Opinion

How to read between Trump's lines on Russia

At Trump's press conference Wednesday, all of his comments on Russia fell into into one of two categories

At Donald Trump's last press conference, in July, he implored Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton's email system just like they hacked into the systems of the Democratic Party. At his first press conference since then, on Wednesday, he continued to insist that Russia might not have had anything to do with the hacks. In fact, he kept up his record of being Russia's most consistent advocate in the American media, outside of people actually in the employ of Vladimir Putin.

This comes in the wake of a set of extraordinary developments in the story of Russia's involvement in the 2016 election, in which we learned that an opposition research report prepared by a former British intelligence official described not only the Russian government's attempts to ensure Trump's election, but coordination between the Russians and members of the Trump campaign. It also asserted that the Russians have compromising video of Trump which they could use to blackmail him.

We don't know whether these allegations are true. What we do know is that American intelligence judged them serious enough to brief both President Obama and President-elect Trump on them, and that the FBI sought warrants to monitor four members of Trump's campaign team because they suspected them of questionable contacts with representatives of the Russian government.

With those blockbuster revelations hanging in the air, Trump began his press conference as everyone knew he would: on the attack. He attacked the intelligence community. He attacked the news media. He attacked the Obama administration. He attacked the Democratic Party. But the one entity he didn't attack, and which he has never attacked, was Russia.

In fact, if you go back and look at all of Trump's comments on the question of Russia, you'll find that they fall into one of two categories. The first is praise of Vladimir Putin, of whom Trump seems never to have uttered a word of criticism. Instead, Putin is strong, bold, smart, a tremendous leader who gets nothing but admiration from our next president. In the second type of comment, Trump dismisses the suggestion that Russia was behind the hacks on his opponents.

All along, Trump's line has been: Who knows? This computer stuff is so confusing, we can't tell if Russia did the hacking or if it was some 400-pound guy in his basement, despite the consensus of every American intelligence agency and private cybersecurity experts as well. On Wednesday he edged toward accepting this conclusion: "As far as hacking, I think it was Russia. But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people." When another reporter noted that "you said just now that you believe Russia indeed was responsible for the hacking of the DNC and John Podesta's emails, et cetera," Trump jumped in to say, "All right, but you know what, it could have been others also." Asked to be clear on whether he accepted the intelligence community's conclusion, he said this:

Well, if — if Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia. Russia can help us fight ISIS, which, by the way, is, number one, tricky. I mean if you look, this administration created ISIS by leaving at the wrong time. The void was created, ISIS was formed. If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That's called an asset, not a liability. [Donald Trump]

When he was asked to state unequivocally that no one from his campaign had contact with the Russian government, Trump instead talked for a few minutes about how much better relations with Russia will be when he's president. Apparently he denied the allegation when reporters caught him by the elevator and asked him again. But Trump also said, "I have no dealings with Russia. I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we've stayed away. And I have no loans with Russia."

That might be true, or it might not — we've all learned by now that pretty much anything Trump says has to be verified before it can be believed. But there's only one way to know if Trump is telling the truth about his lack of business interests in Russia, and that's if he releases his tax returns like every other president (and presidential candidate) in the last four decades. Trump got asked about that again Wednesday, and he said. "I'm not releasing the tax returns because as you know, they're under audit." This is and has always been a bogus excuse: The IRS doesn't forbid you from releasing your tax returns when you're being audited, and it's not like you'll be keeping the information from them; they've already got the returns.

We don't even know that Trump is being audited, since he's never offered any evidence that he is, and the IRS doesn't discuss that kind of thing. But either way, we should know by now that it's just a dodge. Trump will never, repeat, never show us his tax returns. Never. He almost said as much at the press conference. "You know, the only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters, okay? They're the only who ask," he said. And when asked whether he didn't think the public would like to see them, he said, "No, I don't think so. I won."

And that, to Trump, is the ultimate proof that he's right. But this press conference proves that asking Trump questions about these matters is utterly fruitless.

What we need are comprehensive investigations, by both government panels and journalists. That's the only route to accountability, and the only way we'll know for sure if representatives of the president of the United States colluded with Russian intelligence to destroy his opponent and install him in the White House.

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