The 5 things we know and 5 things we don't about the latest Donald Trump and Russia reports
If you cannot shake a feeling of deja vu, you're not alone.
The president of the United States has again been pulled into a complex controversy over connections to Russia. Within a few weeks of speculation about Donald Trump's Russian ties falling out of the news, a New York Times report brought renewed focus to allegations that Trump's presidential campaign had ties to the Russians. Further reports from CNN raised further questions about these connections and chaos at the White House. The bottom line is there is much we do not know. Similar to other stories about Trump and Russia, many questions remain unanswered — facts we cannot ascertain without a deep dive into the relationship. But these reports raise so many questions that going forward, we all have to question whether the White House is telling the truth about Russia.
Here's what we know.
Various U.S. officials say Trump's campaign talked often with the Russians. The New York Times and CNN stories allege high-level Trump presidential campaign advisers were speaking to members of the Russian government prior to election day. Those conversations supposedly occurred between people like Trump's onetime campaign chairman and Russian intelligence officials.
Trump has previously faced allegations of ties between his campaign and Russia. Yet the FBI said a week before the election that months of investigation found no clear link between Trump and Russia.
Michael Flynn was speaking with top Russian officials after the election, but before Inauguration Day. It's unclear if other now-White House staff followed his lead and contacted Russian officials during the presidential transition.
Trump is livid. A series of morning tweets from the president shows deep frustration with the latest report. Not only does Trump outright deny these reports, he again attacked law enforcement sources for leaking to reporters and the way Barack Obama handled his relationship with Russia.
Sean Spicer said Tuesday there was no contact between the campaign and Russia. Hours later, these reports refuted that. When asked point blank, the press secretary offered nothing to suggest Trump campaign aides would have communicated with Russian officials.
Here's what we don't know.
Frankly, whether this is true. Both the New York Times and CNN stories cite unnamed sources pushing explosive allegations against the president. With consistent denials from the White House, those sources may be unable to keep the pressure up long enough to trigger a congressional inquiry into alleged Trump ties with Russia. Hard evidence, through leaks Trump can't control, may be necessary to force action. Two people who were close to Trump's campaign told Mic these allegations are baseless and "total bullshit." And Russia is claiming the stories are false.
And even if the stories are true, the New York Times and CNN both offer major caveats about whether alleged conversations involved Trump and whether they had any influence on the election, and no judgment has been reached on what these contacts mean. Further, CNN noted officials said it is not uncommon for campaigns to speak to foreign governments — though Trump campaign connections with a country hacking to influence the American election are something new.
If these conversations at all influenced the election. Reports so far offer no detail on the subject or impact of Trump's campaign members speaking with Russians. Speculation is rampant, but the New York Times even said it was not clear the contacts had anything to do with Trump.
Whether Republicans will investigate. Flynn's resignation gave the GOP an opening to dig into his ties to Russia without causing Trump too much political damage. Now, Flynn's case is barely on the radar. Can Republicans in Congress, particularly the Senate, take on Trump head-on? Read my take on why this new report makes things more difficult for the GOP.
Recall that when a report leaked that said the Russians worked to help Trump win the White House, during the final days of Obama's presidency, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said privately that any public challenge to the Russians would be partisan politics. Will he maintain that point of view now?
How the White House will settle down. Assuming this latest Russia report does not end Trump's presidency, his administration is going to have to find an approach that is less than full-throttle, 24/7. The chaos has led to botched rollouts of executive orders and uncoordinated messaging.
Meanwhile, Democrats smell blood. Despite no solid evidence proving these contacts with Russia were about Trump, let alone that they altered the course of the election, Democratic politicians see an opportunity to use this chaos to make Trump pay.
This is Mic's daily read on Donald Trump's America — and how it affects you. We checked every fact in this newsletter. We do every day. Seriously. Want to receive this a daily email in your inbox? Subscribe here.
• Today: What we know (and what we don't) about reports that Trump's campaign communicated regularly with Russia.
• More: Vladimir Putin has put a submarine near the U.S. and fired missiles that break a treaty.
• Even more: You're probably never gonna see Trump's tax returns.
• Yes, more: Michael Flynn is not out of the woods yet.
• Trump's agenda today: With everything else happening today, Trump will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington. They have a joint press conference scheduled for noon.
What message are Russian military actions sending?
Firing a cruise missile that appears to violate a treaty with the U.S; positioning a spy ship near the coast of Delaware; flying low and close to a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Black Sea: These recent moves by the Russian military suggest a push to antagonize the U.S. Their alignment with Flynn's resignation and growing suspicion over Russia feels like more than coincidence. Whether there will be any long-term escalation is impossible to know. But it's a fair bet that the Kremlin is approaching Trump and the U.S. more cautiously than it did a month ago, when Flynn was on the phone with the Russian ambassador as the U.S. issued harsher sanctions against Russia.
Don't forget: There is still a lot of Flynn controversy
While contact between Trump's campaign and Russia during the election has grabbed attention, the Flynn story has only just begun to play out. Questions remain over what the former national security adviser said to the Russian ambassador — specifically, whether he told the Kremlin that Trump would roll back constraints put in place by the Obama administration.
Flynn could also have violated the Logan Act, a 1799 law that forbids U.S. citizens from unauthorized contact with a foreign government to influence that government's role in a dispute with the U.S. While press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday that Flynn resigned because he broke the president's trust, not the law, Flynn and the White House are facing far more than legal woes. Spicer's answers Tuesday suggested Trump misled the press about when he knew Flynn had spoken with the Russian ambassador. (Vice President Mike Pence was apparently kept in the dark for two weeks after other White House officials learned the details of Flynn's call.) The White House also offered mixed messages about whether Flynn was fired or resigned. It all raises questions around why Trump did not relieve Flynn immediately when he learned of the conversation.
News and insight you cannot miss:
• Many of you email me asking about Trump's tax returns. The latest is that Republicans blocked an effort by Democrats to force the release of those returns. The conversation centered around finding out whether Trump has any financial ties to Russia, connections the president has denied exist. The Democratic plan was foiled only hours before the latest reports about Trump's campaign having contact with Russia. (Boston.com)
• Trump may announce today that a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine is not the only path forward in resolving the conflict, at least in the eyes of the U.S. The United Nations, European Union, Arab countries, Russia and (until now) the U.S. have long stated their support for this approach. (BBC) That shift in policy is considered supportive of more conservative views in Israel, including those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Washington Post)
• The Office of Government Ethics says the White House should look into disciplining Kellyanne Conway for using her public platform to promote Ivanka Trump's products. Three takeaways from Trump's first month in office: He was serious about his campaign promises, his demeanor will remain the same — and many will oppose him. (Mic)
• Mic sat down with Bill Gates. You can find his life advice here.
• A list of all the businesses that have stopped carrying Trump products. (Mic)
• Immigrant protected under Obama-era program arrested in Seattle. (Mic)
• We could be headed for another tie in the Senate. Mick Mulvaney, a conservative House member who Trump has nominated to oversee the federal budget, has yet to earn the support of at least three Republican senators. If two Republicans defect, like they did with Betsy DeVos, Pence would have to break another tie. (CNN)
Something to watch: Trump made Hillary Clinton's private email server his main target during the presidential campaign. But it looks like Trump and his staff communicate with even less security than Clinton did.