Donald Trump has come out fighting against accusations members of his team had contact with Russian intelligence officials during the election campaign.
Trump then went on to accuse his own intelligence agencies of acting like their Russian counterparts by leaking information to the press.
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that intercepted phone calls show the Russians made contact with Paul Manafort, who briefly served as Trump’s campaign chairman.
In late August, Manafort resigned from that job after disclosures by The Associated Press about his firm’s covert lobbying on behalf of Ukraine’s former pro-Russia governing party.
Current and former US officials interviewed by the Times declined to identify other Trump associates contacted by the Russians.
The anonymous officials told the Times they found no evidence that the Trump campaign was working with the Russians on hacking or other efforts to influence the election, reports the Associated Press.
Aside from the accusations of contact with the Russians, the story also raises questions about the role the US’s intelligence agencies are playing in the world’s leading democracy.
Some commentators have agreed that Trump clearly does have reason to be concerned about anonymous officials speaking to the press in an apparent attempt to destabilise his administration.
In fact such acts are illegal under federal law and punishable by up to 10 years in prison although arguably, in this case it is justifiable given the outcome.
“President Trump was roundly mocked among liberals for that tweet. But he is, in many ways, correct. These leaks are an enormous problem. And in a less polarised context, they would be recognised immediately for what they clearly are: an effort to manipulate public opinion for the sake of achieving a desired political outcome. It’s weaponised spin.”
Linker echoed a Bloomberg piece by Eli Lake that said:
“Normally intercepts of U.S. officials and citizens are some of the most tightly held government secrets. This is for good reason. Selectively disclosing details of private conversations monitored by the FBI or NSA gives the permanent state the power to destroy reputations from the cloak of anonymity. This is what police states do.”
Of which Trump was obviously a fan.
On a less positive note for Trump, his tweet could be seen as tacit acknowledgement of some truth in the allegations as it does not contain a denial, only recognition that information has been leaked.
There’s also a certain level of hypocrisy in his latest outburst - during the election campaign, Trump actively called for the hacking and leaking of Hillary Clinton’s emails and even professed that he “loves Wikileaks”.
As for the implications of the allegations, the FBI continues to sift through call logs and intercepted communications links between Trump’s associates and the Russian government, as well as the hacking of the Democratic National Committee which led to the leak of emails damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
And Trump wasn’t quite finished just yet - he also attempted to deflect attention away from the ongoing scandal by comparing his still-very-short tenure to Obama’s.
Obama had a rocky relationship with Russia, primarily over its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by force in March 2014.
Military action would have been incredibly provocative given the close proximity of NATO bases to Russian territory, leading to an increased risk of armed conflict.
Trump’s record on Crimea has been patchy - in an interview last year he appeared to reveal he did not even know Russia had already invaded.
Defending himself in the wake of this, he said if the US were to intervene and try and take back the territory on behalf of Ukraine it would risk “World War 3”
His latest stance however is that he expects Russia to withdraw.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in a briefing on Tuesday: “President Trump has made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to de-escalate violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea.
“At the same time, he fully expects to and wants to get along with Russia.”
None of this will do anything to help heal what is already a frayed relationship between Trump and his intelligence agencies.
Reports earlier in the week that revealed they are so concerned about the White House’s ties to the Kremlin and the fact Trump has been so dismissive of briefings, they’ve essentially stopped sending top-secret information.
The New York Observer wrote:
...some of our spy agencies have begun withholding intelligence from the Oval Office. Why risk your most sensitive information if the president may ignore it anyway? A senior National Security Agency official explained that NSA was systematically holding back some of the “good stuff” from the White House, in an unprecedented move. For decades, NSA has prepared special reports for the president’s eyes only, containing enormously sensitive intelligence. In the last three weeks, however, NSA has ceased doing this, fearing Trump and his staff cannot keep their best SIGINT secrets.