Trump and Russia: ‘We all need answers’

Putin’s puppet? Some commentators have called Trump “a modern Manchurian candidate”.

Today a public hearing about Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia starts. The row is reaching fever pitch. Some predict the biggest scandal in US history. Where is this going?

“We all need answers.”

When George W. Bush gave his assessment of Russia’s alleged ties to Donald Trump last month, he spoke for many. Despite the flurry of policy proposals and executive orders, the president’s actions so far have been eclipsed by one giant question: is he collaborating with Russia?

The mystery is galvanising the anti-Trump media. For months, journalists have been scrutinising the president’s associates for improper contacts with Russian officials. They have forced two high-profile resignations, and are targeting a third: Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In January BuzzFeed published a sensational report, written by a British ex-spy, which asserted that Russia has been “assisting” Trump for at least five years.

Meanwhile, liberal publications are issuing a stream of “Putinology”: analysis of the motives and worldview of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, including 13,200 words in last week’s The New Yorker. The article delves into Putin’s background as a spy and his record in meddling in other countries.

For Trump’s critics, the holy grail is his impeachment. For that, they need concrete evidence that he colluded with Russian authorities, or that Russia is capable of blackmailing him. In their search for answers, journalists are being assisted by a host of investigations within Congress and the FBI. The Senate has asked one Trump advisor to preserve any Russia-related documents he may have.

That evidence remains out of reach. The intelligence with which the investigations are working is shrouded in secrecy. As BuzzFeed admits, the claims in the report it published are “potentially unverifiable”. And the Trump team continues to deny any wrongdoing. Talk of impeachment, for now, is purely hypothetical.

Yet that is not stopping people from drawing comparisons to Watergate, the only scandal ever to have ended a presidency. Last month, veteran news anchor Dan Rather said that the Russia controversy could be “at least as big as Watergate”. Is he right?

Putin’s input

Knock it off, say some. The reporters who exposed Watergate worked alone, following the evidence and keeping a low profile. The current fuss is, quite simply, a trial by media. These people have been calling for Trump’s impeachment before he was even the Republican candidate; they will keep doing so regardless of the facts.

Wait and see, reply others. Evidence keeps emerging of dodgy dealings with Russia that the Trump team had previously denied. It’s no secret that Putin messes around with governments. Trump himself remains inexplicably warm toward the Russian president. There are plenty of dots here: together, journalists and investigators will soon connect them.

You Decide

  1. Is this the biggest issue in US politics today?
  2. Should the American people be able to directly impeach a president? If so, what should the procedure be?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are an editor of a major newspaper. Write down five essential questions that your journalists covering this subject should seek to answer.
  2. Each pick a different scandal from US presidential history. Research it, then deliver a brief report to the class. As a group, vote on which scandals you think should have led to impeachment.

Some People Say...

“Trump is guilty until proven innocent.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How do we know that there might be something going on?
This is the big problem. As there is not yet evidence to directly link Donald Trump with Vladimir Putin, much of what you read is conjecture. We do know that Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, had two undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador to the USA, and that many in the Putin regime ardently wanted Trump to beat Hillary Clinton in the US election. But be careful to assess what you read.
How?
Bear in mind any bias a publication might have. If, for example, you are reading a publication that has been relentlessly anti-Trump, always check for second sources to back up stories that make Trump look bad. The same applies for pro-Trump sites. Remember to read a range of publications to get as balanced a view as possible.

Word Watch

Assessment
Bush was speaking to NBC.
Resignations
Paul Manafort stepped down as campaign manager in August 2016 after news broke of his business ties with pro-Putin politicians. Michael Flynn resigned as national security advisor in February after he was revealed to have had secret talks with the Russian ambassador.
Jeff Sessions
Sessions said under oath that he had met with no Russian officials during the campaign. In fact, he had met at least twice with the Russian ambassador.
Investigations
On February 18th, Reuters reported that the FBI is conducting at least three probes into Russia’s role in the presidential election. In addition, at least five committees and one subcommittee in Congress are investigating the issue.
Watergate
A major scandal in the early 1970s when Republican Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency after former FBI and CIA agents working for him broke into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) offices and bugged one or more phones.
Before
In April 2016, Politico published an articled titled “Could Trump Be Impeached Shortly After He Takes Office?”

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