In a 2017 book, Because They Could: The Harvard Russia Scandal (and NATO Expansion) after Twenty-Five Years, I argued that the US had unwisely bullied Russia for 25 years, chiefly by extending NATO to its borders. I was therefore sympathetic to Attorney General William Barr’s assertion earlier this month that National Security Adviser-designate Michael Flynn had been within his rights in talking to the Russian ambassador five times on December 29, 2016.
That was the day the Obama administration announced new sanctions in retaliation for Russian cyber meddling in the American election. Apparently Flynn urged Putin not to respond. Putin didn’t.
But that was before it became known that Flynn had been present at a Trump Tower meeting earlier in December at which Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner asked Russia’s ambassador about the possibility of setting up a secret communications channel using Russian diplomatic facilities, in an apparent attempt to shield their communications from monitoring by US officials. It was before the US Intelligence Community’s joint statement on the scope of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was released; before Flynn lied to Vice President Pence, denying he had discussed the sanctions; before Trump fired FBI director James Comey; before the White House photo-session with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak the next day; before Michael Cohen’s revelations of Trump’s Russian business dealings; before the extent of Trump associate Roger Stone’s connections with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange were exposed; before the investigation of Trump’s Deutsche Bank holdings was paused; before Putin’s ambitious overture of a possible US-Russian anti-hacking treaty came to nought.
In “The Vindication of Michael Flynn,” editorialists at The Wall Street Journal stated that Barr’s motion to drop the government’s case against Flynn “further undermines the credibility of James Comey’s FBI, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the entire ‘Russia collusion’ investigation.” None of that seems right to me. Mueller delivered a credible investigation of the narrow point and found no explicit collusion. Instead it uncovered conflicts galore.
Trump’s conduct of Russia policy has been so inept that it almost seems fair that Attorney General Barr is attempting to give him a do-over – despite the damage Barr has been doing to long-standing Justice Department traditions. Barr’s life story is related here and here, His philosophical suppositions are clear, if unconvincing. A finished presentation of his argument awaits the submission of another invited reviewer’s re-examination of the entire Russia investigation. .
The only thing that will vindicate Flynn – or fail to vindicate him – is the release of the transcripts of his conversations with Ambassador Kislyak. Although he has declined to do so before, presiding judge Judge Emmet Sullivan apparently has the power to require their disclosure.
Meanwhile, what about the problem of establishing an appropriate baseline for US-Russian relations? It remains all jumbled up. The Covid-19 pandemic is hard in Russia, too. A realistic and proper reset awaits the pre-inaugural beginnings of the next administration.