National Column: Trump handily survives latest Russia revelations

by Thomas Walkom

Donald Trump is not on the ropes. Politically and legally he is doing just fine.

The latest revelations from special prosecutor Robert Mueller have produced little new relevant information and nothing that implicates the U.S. president in criminal activities.

Overall, his approval ratings remain low. But among Republicans roughly 80 per cent think he is doing a good job.

Indeed, he has begun to redefine the Republican Party in his own image. Those who disapprove of him are being forced to either recant or drop out of politics.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, for instance, used to be one of Trump’s harshest critics. Now he has become a golfing buddy.

As the senator explained to the New York Times: Trump is popular in Graham’s home state of South Carolina.

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, another Republican, is still an unsparing critic of Trump. But it seems that Arizona voters are not. A bitter Flake has announced that he won’t seek the Republican nomination for next year’s midterm election.

Left unsaid was the reason: He’d lose.

All of this is worth keeping in mind when trying to assess the significance of the charges announced by Mueller on Monday.

All three men charged were involved in the Trump campaign. But the charges against two of them – former campaign chair Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates – have nothing to do with the campaign or alleged Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential race

The third man, George Papadopoulos, has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his connections with Russia. But those connections apparently led to nothing.

The charges against Manafort and Gates are based on allegations that they laundered millions of dollars earned by working for pro-Moscow Ukrainian politicians between 2006 and 2015 – before they joined the Trump campaign.

In hindsight, Trump could be faulted for bringing alleged felons onto his team. But at the time, their allegedly criminal behaviour was not public knowledge. What’s more, Manafort had a solid reputation in the Republican Party as someone who had worked for former presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

It’s also worth noting that, for most of the period, it wasn’t considered illegitimate in Washington to work for Ukraine’s then pro-Russian regime. Democrats as well as Republicans did so.

When that changed and Manafort’s connection to Ukrainian oligarchs became a political liability, Trump did what most politicians do: He fired him.

The Papadopoulos charge hits closer to home. It directly links the Trump campaign to the Russians.

Papadopoulos told the FBI that he made contact with a mysterious professor in London and a woman who was identified – incorrectly as it turned out – as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s niece.

But 30-year-old Papadopoulos, described by the New York Times as so green that his resume included time spent on the model United Nations, was apparently wowed. He insisted to his superiors in the campaign team that he could arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin.

In April 2016, he reported that the mysterious professor had offered him a treasure trove of emails that would reflect badly on Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ presidential nominee.

These may have been the emails eventually released by WikiLeaks that outlined embarrassing conflicts within the Clinton campaign, as well as efforts by the Democrat establishment to sandbag maverick challenger Bernie Sanders.

But it’s not clear from the material released so far that the Trump campaign took up the professor’s offer. Certainly, nothing came of Papadopoulos’ efforts to arrange a Trump-Putin meeting.

By June, someone with connections to Russia was again offering damaging information about Clinton, this time to Donald Trump Jr. But according to Trump Jr. nothing came of that either.

We shall see where all of this goes. So far, it hasn’t gone far.

Monday’s revelations confirm what we already knew – that someone allegedly connected to Russia offered the Trump campaign emails critical of Clinton.

But there is no indication that Trump or his campaign took part in a criminal conspiracy to obtain those emails. More to the point, there is no evidence that Republican voters, who currently control both houses of Congress, care.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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