May 19, 2017 2:45PM

The Trump‐​Russia Connection: Context Is Crucial

The Justice Department’s appointment of former FBI director Robert Mueller as Special Counsel takes the ongoing investigation of Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government to an entirely new level.  If the investigation is to be truly objective and informative, some crucial issues need to be addressed. 

Above all, it is imperative to determine the full context of the Trump-Russia relationship.  The old parable about a group of blind men feeling limited portions of an elephant and reaching erroneous conclusions applies here.  Without context, someone feeling the elephant’s trunk may express unwarranted confidence that it is a thick rope.

One of the issues that must be examined is the extent and nature of the contacts between members of Trump’s election campaign team and Russian officials.  To determine that in a dispassionate manner will not be easy.  An anti-Russia hysteria has reached alarming proportions in the past few months, eerily resembling the McCarthy era in the 1950s.  As I note in a recent article in the American Conservative, there appears to be a concerted effort to make Russia a pariah.  Indeed, at least two House Democrats have voiced objections to any contact whatsoever between the Trump administration and Russian officials.

That attitude is both unrealistic and potentially very dangerous.  Even during the worst days of the Cold War, U.S. leaders never severed communications with Moscow.  In fact, constructive dialogues produced some worthwhile agreements with America’s totalitarian adversary, including the treaty banning atmospheric nuclear tests in 1963.  To adopt an unprecedented, hardline attitude now toward post-Soviet Russia, which is a conventional rather than a totalitarian power, would be irresponsible.

To determine the context of links between Trump campaign advisers and Russian officials, three questions need to be asked.  First, were those advisers also in communication with other foreign governments, or were the Russia contacts exceptional?  If the former, it would suggest normal preparations on the part of people who might become part of a new administration.  Such ground work would be prudent so that potential officials could hit the ground running immediately upon their appointment to relevant posts.  So, were the Trump people also in touch with Chinese, Turkish, Israeli, German, Japanese, etc. officials, as well as Russian policymakers?  And, on a related point, were the number of Russian contacts disproportionate?

Another key question is how the links to Russia and other foreign governments compared to the activities of Hillary Clinton’s advisers and those of campaign organizations in previous presidential election cycles.  Was the behavior of Trump's people a substantial deviation from the norm, or do potential incoming officials engage in such conduct routinely?

These are crucial considerations.  If the Trump team’s contacts with Russia were unusual in number, that would create justifiable suspicions of impropriety.  If they were typical, such a context would support the administration’s contention that the massive criticism is little more than a partisan witch hunt.  Mueller and his investigators need to make that determination with indisputable clarity.