Now, back to the question of whether Donald Trump might be a Russian spy. As his inauguration loomed closer and closer, the leaks started pouring in fast. Even before CNN and BuzzFeed dropped their respective bombshells, there was plenty of evidence of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Confidant and adviser Roger Stone admitted to have a "back channel" to Wikileaks, which gave all appearances of having extensive ties to Russia. Foreign policy adviser Carter Page had extensive business ties to Russia and was rumored to be engaged in back-channel negotiations with the Russians about lifting of sanctions if Trump was elected. But neither Page nor Stone had all that prominent a role in the Trump campaign and Trump staffers (not always a reliable source!) denied that Trump and Page had ever met. More alarming was Paul Manafort, Trump's one-time campaign manager, who had extensive ties to Russia and pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians and was known to advocate for them. Manfort's ties to Russia ultimately became so embarrassing that he was forced to withdraw from the campaign.
Once CNN and BuzzFeed made their revelations, more reports started coming in. The Guardian reported that the FBI had sought FISA warrants to monitor "four members of the Trump team suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials," although it could not confirm that any warrant was granted. The BBC said that FISA warrants were actually issued to investigate three Trump associates, and that the source for this warrant was not the Steele memos at all, but an intelligence agency in the Baltics.* Even earlier, the day before the election, the lesser known Heatstreet reported that the FBI had obtained a FISA warrant to investigate the Trump server's ties to Russia and covered "at least three" Trump associates, one of whom was strongly implied to be Carter Page.
Well, the day before the inauguration the New York Times came right out and identified the three under investigation as Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Roger Stone. It also says that the source of the investigation was not the Steel memos (though it does not say what the source was), and that the investigation began last spring, before Christopher Steele even began his private investigation. The article is also at pains to point out that the legal standard for such investigations is low, that prosecutions are rare, that no conclusive evidence of wrong-doing had been found, and that they did not know whether the investigations had anything to do with the Trump campaign, with Donald Trump, or with Russian hacks on the Democrats. The article also made clear that the intelligence community was leaking fast for fear that the newly-inaugurated Trump would put a stop to their campaign.
So, we have the report that Russia was hacking the Democrats and leaking the information to Wikileaks in order to help Trump to be elected President, that Trump's policies are consistently pro-Russia, and that three members of his campaign staff, including a former campaign manager, had suspicious ties to the Russians. But there is no evidence that any of these things are related. And I suppose maybe they aren't. But things are getting to look mighty suspicious.
But did you catch something? The BBC and the New York Times say three members of the Trump campaign were under investigation, all of whom have returned to the private sector. But the Guardian identified four members of the Trump team, and Heatstreet at least hints that there might be a fourth. Which raises a terrifying possibility. Could the fourth one be Mike Flynn, Trump's choice for National Security Adviser (a position that does not require approval by the Senate)?
Two days after the inauguration, the Wall Street Journal came out with an article saying that Flynn's contacts with Russia were under investigation by the intelligence community. The article says that "a key issue" in the investigation was Flynn's calls to the Russian ambassador on the day that then-President Obama instituted sanctions against Russia for its election hacks, i.e., after the election. The article also said that officials have examined "earlier conversations between Mr. Flynn and Russian figures," at least some of them calls to the Russian ambassador. The article did not say whether scrutiny of Flynn began before the election. CNN, in turn, ran a story indicating that the investigation was entirely over those phone calls, i.e., post-election, and expressly saying that there was no determination of any wrongdoing and that no one under investigation for Russian ties during the election now held office in the Trump Administration. It further says that the calls were picked up in routine monitoring of the Russian embassy. The Washington Post confirmed this account and said that Flynn was not under active investigation. So this may be a complete nothing-burger.
So maybe evidence of suspicious contacts between Trump's team and the Russians during the election were merely coincidence. And maybe Trump kept denying that Russia was behind the hacks because he likes inventing his own reality. Maybe I am being paranoid and attempting to find a pattern where there is none. But it is completely unprecedented in our history to elect a President who might or might not be a Russian spy; no one knows. And scary.
*The article loses some credibility by falsely reporting the FISA warrants cannot target US citizens.