An Unhealthy Convergence

This is the first in a series of critical investigations into the issue of whether the Trump Campaign may have colluded with agents and officials of the Russian Federation for the purpose of influencing the 2016 Presidential Election. These articles, and any conclusions drawn, are based solely on hard facts and evidence available from open sources. To date, a brash sensationalism has shrouded the reportage of numerous meetings between Trump Campaign members and Russian officials—or people tied to Russian officials—prior to the election. Too many media reports are based on prejudice, inaccurate assumptions, careless misinformation, or outright disinformation. In other words, much of the media in this country has allowed itself to become politicized and drawn into the vicious tribal war from which our nation has been suffering.

Is It “Collusion” or a Convergence of Interests?

Train_tracks_converging_1On April 20, the Democratic National Convention (DNC) filed a lawsuit naming Donald J. Trump’s Presidential Campaign, an international array of computer hackers, and the Russian Federation, as members of a racketeering enterprise—a broad conspiracy designed to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.

Many Republicans continue to ridicule the DNC’s effort. Yet the worst outcome of the suit, from a Republican perspective, is that it may yield a thorough-going process of discovery focused on cataloging what actually did happen between the Trump Campaign and the Russians in the run-up to the election. And that means everyone involved with the Campaign—not only advisor-turned-coffee-boy George Papadopoulos—but also the likes of Jared Kushner and Donald Trump, Jr., who were both interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller at the end of 2017, but not charged. Unlike Mueller’s interview, the DNC lawsuit threatens to drag a good deal of fresh information out of the murk of back-room closed-door sessions and squarely into the public eye. By alleging conspiracy between the Trump Campaign, the Russians, and hackers, the DNC has apparently decided to use “collusion” as the best explanation of Hillary Clinton’s loss.[1]

An interpretation of collusion is too hasty. “Collusion” probably isn’t the right word here. Collusion with foreign agents implies treason, sedition, subversive activities, and all the intrigue and treachery that comes along with that. Collusion implies planning, for which we have no hard evidence. For collusion, there must be evidence of careful, coordinated planning between some very diverse and fragmented groups of actors. While the DNC sticks to “collusion,” an alternative explanation might focus on the Trump advisors’ relatively low levels of political experience and lack of gravitas or perhaps even their naïveté with regard to Putin’s Russia. In the absence of hard evidence of collusion, the concept of “interest convergence” may lead to a better understanding of what happened between the Trump Campaign and the Russians. It’s a good starting point, anyway. It also appears to fit the facts as we know them at the end of April 2018. “Collusion” is too narrow.

Two things matter most. First are the pure facts available to us—documented occurrences untainted by personal political beliefs, or by our esteem or disdain for any individual’s character. Permitting such filters could mislead, twist, or otherwise sully reasonable conclusions about what we’ve observed. Second—there can be no “filling in the blanks.” We must be cautious when making assumptions about a person’s intentions based on what they say. People’s actions ultimately describe their intentions best. And we can document actions. My objective here is to create a documented account—a trail of all available evidence that can be followed by any reasonable person.

Background: Interest Convergence

The idea of “interest convergence” came out of the work of Professor Derrick A. Bell of New York University Law School (1980).[2] Bell postulated that the white population in America would only support racial justice if they saw something “in it” for themselves. That meant the middle and upper-class white communities would only act when there was an observable convergence between their interests and the interests of racial minorities. In Bell’s words, “the interests of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of whites. However, the fourteenth amendment, standing alone, will not authorize a judicial remedy providing effective racial equality for blacks where the remedy sought threatens the superior societal status of middle and upper class whites.” Bell asserted that the US Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), ended the longstanding policy of “separate but equal” education in American for two key reasons.

One was that at the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a vicious struggle to win the hearts and minds of Third World populations. The two ideologies fiercely fought for preeminence in developing nations, sometimes even fueling wars by proxy. The important changes that followed the Brown decision in America demonstrated to the world that the United States was truly committed to civil and human rights. By enforcing desegregation while simultaneously decrying Soviet society as oppressive, the United States seized the moral high ground both internationally and domestically by confronting the immorality of racial inequality. At least it looked that way.

The second reason was that whites in policymaking positions had begun to recognize the potential for regional growth and advancement in the aftermath of desegregation—particularly in the rural and agricultural South—where state-sponsored segregation had come to be seen as an impediment to industrialization.

The American scene has changed significantly since Professor Bell wrote about interest convergence, but his observations remain valuable: the interests of two diverse and diametrically opposed groups can and often do converge in situations where both have something to gain. In 2015-2016, did we witness just such a convergence of interests between The Trump Campaign, certain elements of the Republican Party, and Russian political elites? The Republicans desperately wanted to retake the White House after eight long years. Russian elites, led by Vladimir Putin, anxiously sought to halt further economic damage to Russia and end the scourge of targeted sanctions imposed by President Obama and our European allies in 2014.

