Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy-award winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times bestsellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program “Full Measure.”
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Nearly every day, it seems, analysts and reporters reveal new ties between American political figures and Russia or its leader, Vladimir Putin, and his political cronies.
The news is delivered in breathless tones with an air of suspicion.
There seems to be some confusion, because the following things are legal activities for Americans to do: Living in Russia, visiting Russia, talking to Russians, doing business in Russia and with Russians, consulting for Russia, advising Russia, having "ties” to Russia, lobbying for Russia, meeting with Russian leaders, "refusing to criticize Putin,” meeting with Russians connected to Putin, discussing politics with Russians, discussing U.S. policy and sanctions with Russians, consulting for the Russian government on political matters.
It’s true that certain conditions could make these activities illegal. For example, if an American works as a paid lobbyist for Russia but fails to register as a foreign agent, that violates U.S. law. If an American meets with a Russian spy for the purposes of committing a crime, that’s illegal, too.
But most of what’s being reported in sinister overtones is not only perfectly legal; thousands of Americans are doing much the same every day. There’s room for disagreement as to whether these things should be legal, but the fact is that — today — they are. Even "colluding” with Russia, or any country, isn’t necessarily illegal. It depends on the facts.
Without yet knowing the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Trump-Russia collusion, we have only the public evidence to date.
Former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about what appears to have been a legal conversation he had with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.
Two Trump associates, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, have been indictedby a grand jury for allegedly failing to report their lobbying work and avoiding paying taxes on its multimillion-dollar income. (It wasn’t Russia, it was Ukraine; and it was prior to their work on the Trump campaign, but close enough.)
In the absence of any public evidence implicating President Trump in illegal activities, much has been written about his and his associates’ "ties” to Russia, as if that is itself evidence of some sort of crime.
One such article in Time is entitled, "Donald Trump’s Many, Many, Many, Many Ties to Russia.” Three "many’s” obviously weren’t enough to convey the true depth of the "ties.” It took four.
It’s less easy to find comprehensive accounts denoting the Russian ties that some of Trump’s detractors have.
Here are just a few examples:
The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner (D-Va.), had extensive contact with a lobbyist for a Russian oligarch to help connect with the author of the anti-Trump "dossier.” Warner reportedly texted at the time that he didn’t wish to "leave a paper trail.” Warner allegedly waited six months before disclosing the contacts to the committee, which is investigating Russia matters.
The anti-Trump "dossier” that the FBI secretly used to justify wiretaps on a Trump adviser was compiled by a man at a political opposition research firm, Fusion GPS, who relied on and quoted Russian sources who are close to President Putin.
According to anonymous intel officials quoted in the New York Times, U.S. intelligence officials made a deal with Russians who offered unverified, compromising material on Trump.
A Washington lobbying/consulting firm, the Podesta Group, founded by Obama adviser and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and his brother, lobbied for Russia’s largest bank, owned by the government (or, as you like, President Putin). John’s brother, Tony, also lobbied for Ukrainian interests (reportedly in partnership with Trump associates Manafort and Gates). John Podesta left the firm years ago; Tony stepped down last November amid controversy over the lobbying. He has not been charged with any crimes.
The Podesta Group also represented Russia-owned Uranium One, which received approval from a federal oversight board that included the State Department under Hillary Clinton to buy about one-fifth of the U.S. production capacity of uranium, a key material for making nuclear weapons.
Uranium One interests reportedly contributed $145 million to Bill and Hillary Clinton’s charitable foundation.
Former Sens. John Breaux (D-La.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) lobbied for Russia’s banking giant, Gazprombank, owned by Putin’s government.
The lead Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), engaged with a Russian caller posing as a Ukrainian contact offering Russian blackmail material against President Trump. Afterward, Schiff made arrangements for his staff to try to collect the material. It turns out the caller was a Russian radio-host spoofer. Schiff has said he was not really fooled by the call.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Hillary Clinton campaign funded the anti-Trump "dossier” that relied on Russian sources, who were close to Kremlin officials.
None of the above-mentioned "Russian ties” are illegal on their face, although, in some instances, there could be conditions that make them illegal. Other than Gates, Manafort and Flynn, nobody mentioned has been accused of a crime.