When Donald Trump and his global real estate company were making what appears to be a limited number of financial deals in the 2000s with Russians, the political atmospherics were much more permissive.
But what was done then with the encouragement of Washington is being judged harshly today as investigators still look for hints of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Any Trump associate who ever talked to a Russian is in danger of being subjected to an FBI interview. Any deal the Trump Organization may have made five or 10 years ago might be fodder for special counsel Robert Mueller and his large team of prosecutors.
During the 2000s and early 2010s, Washington and its liberal press corps seemed to bless everything Russia. The Obama administration openly urged entrepreneurs such as Mr. Trump to do business with Moscow.
“We are committed to broadening and deepening ties between our two economies,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Moscow with then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at her side in 2009.
Money did and would continue to flow from Russian-connected businessmen to the Clinton Foundation, Mrs. Clinton and former President Bill Clinton’s multibillion-dollar charity.
“A United States delegation made up of executives from the information technology companies recently visited Russia to explore joint private sector-led initiatives in education, e-government and other fields,” she said in the early days of President Obama’s tenure. “We’re increasing partnerships between Russian and American universities. And there are growing interactions between American and Russian people.”
What changed was Russian President Putin’s decision to invade Ukrainian territory in 2014 and then the Russian hacking of Democratic Party headquarters during the election campaign last year.
With Democrats and liberal activists leveling unsubstantiated claims that Trump people colluded with Russian intelligence, any deal Mr. Trump’s company did with a Russian years ago is now a target. The rules changed — retroactively.
Trump loyalists see the president being punished for doing exactly what Mrs. Clinton encouraged.
“Every president and secretary of state since the Cold War tried to improve relations with Russia,” said J.D. Gordon, a former Pentagon spokesman and national security adviser to the Trump campaign.
“Many Democrats, ‘Never Trump’ Republicans and the mainstream media have carried out thinly disguised character assassinations against Trump associates for any whiff or hint of contact with Russians in their past, no matter how routine or benign,” Mr. Gordon told The Washington Times.
Mr. Gordon knows firsthand. During the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, he had a chance encounter with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. He happened to meet the diplomat in a buffet line for hors d’oeuvres. They then joined others at a table and talked foreign affairs in what Mr. Gordon described as an innocuous encounter.
In March, as the probe into Trump-Russia connections intensified, Mr. Gordon received sensationalized media coverage that he had “met with” the now radioactive Mr. Kislyak. The negative coverage came despite the fact the Russian ambassador and 80 other diplomats were brought to Cleveland by the Obama State Department in a program called Global Partners in Diplomacy.
“The alleged high crimes and misdemeanors even include encountering the Russian ambassador at widely attended public events,” he said.
Mr. Gordon told The Times he knows of no collusion by Trump people in the Democratic Party hacking, or in any other coordination.
‘Russian plan for Russian interests’
Bloomberg News reported that Mr. Mueller has expanded his probe into just about any deal the Trump Organization did with a Russian, including the sale of condos a decade ago and the Trump-owned 2013 Miss Universe contest held near Moscow.
Mr. Trump negotiated the venue with Russian billionaire and fellow real estate magnate Aras Agalarov. The media buildup to the pageant found Mr. Trump praising Mr. Putin and Russia’s growing oligarch class.
Trump loyalists told The Times they do not believe Mr. Mueller has expanded his probe into the condo sales or into Miss Universe, which Mr. Trump sold shortly after the pageant.
At that point in 2013, Russian relations with Washington had begun to sour. Mr. Putin, who had resumed the presidency, was cracking down on dissent at home and aiding Syrian leader Bashar Assad in his desperate attempt to hold power in a bloody civil war.
Still, then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry said he told Mr. Putin: “The United States believes that we share some very significant common interests with respect to Syria.”
In fact, Mr. Kerry accepted a deal proposed by Mr. Putin: let the United Nations remove all of Mr. Assad’s chemical weapons and components. The Obama administration had been set to launch airstrikes to punish Mr. Assad’s military, but then took the deal and called them off.
Republicans did not like Mr. Kerry’s coziness with Mr. Putin then, just as Democrats criticize Mr. Trump’s outreach to the autocratic leader now.
“This is a Russian plan for Russian interests,” Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who then led the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told CNN. “They got exactly what they wanted: Assad here for a year at least, and not one ounce of chemical weapons came off the battlefield, but we have given up a lot of leverage. … Putin is playing chess and we’re playing tic-tac-toe.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee, has mentioned a number of Trump-Russia contacts as “circumstantial” evidence of collusion.
In May 2013 he said: “I don’t know if I trust the Russians, but this agreement is a very positive step. It’s been ugly getting here. If your goal is to use military force, it’s a bad deal, but if your goal is to stop the use of chemical weapons, this is about as good a deal as you are going to get.”
Mr. Gordon, the Trump campaign’s national security adviser, thought he was doing basic outreach in Cleveland when he attended a Global Partners in Diplomacy reception at a law firm.
“We ate chicken satays for a few minutes while standing at a small circular table among a couple other ambassadors and Carter Page,” he said. “I said we ought to have better relations with Russia, increased cooperation on counterterrorism against radical Islamic terror networks and should have never had the Boston Marathon attack. That was it.”
(The Russian intelligence service FSB warned the FBI twice about marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, but the bureau failed to question him when he returned from Russia, where it is thought he was further radicalized.)
Mr. Page is another Trump associate who believes he has been unfairly caught up and targeted by Democrats by the new rules that say, in retrospect, you cannot talk to the Russians.
Mr. Page, a former Navy officer and energy investor, lived in Moscow as a Merrill Lynch banker and has invested in Russian firms. His business contacts seemed normal until he volunteered for the Trump campaign as a surrogate and traveled to Moscow to give a speech at the New Economic School.
Mr. Obama spoke at the same school his first year in office, declaring, “Let me be clear: America wants a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia.”
A Democratic-financed dossier built on Kremlin sources and handed out in Washington accused Mr. Carter of colluding with two Kremlin-connected men in Moscow. Mr. Page said he does not know them. It further said he coordinated the Russian hacking. He said he had no knowledge until stories appeared last June.
A trip that would have been normal Russian-American interaction, the type encouraged by Mrs. Clinton as secretary of state, became Mr. Carter’s nightmare.
“People are still missing the big factor,” Mr. Carter told The Times. “This is regarding their complete foreign policy and domestic policy failures that precipitated last year’s events and, secondly, the arrogant, unconstitutional moves made by Clinton-Obama-[former FBI Director James B.] Comey operatives despite the fact that they were unsuccessful as usual. This represented the real illegal influence on the 2016 election.”