Russia has become the slow burn of President Donald Trump's Administration. It is the issue that he and his team cannot get beyond.
They cannot get beyond it because they are skittish about accepting what is already known. They cannot get beyond it because they have not been as forthcoming as they could be about what they did. And they cannot get beyond it because they don't know what they don't know.
It's important to remember that much isn't yet known about the whole controversy, particularly the contacts between Trump campaign officials or advisers and the Russians. That there were contacts is not in dispute. Some appear routine, but the circumstances and the content of all those contacts is far from fully known.
The overarching issue is the attempt by a foreign government to disrupt a US election. Just as important is answering the question of whether there was any collusion or cooperation between the Trump campaign and the Russians in attempting to undermine Clinton's campaign.
Ambassadors routinely meet elected US officials. They are especially keen to learn as much as they can about someone who could become president and about the people around the candidate. Attorney-General Jeff Sessions' meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last September easily falls into that category. Meetings between Kislyak and retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner could be seen in that way as well.
But Flynn was never forthcoming about his conversations until revelations by the Post, and he was forced to resign after misleading Vice-President Mike Pence. Just as Sessions was unwilling to volunteer his contacts with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearings, the Administration has rarely volunteered who met with whom and what was discussed. That's fed suspicions.
The President could begin by ordering an internal investigation, led by someone not now in the Administration, of all those contacts. The Administration's credibility on all this, however, has been weakened because, as one Republican put it, "They keep fanning those flames by denying it so vociferously." That means any such public report would be viewed with some scepticism, but at a minimum it would provide an inventory that doesn't exist and the appearance of cooperation.
One vulnerability for the President is his own posture during the campaign of embracing policies that were in Russia's interests and his positive comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin which raised questions about his motivations and possible business links with Russia.
As much as Trump would like to wish all this away, he can't. The reality is that the investigations are at an early stage. Congress hasn't even begun to call witnesses. The prospect of a special prosecutor looms.
This, with healthcare and tax policy and other initiatives, is now part of Trump's first-year agenda. The President needs a new strategy, one that treats the Russia issue as the serious problem that it is.Washington Post