on NATO ally Turkey in 2018 over its detention of an American pastor. The Whelan conviction is a Russian thumb in the eye of America and Mr. Trump.
Politicians… will they never, ever change???
Mitt Romney announced Friday that he’s running for the U.S. Senate from Utah, and the timing on the same day as the Justice Department indictments of Russians for meddling in the U.S. presidential election was apt. Mr. Romney was right about the Russian threat in 2012, and Democrats who are now echoing him when it serves their political purposes against Donald Trump owe the former GOP presidential nominee an apology.
Start with Barack Obama, who derided Mr. Romney’s claim that Russia was a major U.S. geopolitical foe in the third presidential debate in 2012. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Mr. Obama said, to applause from the Democratic media establishment. In its endorsement of Mr. Obama, the Washington Post criticized Mr. Romney for “calling Russia America’s greatest foe” as an example of his lack of judgment.
Readers may recall that Mr. Romney made his comments about Russia after Mr. Obama was caught unaware talking on an open microphone with then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in March 2012: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important to give me space,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Medvedev, the Vladimir Putin stand-in.
“Yeah, I understand,” Mr. Medvedev said.
Mr. Obama then said, “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.”
Mr. Medvedev: “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.” The “flexibility” after Mr. Obama’s election turned out to be Mr. Putin’s as he invaded and annexed Crimea, started a war to occupy the Donbas region in Ukraine, intervened to prop up Bashar Assad in Syria, covered for Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and helped North Korea evade United Nations sanctions.
Thanks to last week’s indictments, we also know that Mr. Putin’s attempt to meddle in U.S. elections began in 2014, long before Mr. Trump chose to run for President. That interference went unopposed, and as far as we can tell, unanticipated by Mr. Obama, his CIA Director John Brennan and his Director of National Intelligence James Clapper until nearly the end of Mr. Obama’s second term. They did nothing about it until after Hillary Clinton lost.
Now, suddenly, amid the Mueller probe of the 2016 presidential campaign, Democrats have become Russia hawks. Some of the more intemperate, like Rep. Jerry Nadler, are calling the Russia indictments the “equivalent” of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Mr. Nadler is poised to lead the impeachment of Mr. Trump as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee if Democrats take the House in November.
Mr. Romney is expected to win the Utah seat with ease, which should make him available to instruct Democrats on foreign affairs.
The clarity with which Mr Jenkins presents is refreshing.
On Aug. 17, 2015, 63 days after Donald Trump’s escalator ride at Trump Tower, a lightbulb went on. Certain pro Trump emails that colleagues and I were receiving were coming from Vladimir Putin’s internet trolls. “The Kremlin is now in the Donald’s corner . . .?” I emailed a co-worker.
The most valuable thing said last week was said by Sen. Jim Risch during a hearing, when he pointed out that the American people “realize that there’s people attempting to manipulate them.”
The least valuable was the prediction by three intelligence chiefs that Russia’s meddling will continue through 2018 and 2020. It may or may not, but what else were they going to say? There’s no upside to “estimating” anything else. This is a big part of what’s wrong with our intelligence establishment, handling inherently ambiguous matters and overwhelmingly incentivized, at least at the top, to say whatever is most politically and institutionally expedient.
Let’s be realistic: The Russian propaganda activities detailed in Robert Mueller’s indictment last week had less impact on the election than 20 seconds of cable TV coverage (pick a channel) of any of Mr. Trump’s rallies.
Only the media’s beloved hindsight fallacy suggests otherwise. In fact, Hillary Clinton’s campaign made good use of Russia to discredit Mr. Trump in the eyes of voters. What was the net effect on the vote? The press doesn’t know. Worse, it doesn’t know that it doesn’t know.
Ditto the media’s new favorite song that the U.S. has done nothing to punish Mr. Putin’s provocations. The U.S. government does not tell the public everything it does. American warplanes recently killed dozens, perhaps as many as 200, Russian mercenaries in Syria employed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a key figure in the Mueller indictment. For the first time in the Syrian theater, a man-portable antiaircraft weapon appeared in the hands of the Syrian opposition, shooting down a Russian jet. The U.S. government has denied a role, but the message, if that’s what it was, would be historically resonant. The U.S. used such missiles to raise the cost of Soviet adventurism in Afghanistan and Angola in the 1980s.
Let’s hope so, because such means will be necessary in Mr. Putin’s case, not just waving legal paperwork at him as Mr. Mueller has done.
That said, give Mr. Mueller credit. So far, we’ve relied on partisan leaks and memos to tell us what little we know. His court filings, insufficient as they are, at least contribute to the air-clearing.
His latest includes information that could only have come from U.S. intelligence intercepts. He cites reports that Russia’s alleged operatives filed with each other, and even an email one operative sent to a relative. But this also highlights a problem. Mr. Mueller is dependent on U.S. intelligence agencies, which share only what they want to share.
