Did the Trump transition team conspire with Russia to undermine U.S. sanctions?

As the primary beneficiary of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, it stands to reason that Donald Trump would not want to punish his benefactor, Vladimir Putin. For that reason, we might expect that when President Obama imposed the most recent round of sanctions on Russia in retaliation for the attack on American democracy, Trump would want to reassure his patron that sanctions relief is close at hand. Moreover, for this reassurance to have the greatest value it would need to be conveyed before Russia gave the standard tit-for-tat response to having dozens of diplomats expelled.

That’s probably why David Ignatius raised these questions on Thursday:

According to a senior U.S. government official, [Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T.] Flynn [Trump’s choice for national security adviser] phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking. What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions? The Logan Act (though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about “disputes” with the United States. Was its spirit violated?

The Associated Press now reports: President-elect Donald Trump’s national security adviser and Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. have been in frequent contact in recent weeks, including on the day the Obama administration hit Moscow with sanctions in retaliation for election-related hacking, a senior U.S. official says.

After initially denying that Michael Flynn and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak spoke Dec. 29, a Trump official said late Friday that the transition team was aware of one call on the day President Barack Obama imposed sanctions.

It’s not unusual for incoming administrations to have discussions with foreign governments before taking office. But repeated contacts just as Obama imposed sanctions would raise questions about whether Trump’s team discussed — or even helped shape — Russia’s response.

Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly did not retaliate against the U.S. for the move, a decision Trump quickly praised.

More broadly, Flynn’s contact with the Russian ambassador suggests the incoming administration has already begun to lay the groundwork for its promised closer relationship with Moscow. That effort appears to be moving ahead, even as many in Washington, including Republicans, have expressed outrage over intelligence officials’ assessment that Putin launched a hacking operation aimed at meddling in the U.S. election to benefit Trump.

In an interview published Friday evening by The Wall Street Journal, Trump said he might do away with Obama’s sanctions if Russia works with the U.S. on battling terrorists and achieving other goals.

“If Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions?” he asked. [Continue reading…]

Putin helps Trump and Trump helps Putin — but no one should be in any doubt about who is the dominant partner in this bromance: it’s the one who’s rather proud of showing off his body; not the one who lives in fear of the day he might show up naked on the nightly news.

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