A Quick Guide to the Three-Ring Circus of Scandals

A Quick Guide to the Three-Ring Circus of Scandals
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Washington is now consumed by three scandals, distinct but overlapping, each significant in its own right. With so many players, so little reliable, public information, and such different partisan emphases, it is hard to disentangle:

  1. Russian interference in the 2016 election;
  2. Collusion, if any, between the Kremlin and senior Trump people, before and after the election;
  3. Surveillance, if any, of Trump transition officials by the Obama White House and intelligence agencies, and the internal dissemination of materials not related to national security.


The first—Russian interference—should concern all Americans, regardless of party. Our democracy depends on free, fair, and open elections, with no interference by foreign citizens or governments. Our laws bar them for good reasons. America’s leaders ought to be chosen by its citizens, and them alone, whatever the global ramifications.

The second issue—possible Trump collusion with Russia—is obviously related to the Kremlin’s overall involvement, but it is distinct. Russia needed no prompting from Trump to oppose Hillary Clinton and seek to harm her election prospects. Whether it actually received help is another matter.

The Democrats have deliberately blurred the lines between Russian involvement and Trump collusion, and so have many commentators. The effect is to claw away at the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency, something he is capable of doing all by himself. The Democrats’ goals are increasingly clear. As the chairman of their national committee, Tom Perez, said last week, Trump “didn’t win this election.” That charge ought to chill the soul of every American.

Vladimir Putin has succeeded in casting doubt on a democratic election and thus on constitutional governance. He did it with tactics straight out of the Cold War, KGB playbook, updated for the information age: disinformation, fake news, and illegally hacked documents.

Russia’s efforts to develop financial ties to powerful figures follow the same pattern. Persistent leaks suggest such ties to senior Trump officials. Such influence-buying, whether by Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, or U.S. corporations, is, alas, common practice—and one that rightly troubles voters. That’s why the enormous speaking fees paid to the Clintons and donations to their foundations were so controversial. But even if the Russians did develop these financial ties to Trump associates, and even if their goal was to buy influence, those are not proof they worked together to influence the election.

That is exactly what we need to know. Beyond Russia’s efforts to meddle in the American election and muddle the results, did they work directly with Team Trump? If they did, those connections would be a body blow to the American Constitution and a scandal of the highest order.

Finally, now appearing in the third ring, is President Trump’s tweet that the Obama White House “wiretapped” him. The term is old-fashioned (no one wiretaps anymore), and the claim is typically inflated. But that does not mean it is bunk.

The serious charge is that the Obama White House deliberately spied on Trump officials. The spying was presumably directed at foreign targets but inevitably swept up Trump officials, perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not.

Names of surveilled Americans are required by law to be kept secret, but at least one, that of future National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, was divulged. That’s a felony, and only a high-level official could have done it (since the information was very tightly held). Beyond investigating how this name was unmasked, we need to know whether the Obama White House was reading political surveilled information about the Trump transition. They have a right to see intel bearing on U.S. national security, not politics.

What Do We Really Know?

Let’s sort out some of the confusion by nailing down what we actually know, so far.

Russian interference in 2016 election

We know

  • The Kremlin used disinformation and other dirty tricks.
  • They didn’t change the vote count but may have influenced voter opinions.
  • They attempted to undermine the integrity of U.S. elections, a fundamental attack on our democracy.
  • Congressional efforts to investigate these Russian efforts are, at best, uneven. Off to a good start: the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, led by Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and ranking member Mark Warner (D-Va.). Off to a bad start: the House counterpart, led by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and ranking member, Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). Nunes went to the White House grounds, accessed some whistleblower information, and discussed it with Trump before sharing it with Schiff or their committee. Schiff smelled a rat and charged partisanship, not a disinterested search for the truth. Schiff later saw the same material and also met with Trump. We do not know what they saw or discussed.

We need to know what Russia did so we can respond now and deter it going forward. That should be a bipartisan goal, but Republicans have been reticent for two reasons. They think Democrats are using Russian interference as a way of saying “we didn’t lose fair and square.” And they fear Democratic efforts to link Russian interference to Trump’s team.

Team Trump’s Connections to Russia

We know

  • Senior intelligence officials from the Obama years have publicly said there is no evidence of collusion. “There is smoke, but there is no fire, at all,” according to former acting CIA director Michael Morell, a Clinton ally.
  • The FBI has opened a counter-intelligence investigation, but we don’t know the subject or the targets. We do know it needs to be complete, prompt, and untainted.
  • Senior Trump officials had lucrative lobbying and business interests abroad, some involving Russia. Leaks have focused on Paul Manafort and Carter Page, as well as Flynn’s lobbying for Turkish interests. All have denied improprieties, though Flynn did not register his activities at the time and has sought immunity for any testimony he would be compelled to give.

Team Obama Spying on Trump Transition

We know

  • Trump tweeted that his team was “wiretapped” by the Obama White House.
  • He has produced no supporting evidence.
  • Senior Obama officials did receive information about the Trump transition from intelligence intercepts directed at foreign nationals; we do not know whether the information was related to national security matters (perfectly fine) or politics (not fine).
  • Names of U.S. nationals picked up in this surveillance were wrongly disclosed, a felony.
  • Only a small number of senior Obama officials could have disclosed the names.

We do not know what reasons the Obama White House had for circulating information about internal Trump planning. Nor do we know if collecting this “collateral” information was actually an unspoken goal of U.S. spy agencies.


Taken together, these leaks and public testimony entangle dozens of actors in two administrations, plus the House, Senate, and Kremlin. The potential scandals overlap, and we have far more rumors than facts about them. If the investigations uncover evidence of felonies, however, what is now a three-ring circus will become an American tragedy.

RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at ZipDialog.com and can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

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