Did the Trump campaign collude with Vladimir Putin to win the 2016 election? Maybe. We await Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s next move to learn more about that. But in the meantime, why aren’t more members of Congress or the media discussing the Trump transition team’s pretty brazen collusion with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to undermine both U.S. government policy and international law? Shouldn’t that be treated as a major scandal?
Thanks to Mueller’s ongoing investigation, we now know that prior to President Donald Trump’s inauguration, members of his inner circle went to bat on behalf of Israel, and specifically on behalf of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, behind the scenes and in opposition to official U.S. foreign policy. That’s the kind of collusion with a foreign state that has gotten a lot of attention with respect to the Kremlin – but colluding with Israel seems to be of far less interest, strangely.
It’s the kind of collusion with a foreign state that has gotten a lot of attention with respect to the Kremlin — but colluding with Israel seems to be of far less interest, strangely.
Here’s what we learned last week when Mueller’s team unveiled its plea deal with Trump’s former national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn. In December 2016, the United Nations Security Council was debating a draft resolution that condemned Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied territories as a “flagrant violation under international law” that was “dangerously imperiling the viability” of an independent Palestinian state.
The Obama administration had made it clear that the U.S. was planning to abstain on the resolution, while noting that “the settlements have no legal validity” and observing how “the settlement problem has gotten so much worse that it is now putting at risk the … two-state solution.” (Rhetorically, at least, U.S. opposition to Israeli settlements has been a long-standing and bipartisan position for decades: Ronald Reagan called for “a real settlement freeze” in 1982 while George H.W. Bush tried to curb Israeli settlement-building plans by briefly cutting off U.S. loan guarantees to the Jewish state in 1991.)
So what did members of the Trump team do, as they listened to loud objections to the U.N. resolution from the Netanyahu government while counting down the days till Trump’s inauguration in January 2017?
“On or about December 22, 2016, a very senior member of the Presidential Transition Team directed Flynn to contact officials from foreign governments, including Russia, to learn where each government stood on the resolution and to influence those governments to delay the vote or defeat the resolution,” reads the statement of offense against Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. “On or about December 22, 2016, Flynn contacted the Russian Ambassador about the pending vote. Flynn informed the Russian Ambassador about the incoming administration’s opposition to the resolution, and requested that Russia vote against or delay the resolution.”
Who was the “very senior member” of the transition team who “directed” Flynn to do all this? Multiple news outlets have confirmed that it was Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and main point man on the Middle East peace process. “Jared called Flynn and told him you need to get on the phone to every member of the Security Council and tell them to delay the vote,” a Trump transition official revealed to BuzzFeed News on Friday, adding that Kushner told Flynn “this was a top priority for the president.”
According to BuzzFeed, “After hanging up, Flynn told the entire room [at the Trump transition team HQ] that they’d have to start pushing to lobby against the U.N. vote, saying ‘the president wants this done ASAP.’” Flynn’s guilty plea, BuzzFeed continued, revealed “for the first time how Trump transition officials solicited Russia’s help to head off the UN vote and undermine the Obama administration’s policy on Middle East peace before ever setting foot in the White House.”
None of this has been contested. In fact, on Sunday, Kushner made a rare public appearance at the Saban Forum in Washington, D.C., to discuss the Trump administration’s plans for the Middle East and was welcomed by the forum’s sponsor, the Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban, who said he “personally wanted to thank” Kushner for “taking steps to try and get the United Nations Security Council to not go along with what ended up being an abstention by the U.S.” Kushner’s response? The first son-in-law smiled, nodded, and mouthed “thank you” to Saban.
Meanwhile, the Israelis have been pretty forthcoming about their own role in all of this, too. On Monday, Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. and a close friend and ally of Netanyahu, told Politico’s Susan Glasser that, in December 2016, “obviously we reached out to [the Trump transition team] in the hope that they would help us,” and “we were hopeful that they would speak” to other governments “in order to prevent this vote from happening.”
The Trump transition team reached out to the Russian government in order to undermine the U.S. government because the Israeli government asked them to.
Got that? The Trump transition team — in the form of key Trump advisers Kushner and Flynn — reached out to the Russian government in order to undermine the U.S. government because the Israeli government asked them to.
Where’s the outrage? How is the sheer “scope and audacity” of the Trump-Netanyahu backchannels — to quote one U.S. official who spoke to me on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on this issue — not a bigger story? For a start, as University of Chicago law professors Daniel Hemel and Eric Posner argued in a New York Times op-ed on Monday, the much-mocked Logan Act of 1799 remains “a serious criminal statute that bars citizens from undermining the foreign policy actions of the sitting president.” These two legal scholars point out that “if Mr. Flynn violated the Logan Act, then so did the ‘very senior’ official who directed his actions. If that official is Mr. Kushner, then Mr. Kushner could go to jail.”
Then there is the issue of Middle East policy itself. It wasn’t outsourced to the Israelis by Trump and Co. only during the transition or only over settlements. The outsourcing has continued in office. Tomorrow, Trump is expected to announce that the United States will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — another key Israeli demand that every single previous president, Republican and Democrat, has resisted. The decision on Jerusalem is so contentious that it both undermines any chance of reviving the peace process and threatens to cost lives — not just those of Israelis and Palestinians, but of Americans too.
What was it that James Mattis, secretary of defense and former head of U.S. Central Command, said back in 2013 at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado? He pointed out that the chances of a two-state solution were “starting to ebb because of the settlements,” before adding: “I paid a military security price every day as a commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.”
Until Mueller issues his final report, we can all agree to disagree on whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. For now, however, what we do know for sure and what seems beyond doubt is that Flynn and Kushner colluded with Netanyahu and Dermer, on behalf of Trump, to make America not great again, but much less secure.
Don’t take my word for it. Take the word of Trump’s own defense secretary.