As the White House becomes further engulfed in the Russian collusion scandal, Moscow issues a brazen demand that its two "spy compounds" in the U.S. be returned. And the White House is likely to go along with it.
The Russian government has picked a strange time to start issuing ultimatums to the United States.
But that’s what Moscow has done in recent days, demanding that control of two large, Russian-owned compounds in the United States be returned to the Russian government immediately, and that no conditions be attached to their return.
The fenced-off estates, one in Maryland and one in rural New York, are often referred to as “spy compounds.” They were closed by President Barack Obama last December in retaliation for the Russian government’s interference in U.S. elections. The U.S. also expelled 35 Russian diplomats. The action was announced just days before the U.S. intelligence community issued a report accusing Russia of interfering in last year’s election and specifically trying to help Trump get elected.
Now, despite an avalanche of additional information that has deeply implicated the Russian government in its attempt to get Donald Trump elected last year, Moscow is demanding the secluded, Russian-run retreats be returned — or else.
Compound negotiations were scheduled to resume Monday in Washington, D.C., and early indications are that the White House is likely to go along with it.
The question is why.
The timing over Russia’s recent demands is certainly curious. Days after Donald Trump Jr. was forced to confess that he met with a Kremlin-connected attorney in search of dirt on Hillary Clinton last year, the Russian government moved to aggressively up its demand regarding the return of its U.S. compounds.
In a normal political environment, wouldn’t a contrite Russian government have the opposite response?
As Matthew Yglesias at Vox recently noted, the White House’s constant misinformation about its contacts with Russians last year clearly creates opportunities for foul play:
Unlike the public, the media, the Congress, the FBI, or the special counsel’s office, Russian intelligence services know exactly what went down between their government and the Trump campaign. Their knowledge of the facts, paired with Trumpworld’s relentless dishonesty and the high consequences of seeing that dishonesty revealed, means a potentially large swath of Trump’s inner circle has been (and may still be) exposed to blackmail.
The fear of Russians blackmailing senior members of the Trump administration is not a new one.
Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates had to warn the White House back in January that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn could have been "blackmailed" by Russia after Flynn publicly lied about his previous interactions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
The Department of Justice knew Flynn was lying and so did the Russians, which “created a compromise situation, where the national security advisor essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians,” according to Yates.
"To state the obvious," Yates added, "you don’t want your national security adviser compromised by the Russians.”
As for the Russian compounds, there’s not even a debate about their previous purpose.
During a congressional hearing in June, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson conceded that Russians had used the retreats for often-nefarious reasons. “We’ve been pretty clear to them: ‘We know what you were doing there [and] we’re not going to allow you to continue to do that,’” he testified.
All of which makes the idea of returning the estates to Russia, under the current political environment, completely and utterly baffling.
“It sends a message that we’re going to let Russia get away with it,” according to Lisa Sawyer Samp at the International Security Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, who testified before the Armed Services Committee last week. “It’s absolutely the wrong signal to be sending at the worst possible time. “
So why would Trump be so anxious to send that signal? That's a question reporters would probably like to ask him — if he bothers to hold a press conference ever again.