The mystery over Donald Trump and Russia is taking a corrosive hold on his presidency, sowing accusations and hysteria that threaten to overwhelm his White House and drain his personal credibility.
Washington has become a hall of mirrors, where it’s impossible to distinguish between rumor and fact as conspiracy theories and partisan paroxysms rage — all arising from an alleged Russian spy plot to sway last year’s election that is now clouding the new administration.
The White House is finding it impossible to put to rest claims it has improper ties to Russia. Often, President Trump himself reignites the drama — apparently to his detriment — as with his sensational claim Saturday that his predecessor Barack Obama tapped his phones.
Congress meanwhile is becoming consumed by gossip and hearsay, while a drip, drip, drip of disclosures about Trump world’s contacts with Russian officials feed blockbuster news stories.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the intrigue over Russia, the election, and the new administration is deepening, and has the potential to distract the White House and the machinery of the US government for months.
Furthermore, ethical, political and personality dynamics at play at the top of the administration and incentives for Trump’s enemies to prolong the sense of scandal are complicating the White House’s effort to move on.
Only one thing is clear in the fog of accusations and allegations: If the goal of Russia’s alleged intelligence swoop was to pit Washington’s centers of power against one another, to foment political chaos and to cast doubt on the functioning of US democracy itself, it is working better than anyone in Moscow can have hoped.
“We are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust,” Republican Sen. Ben Sasse said in a statement on Saturday.
Questions clouding the White House essentially revolve around extensive meetings between prominent Russian officials and members of the Trump orbit and whether there was collusion between them at a time when US intelligence agencies assessed the Kremlin was trying to interfere in the election.
As it stands, an FBI probe into whether such contacts were improper is underway. Several congressional investigations into hacking operations designed to influence the election are also being conducted.
In the latest developments, the position of Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been called into question after he recused himself from oversight duties after failing to disclose to Congress two contacts with the Russian ambassador.
The White House spokesman Sean Spicer insists that there is “no there, there” in the Russia intrigue.
But the conduct of the President himself often undercuts that message. Some observers have noted that while there may be nothing nefarious going on, the President often acts in a way that suggests there is.
For instance, the White House call Sunday for an investigation into “reports” that Obama ordered wire taps on Trump appeared to be a classic attempt to blur the issue and to distract attention from accusations against the President or the political blowback of the Sessions recusal.
But his claims seem likely to give the controversy new legs.
“He just put another quarter in the conspiracy parking meter, they have extended this story for a week, two weeks,” former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday.
The credibility of the President’s statements on the issue is also eroding.
“Russia is a ruse, I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does,” Trump said during his news conference on February 18.
But since then, details have emerged of repeated meetings between Trump aides and Russian officials, casting doubt on the president’s words.
As well as the two Sessions meetings with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign, it emerged this week that the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his first national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had to resign after not being truthful about phone calls with the ambassador also had talks with Kislyak in December at Trump Tower. Others associated with the Trump campaign including J.D. Gordon, Walid Phares and Carter Page have also disclosed meetings with the Russians.
Of course, just the fact that the meetings occurred do not mean that anything inappropriate was going on. But the fact Trump officials continued to meet the Russians while an alleged Russian espionage plot was public knowledge is raising questions about their nature.
There are at least six reasons why the White House is unlikely to be able to shake off the Russian drama in the short term.
The first possibility is the most serious: that the rumors are true and the administration was the target of a Russian espionage operation.
It would not be surprising. After all, Russia is also reported to have tried to influence other key moments in Western democracy — like the forthcoming French and German elections for instance.
CNN reporting meanwhile revealed earlier this year that US intelligence agencies presented Trump with evidence that Russian spy services tried to compromise him. The previous Obama administration issued an unclassified report alleging that hackers linked to Russian intelligence hacked servers belonging to the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign in an operation intended to boost Trump’s electoral hopes.
A second reason why questions about Russia will linger is because what some observers see as Trump’s odd fixation with Moscow raises constant questions about his movies.
Former Obama administration national security adviser Tom Donilon told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Sunday that the root of the issue was “an approach to Russia which has been uncritical, a refusal to criticize Vladimir Putin personally and a refusal to underscore a number of the steps the Russians have taken really in what has been a pattern of active hostility towards the United States.”
“It really has been unexplained, there never has been a presentation on this,” said Donilon.
Democrats are not alone in their puzzlement.
“I can’t figure out why the administration is taking the position on Russia that it is,” said Kori Schake, a former Bush administration Pentagon official.
“It doesn’t make sense to me for all sorts of reasons,” Schake said. “The obduracy with which they are committed to it. The kind of weird connections and weird answers that they keep giving. Something doesn’t feel right.”
It also seems curious how many of Trump’s comments about Russia seem to line up with Russian foreign policy goals.
During his campaign, Trump slighted NATO and suggested he could lift sanctions on Russia and recognize its grab of Crimea from Ukraine. He called on Russia to release Hillary Clinton’s emails, and cast doubt on US intelligence agency assessments that Moscow hacked her servers.
The President’s unique personality also appears at times to be exacerbating the sense of crisis being fostered in Washington.
In theory, he could flush away questions about whether undeclared links with Russia are influencing his attitude to Moscow by releasing his tax returns.
His refusal to do so gives oxygen to claims that he has some secret business or creditor relationships with Russia that compromise him.
Trump’s praise for Putin and vows to revive relations with Moscow exposed him to fierce criticism during the campaign. A decision to walk back that position could be humiliating.
Another reason why the Russian story will fester is because there appear to be ideological similarities between foreign policy priorities of some top Trump aides and those in power in Moscow.
If Russia represents a populist, nationalistic strain of geopolitical thought in conflict with a more globalist, Western interpretation of international relations, it seems to have fellow travelers in the White House.
Russian hostility to Western institutions like the European Union seems mirrored by Trump aides like Stephen Bannon, for instance, who has laid out a deeply nationalistic vision for the administration.
That aside, it’s also clear that the way the White House has handled the drum beat of accusations about Russia has suggested a new administration may not yet be up to the job of navigating treacherous Washington.
The White House has often seemed unable to coordinate its damage limitation and coordination efforts.
Both Trump and Spicer said last week Sessions didn’t need to recuse himself. But within hours, he did just that, raising questions about the level of coordination within the administration.
Some observers have also meanwhile wondered why the White House does not simply list all the meetings top Trump aides have held with Russians to avoid the damaging litany of disclosures.
Inside the White House and among Trump supporters outside, there is a strong belief that the President is the victim of an orchestrated campaign of leaks to undermine his authority and discredit his election victory.
The President himself claimed there was a “witch hunt” against him last week.
Given his feud with the intelligence agencies since he won the election, it’s not farfetched to think that disgruntled spy sources sense an opportunity to hurt the President by cooperating with journalists.
There’s also a final reason why the Russia scandal is not going to end any time soon.
Democrats have a clear political incentive to prolong a situation which is helping to unify them, to slow Trump’s agenda by bogging the White House down with investigations and to present the President in a scary light.