The NY Times reports that last summer U.S. spies gathered information showing that Russian officials were discussing how to influence Donald Trump.
The conversations focused on Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman at the time, and Michael T. Flynn, a retired general who was advising Mr. Trump, the officials said. Both men had indirect ties to Russian officials, who appeared confident that each could be used to help shape Mr. Trump’s opinions on Russia.
Some Russians boasted about how well they knew Mr. Flynn. Others discussed leveraging their ties to Viktor F. Yanukovych, the deposed president of Ukraine living in exile in Russia, who at one time had worked closely with Mr. Manafort.
Five paragraphs in you get the big caveat to the story:
The information collected last summer was considered credible enough for intelligence agencies to pass to the F.B.I., which during that period opened a counterintelligence investigation that is ongoing. It is unclear, however, whether Russian officials actually tried to directly influence Mr. Manafort and Mr. Flynn.
I’m not looking to discount every new story that comes out about this topic, but this one seems a bit thin. Basically, we have the not-very-stunning claim that Russian intelligence officials wanted to try to influence Trump and talked about it. Actually, most of that could be assumed based on this CNN story published last week:
Russian officials bragged in conversations during the presidential campaign that they had cultivated a strong relationship with former Trump adviser retired Gen. Michael Flynn and believed they could use him to influence Donald Trump and his team, sources told CNN…
“This was a five-alarm fire from early on,” one former Obama administration official said, “the way the Russians were talking about him.” Another former administration official said Flynn was viewed as a potential national security problem.
Eventually, five paragraphs in, you get the big caveat in the CNN story: “Officials cautioned, however, that the Russians might have exaggerated their sway with Trump’s team during those conversations.”
So, let’s work that caveat backward into the NY Times story. Russian intelligence officials bragged they could influence Trump through Manafort and Flynn, but a) we don’t know if they were exaggerating (or outright lying) about their ability to do so, b) we don’t know if they tried to exert their influence and c) if they tried, we don’t know if they succeeded. Those seem like pretty big and important unknowns.
Maybe this would seem more significant if we could read the transcripts of the conversations that took place, but the information underlying this is highly classified and the Times notes their source was concerned he or she could be prosecuted for leaking it. For now, this seems to boil down to enemy intelligence officers caught talking about doing bad things. That may be cause for an investigation but until we have more information connecting some of these dots, it’s not very damning.