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Max Bergmann The truth about Russia's electoral interference requires Trump answer Mueller's questions

Our democracy was attacked during the 2016 election. We need to know how successful the Russians really were.
Image: Robert Mueller
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, departs Capitol Hill following a closed door meeting on June 21, 2017, in Washington.Andrew Harnik / AP file
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Even before Robert Mueller's team announced the indictments of 13 Russians on charges of election interference on Friday, Donald Trump's Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats had issued a stark warning about ongoing Russian interference in our democracy: “Frankly, the United States is under attack.”

But even as Putin continues to expand on his attacks, the president of the United States is refusing to tell law enforcement what he knows about the last one.

If America is ever going to know the full truth about Russia’s interference in our elections, and how to fight these attacks going forward, it is imperative that Trump sit down and answer every question Special Counsel Mueller has — without restrictions. And he owes it to the American people to make those answers public when Mueller deems appropriate.

Friday’s indictments showed that the Russian effort to penetrate the Trump campaign went beyond potentially willing partners (or “collusion,” as the president calls it).

Whether Trump knew it at the time or not, two things are now beyond dispute. The first is that there was an unprecedented effort by Russia to interfere in our elections in Trump’s favor, ranging from illegal hacking and spreading of private emails, to widespread deceptive social media operations aimed at influencing election results.

The second is that there was an extremely aggressive attempt by Russian agents to infiltrate his campaign. Gone now are the days of blanket White House denials such as “There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign” — we know that law enforcement suspected a member of Trump’s foreign policy team of being a Russian agent and that there were more than 50 contacts with Russians linked to the Kremlin.

Friday’s indictments showed that the Russian effort to penetrate the Trump campaign went beyond potentially willing partners (or “collusion,” as the president calls it). The Russian government and its agents also pursued “unwitting” targets, disguising their own identities. Amidst an ongoing Russian effort, shouldn’t Trump want to ensure that none of those efforts were successful? Shouldn’t he want to tell investigators what he knows, if there’s even a chance it will help root out any Russian penetration of our government or democracy?

Trump is a public servant amidst an existential crisis for our democracy that stems directly from his campaign, and he owes it to the public he serves to make the record complete.

Americans deserve to know why, and our national security requires it. American democracy was attacked during the 2016 election and to understand both how successful the Russians were and how to stop the next attack, America’s law enforcement and national security officials — not to mention the American public — need to know what the president knows.

President Trump promised unequivocally that he would speak openly to Mueller, and the American people would have every right to wonder why he would go back on his promise if he has nothing to hide. His lawyers may advise him to stonewall (and every American has a Fifth Amendment right not to answer), but this is not about some private individual’s legal wrangling. He is a public servant amidst an existential crisis for our democracy that stems directly from his campaign, and he owes it to the public he serves to make the record complete.

Even before the indictments this week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson conceded that Russia is already trying to interfere in the November elections, and essentially threw his hands up, saying “if their intention is to interfere, they're going to find ways to do that.” The appointed head of cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security, Jeanette Manfra, has conceded that Russia had in fact targeted the voting systems of 21 states, offering only the assurance that “an exceptionally small number of them were actually successfully penetrated.”

If the president refuses to help our law enforcement and intelligence agencies understand the threat, it would be a betrayal of the American people.

The urgency to understand what the Russians did and how they did it goes far beyond any need to re-litigate the 2016 campaign: It is an ongoing emergency. If the president refuses to help our law enforcement and intelligence agencies understand the threat, it would be a betrayal of the American people.

Meanwhile, Trump campaign officials who held secret meetings with Russia — secret even from the president himself, we are told to believe — continue to sit in the most powerful and sensitive positions in the federal government, regularly handling highly classified information. Two top foreign policy aides have already pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about Russia.

The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who initially failed to disclose multiple Russian meetings (including a reported attempt to set up a secret backchannel out of the Russia embassy) has adopted the role of shadow Secretary of State and is regularly involved in international negotiations. Astoundingly, he does so as one of dozens reportedly without a permanent security clearance, more than a year into the administration.

Trump is right that the Russia investigation is casting a dark shadow on his presidency.

At a time where the president’s own intelligence appointees describe our country as “under attack,” this is utterly untenable. Even if Trump himself is free of any undue leverage from the Kremlin, others working in his administration at this very moment could be compromised. Until the record is complete with what Trump knows, there can be absolutely no certainty.

Trump is right that the Russia investigation is casting a dark shadow on his presidency. But nobody has more power to clear that cloud, and clear his name, than he.

Of course, if the worst is true — if Donald Trump has been compromised by Russia, through money-laundering schemes or any other Russian intelligence tactic — the American people must know that, too. It is a possibility almost too ugly to contemplate, and a genuine crisis in the heart of our democracy. But it is also not a far cry from what his former campaign manager has already been indicted for, and ruling out this possibility alone necessitates total transparency.

Trump must do what he says he wants to do: answer all of Mueller’s questions, and let us see those answers for ourselves. Helping his own law enforcement and intelligence agencies prevent the next attacks is the absolute least he can do.

Max Bergmann is a senior fellow at American Progress, where he focuses on European security and U.S.-Russia policy.

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