Sanctions on Russia

In 2014, following the Russian annexation of Crimea, the US, Canada, and the European Union imposed punishing sanctions on the Russian Federation, explicitly targeting many individuals and businesses directly tied to the Kremlin leadership. There is no question that the international sanctions inflicted deep economic pain. Another critical factor—the global price of crude oil—worsened the damage. Russia is not only a major player in the global crude oil supply; crude oil exports account for 70 percent of the nation’s total exports. Putin and his advisors must have cringed as oil prices declined by nearly 50 percent in the last half of 2014. Next came a cascading effect: diminishing confidence in the Russian economy spurred investors to sell off Russian assets, which led to a collapse in the value of the ruble and a serious financial crisis.

In Europe and the United States, however, the long-term wisdom of the sanctions on Russia came into question in 2015, as economists recorded adverse impacts in many European countries, particularly in the energy, aviation, and agricultural sectors.[3] In America, oil giant ExxonMobil alone estimated losses approaching a billion dollars.[4] Specifically, the sanctions on Russia hurt a $723 million joint Exxon venture with PAO Rosneft, Russia’s largest state-owned oil company. In 2015, the two companies were slated to jointly explore the Kara Sea, located inside the Arctic Circle, with agreements to expand exploration to the Laptev, Chukchi, and Black Seas at later dates. Exxon is also one of the largest stakeholders in the massive “Berkut” offshore platform on Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East. The company owns 30 percent of the Sakhalin oil fields through a local subsidiary, Exxon Neftegaz. Exxon’s international partners in the Sakhalin Consortium consist of Sakhalin Oil and Gas Development Co., Ltd. (Japan), ONGC Videsh Ltd. (India), and two subsidiaries of Russia’s own Rosneft, which hold a 20 percent stake. The partnership was formed in 1996 to explore for hydrocarbons in Russian sub-Arctic waters. Despite the sanctions, Sakhalin began production this year, but Exxon has been prohibited from collecting revenues.

Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, known in the local media as “Darth Vader,” said in September that Sakhalin and Kara Sea production will proceed without Exxon.[5]  More recently, Exxon announced that it will abandon the signature achievements of former Exxon head Rex Tillerson and pull out of the partnership with Rosneft.[6] Although known for its lobbying prowess, the oil giant ultimately proved unable to stop the imposition of sanctions on its Russian ventures.

Actions Speak Volumes

“Actions speak louder than words,” the saying goes, but words often predict actions. Let’s look at what candidate Donald Trump said about sanctions on Russia in 2015 and 2016.

At the end of June 2016, Trump said he would “consider” recognizing Crimea as Russian territory and lifting the sanctions.[7] Can we trust the words of Donald Trump? People have differing views on that. In any case, Trump almost certainly must have had detailed knowledge of the Exxon-Rosneft joint venture when he appointed former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson—the man who’d brokered the Rosneft agreements—to the post of Secretary of State.

Tillerson has an interesting history. He operated as somewhat of a rogue when CEO of ExxonMobil, doing a number of highly controversial things in recent years. While ramping up joint projects with the Iraqi government in the southern province of Basra, Tillerson opened negotiations with the autonomous government of Iraqi Kurdistan in the north in direct opposition to US policy goals and State Department guidance. When Tillerson signed a contract with the Kurds in October, 2011, that move infuriated Baghdad and the State Department, who supported a unified Iraq, not an independent Kurdistan. Tillerson’s actions nearly touched off a war between the Iraqis and the Kurds.

In April 2012, Exxon and the Russian oil giant, PAO Rosneft, unveiled a $500 billion Arctic exploration partnership. That was the deal that earned Tillerson the Russian Order of Friendship, which Putin personally pinned on his chest in 2013. Russia hadn’t yet invaded Crimea, but the US-Russian relationship had already begun to sour. Later, the Treasury Department accused Tillerson’s management team of violating sanctions as it tried to hold on to the partnership after the Crimea annexation in March 2014.[8] Speaking about the sanctions to ExxonMobil shareholders that year, Tillerson said explicitly that he did not support the targeted sanctions on Russia.[9]

Why “Collusion” is Jumping the Gun

We have to ignore allegations of collusion for now. The right kind of evidence simply isn’t there. For the Trump campaign to have risen to a level of collusion with the Russians, there would have to be evidence of bilateral discussions specifically about lifting the sanctions, a plan, and a distinct quid pro quo. No such evidence has yet emerged, although some of the meetings between Russian officials and the Trump Campaign may have approached a dangerous line. We can’t simply assume they were discussing sanctions because we don’t have the direct testimony of any participants, or recordings, or any written records of the meetings’ agendas. Having said that, there does appear to be plenty of evidence of the Trump Campaign’s intent to lift sanctions once in office, however.[10]

The bottom line is this: we can clearly establish that both the Trump Campaign and the Russians had strong vested interests in lifting the sanctions. But that doesn’t rise to the level of collusion.

