5 Things You Need to Know About Trump's Russia Problem
All about the political scandal some are comparing to Watergate
The rumblings over President Trump‘s dealings with Russia have grown into a clamor since his national security adviser Michael Flynn abruptly resigned this week amid concerns about his communications with Russian officials.
So just how big is Trump’s Russia problem?
To help put it into perspective, veteran journalist Dan Rather says it could be an even bigger political crisis than President Nixon’s Watergate.
“Watergate is the biggest political scandal of my lifetime, until maybe now,” former CBS news anchor Dan Rather said in a Facebook post on Tuesday. “It was the closest we came to a debilitating Constitutional crisis, until maybe now.”
As the controversy continues to make headlines, here are five key things to know.
1. What’s the deal with Michael Flynn?
Flynn, a retired army lieutenant general, resigned from his position as Trump’s top national security adviser after only 24 days. He had come under fire for a phone conversation he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced sanctions on Russia for a cyber attack that took place during the U.S. election.
A transcript of the call produced by the U.S. intelligence community shows that the two men did discuss sanctions, NPR reported.
Vice President Mike Pence, who was briefed on the call by Flynn, made a round of TV appearances Jan. 15 in which he defended Flynn and denied he discussed sanctions in the call.
In his resignation letter, Flynn apologized for giving the vice president and others “incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian Ambassador.”
2. What did Trump know about Flynn and when did he know it?
Borrowing a question straight from the Watergate scandal, congressional Democrats asked Tuesday: What did President Trump know and when did he know it?
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump was informed 17 days ago, on Jan. 26, by White House Counsel Donald F. McGahn II that Flynn had lied about discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador. Spicer said the president asked McGahn whether Flynn’s actions had violated the law. Ultimately, he said, there was “a violation of trust,” but not “a violation of law,” The New York Times reported.
Trump asked for Flynn’s resignation due to “the evolving and eroding level of trust as a result of this situation and a series of other questionable incidents,” Spicer said.
“There’s nothing that the general did that was a violation of any sort,” he added. “What this came down to was a matter of trust.”
3. How has President Trump responded?
The morning after Flynn’s resignation, the president tweeted his first public reaction, claiming the “real story” was the amount of leaks about his administration.
“The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?” he wrote.
His tweet echoed comments made by some conservatives close to the White House, including Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, who told Fox News on Tuesday that “somebody in the nebulous intelligence community” could have leaked the information.
“Who tapped the phones? Who is listening to it? Who leaked it? I think those are legitimate questions to ask,” he said.
The senator said he did not know whether whoever leaked the information broke the law but added: “Leaks of this nature are incredibly damaging to America, to our national security, and we need to look into it.”
4. Have others close to Trump had contact with Russian officials?
The New York Times reported Wednesday that phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Trump’s presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.
Three American officials told the Times that American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the calls around the same time they found evidence that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee.
The intelligence agencies also investigated whether Trump’s campaign was colluding with Russians to influence the election but so far have found no evidence of such cooperation, the officials said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov on Wednesday dismissed reports — including the Times article and one published by CNN — that Trump aides had contact with Russian intelligence officials, claiming they were “not based on facts and do not indicate any specific facts, either.”
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5. What happens next?
Democrats on Tuesday called for the formation of an independent, bipartisan panel to investigate possible ties between the Trump administration and Russia, including when the president learned Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador, the Chicago Tribune reported.
“The American people deserve to know the full extent of Russia’s financial, personal and political grip on President Trump and what that means for our national security,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.
No. 2 House Democrat Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland insisted that there are still many unanswered questions about Flynn’s actions. “Who knew about this and when? Did the president know and when did he know it?” he said. “Did others at Trump transition team authorize conversations about sanctions? After the White House was informed, who made the decision to allow Flynn to continue to serve despite the fact he misled the administration?”
Democrats have also previously called for an independent inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Republicans, meanwhile, say that there’s no need for a special investigation into Flynn’s actions.
6. Bonus question: What’s the deal with Trump and Putin?
All of these concerns over the Trump administration’s ties to Russia come after the president himself has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, much to the dismay of politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Most recently, the president expressed his admiration for Putin in a pre-Super Bowl interview with Bill O’Reilly on Feb. 5.
“He’s a leader of his country. I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not, and if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS – which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world – that’s a good thing,” Trump said. “Will I get along with him? I have no idea.”
O’Reilly responded, “He’s a killer, though. Putin’s a killer.”
“There are a lot of killers. We got a lot of killers,” said Trump. “What, you think our country is so innocent?”
Facing backlash over his comments, Trump doubled down on past claims that he “doesn’t know Putin.”
“I don’t know Putin, have no deals in Russia, and the haters are going crazy,” Trump tweeted on Feb. 7. “Yet Obama can make a deal with Iran, #1 in terror, no problem!”