James Comey’s intervention in the Hillary Clinton email matter now is widely understood to have been prompted by a false, possibly planted, Russian intelligence intercept of some kind in March 2016.
News reports as well as basic logic suggest U.S. intelligence agencies, at some point, would have started monitoring Christopher Steele’s communications. They likely know more about his alleged Russian sources and their credibility than they are telling.
Both episodes have done far more to inflame U.S. politics than anything outlined in the Mueller indictment. Yet here’s betting a Battle Royal lies ahead before we get the truth out of U.S. intelligence agencies.
Remember your Watergate: The CIA is a natural, perhaps irresistible, instrument for pressuring the FBI. Did Obama intelligence chieftains John Brennan and James Clapper use their positions to lean on Mr. Comey to spy on the Trump campaign or protect Mrs. Clinton? Is the intelligence community even now trying to shape Mr. Mueller’s probe by what it decides to share with him? If we had to guess based on what we know today, the answer is yes.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act, the basis for many of Mr. Mueller’s charges against the Russians, was passed in 1938, aimed at Nazi propagandists, who were active in the U.S. in ways very similar to the Putin regime. Implicit was the idea that Americans can’t be insulated from foreign influence, but they can certainly understand who is trying to influence them.
The Washington Post, in a lengthy reconstruction last year, concluded that President Obama held back from doing more to inoculate the American people against Russian influence because he didn’t want to upset the apple cart of an expected Clinton victory. That’s one mistake future administrations will find it harder to make.
Even so, keep in mind that the most consequential Russian meddling may well have been via the administration’s own handling of the Steele dossier and the Hillary Clinton email controversy. If so, the real struggle is yet to come. It will involve pulling teeth to get information from the FBI and CIA that they don’t want us to know.
WSJ Dec. 1, 2017 7:01 p.m. ET
Robert Mueller’s special prosecution machine grinds on, and on Friday it crushed former national security adviser Mike Flynn on the ever-ready charge of lying to the FBI. The guilty plea is a tragedy for the former three-star general and head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, but whether it is ominous for the Trump Presidency depends on what Mr. Flynn is telling Mr. Mueller.
Prosecutors signaled Mr. Flynn’s cooperation by filing an “information,” rather than an indictment, on charges of making false statements about his meetings with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in two December 2016 meetings. The meetings discussed the U.S. and Russian responses to sanctions that President Obama had imposed on the Kremlin for meddling in the 2016 campaign.
This specific charge is surprising because, as a seasoned intelligence officer, Mr. Flynn had to know that the U.S. would be listening to Mr. Kislyak’s conversations and have transcripts. CNN reported on Feb. 17 that “the FBI interviewers believed Flynn was cooperative and provided truthful answers,” even though he first said sanctions were not discussed and later said he couldn’t recall.
A Congressional source also tells us that former FBI director James Comey told the House Intelligence Committee on March 2 that his agents had concluded that Mr. Flynn hadn’t lied but had forgotten what had been discussed. Perhaps the FBI changed its view.
Or perhaps Mr. Flynn felt he was facing more serious charges that could be mitigated by copping a plea to a single count and cooperating. A legal defense would require hundreds of thousands of dollars that a longtime military family doesn’t have, and his son, Michael Jr., was also under investigation. News reports Friday said the son won’t now be prosecuted.
Mr. Flynn could still face up to six months in prison, and his sentencing will be postponed and depend on what his plea agreement says is his “substantial assistance in the investigation or prosecution of another person who has committed an offense.” Mr. Mueller is known for his brutal mercy.
How this relates to the claim of Trump campaign collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign isn’t clear. Mr. Flynn’s meetings with the Russian ambassador occurred after the election. The press corps is hyperventilating that a statement filed in connection with Mr. Flynn’s plea says an unnamed senior Trump transition official spoke with Mr. Flynn about what he should tell the Russian ambassador. News reports Friday identified that official as Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law.
Yet there is nothing scandalous, or even unusual, about a presidential transition meeting with a foreign ambassador. The statement says Mr. Flynn was advised that the transition team at Mar-a-Lago “didn’t want Russia to escalate the situation”—which also isn’t a crime even if they should have waited until taking office before conducting foreign policy.
For what it’s worth, Mr. Trump’s attorney Ty Cobb on Friday portrayed Mr. Flynn’s plea as no big deal: “The false statements involved mirror the false statements to White House officials which resulted in his resignation [as national security adviser] in February of this year. Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn.”
Nothing in Friday’s documents shed more light on what happened during the 2016 presidential campaign. Perhaps Mr. Flynn has more secrets to share, and Mr. Mueller seems to be targeting Mr. Kushner for a turn of his screws. But in today’s hyperpartisan Washington it pays to wait for the evidence.