From Vladimir Putin’s perspective, having the sanctions lifted would have been a huge win. Russia, one of the world’s largest oil producers, pumps out 10 million barrels per day, or about 10 percent of global supply. With older oil fields in decline, however, Russia is highly unlikely to be able to sustain current production without tapping new oilfields. What makes the situation worse is that Russia’s economy is heavily skewed toward the energy sector. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz) even referred to Russia as “a gas station masquerading as a country.”[11] That’s hyperbole, of course, but the facts remain: oil and gas revenues fund slightly more than half of Putin’s national budget, and still account for the bulk of the country’s total exports. Putin seeks to avert long-term decline in oil and gas production because of the repercussions it promises—and potential political instability. Putin desperately needs Western financing and expertise to drill in hard-to-access regions like Siberia and the Arctic. If he didn’t need help, the Russians would already have done it themselves.

Where do we go from here? The interests of both the Campaign and the Russians seem to have coincided. And this is where the story starts to get interesting. In the next article in the series, we’ll begin to look at the connections a number of individuals in the Trump Campaign had with Russia at an official level, beginning with Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page, who had extensive Russian contacts dating from before he joined the Campaign, and George Papadopoulos, whose connections to a mysterious Maltese Professor are shrouded in intrigue.


NOTES

[1] Brown, Elizabeth Nolan. “Democrats Cling to Collusion as Explanation for Clinton’s Loss in New Lawsuit against Russia, Hackers, and Trump Campaign: Reason Roundup.” Reason 23 April 2018. https://reason.com/blog/2018/04/23/democrats-cling-to-collusion-narrative. Retrieved April 23, 2018.

[2] Bell, Derrick A., Jr. “Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma.” Harvard Law Review 93 (3) (1980): 518–533.

[3] Erlanger, Steven, and Neil MacFarquhar. “EU Uneasy about Impact of New US Sanctions on Russia.” The New York Times 25 July 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/world/europe/eu-uneasy-about-impact-of-new-us-sanctions-on-russia.html. Retrieved April 22, 2018. Grossbongardt, Heinrich. “Russia Sanctions Stall Europe’s Business Aviation Market.” Aviation Week 5 May 2015. http://aviationweek.com/ebace-2015/russia-sanctions-stall-europes-business-aviation-market. Retrieved April 22, 2018. “EU Agrobusiness Suffers from Russian Embargo.” New Europe 22 June 2015 . https://www.neweurope.eu/article/eu-agro-business-suffers-from-russian-embargo/. Retrieved April 22, 2018.

[4] Rapoza, Kenneth. “Here’s What Exxon ‘Lost’ from Russian Sanctions.” Forbes 27 February 2015. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2015/02/27/heres-what-exxons-lost-from-russia-sanctions/. Retrieved April 22, 2018.

[5] Hans, Julian. “Putin’s Oil Power.” Rossiya Segodnya 20 August 2017. https://inosmi.ru/politic/20170820/240076873.html. (In Russian.) Retrieved April 22, 2018.

[6] Amon, Michael. “Sanctions prompt Exxon to exit Russian projects brokered by Tillerson.” The Wall Street Journal 1 March 2018. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/sanctions-prompt-exxon-to-exit-russian-projects-brokered-by-tillerson-2018-03-01. Retrieved April 23, 2018.

[7] Pager, Tyler. “Trump to look at recognizing Crimea as Russian territory, lifting sanctions.” Politico 27 July 2016. https://www.politico.com/story/2016/07/trump-crimea-sanctions-russia-226292. Retrieved April 23, 2018.

[8] Plumer, Brad. “Rex Tillerson’s potentially huge conflict of interest over Russia and oil, explained.” Vox 14 December 2016. https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2016/12/14/13940866/trump-rex-tillerson-sanctions-russia. Retrieved April 23, 2018.

[9] Bershidsky, Leonid. “Tillerson Refused to Do Another Russia Deal.” Bloomberg View 13 March 2018. https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-03-13/tillerson-refused-to-do-another-deal-with-russia. Retrieved April 25, 2018.

[10] Dilanian, Ken. “Former Diplomats: Trump Team Sought to Lift Sanctions on Russia.” NBCNews 1 June 2017. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/former-diplomats-trump-team-sought-lift-sanctions-russia-n767406. Retrieved April 23, 2018.

[11] “John McCain: Russia is a ‘Gas Station Masquerading as a Country.'” The Week 16 March 2014. http://theweek.com/speedreads/456437/john-mccain-russia-gas-station-masquerading-country. Retrieved April 24, 2018.

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