Plausible Explanations

Here is a brief list of some key facts that need to be explained regarding Trump's relationship with Russia, followed by links to essays offering different possible explanations. We quote short excerpts from each essay.

These facts demand an explanation because individually and collectively they are very unusual. They each seem to reflect a unique relationship between Trump, his campaign and administration, and the Russian government. No other American president has had a relationship involving that kind of contact with a foreign government or that kind of active support of a foreign government's interests.

Below are links to essays considering a range of different explanations. These are for the most part "big picture" explanations which attempt to account for the whole pattern of unusual behavior. For each of the stories individually there are no doubt dozens of other explanations which plausibly account for that one story on its own. But the number of explanations which could potentially fit all of the facts considered together is limited.

Several of these explanations date to before the reporting of some of the major stories above, and don't attempt to account for those facts which were revealed after their publication. It is left to the reader to weigh how the proposed explanations here fit with all of the facts above as they are now known.

The first links include the statements offered by the subjects of the investigation, themselves.

READ: Jared Kushner's statement on Russia to congressional committees at CNN (July 24, 2017)

When I got there, the person who has since been identified as a Russian attorney was talking about the issue of a ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children. I had no idea why that topic was being raised and quickly determined that my time was not well-spent at this meeting.[...] I had not met the attorney before the meeting nor spoken with her since.
I believed developing a thoughtful approach on Syria was a very high priority given the ongoing humanitarian crisis, and I asked if they had an existing communications channel at his embassy we could use where they would be comfortable transmitting the information they wanted to relay to General Flynn. The Ambassador said that would not be possible and so we all agreed that we would receive this information after the Inauguration.
The record and documents I am providing will show that I had perhaps four contacts with Russian representatives out of thousands during the campaign and transition, none of which were impactful in any way to the election or particularly memorable.

One year into the FBI's Russia investigation, Mueller is on the Trump money trail by Evan Perez, Pamela Brown and Shimon Prokupecz at CNN (Aug. 3, 2017)

Trump has denied any collusion and maintains that his business empire has "no involvement with Russia" and that he has "no loans, no nothing" from Russia. His lawyers have detailed a few exceptions, including the Miss Universe pageant he held in Moscow [in 2013] and the Florida mansion he sold to a Russian oligarch in 2008. 
In response to questions about CNN's reporting, [Paul Manafort's] spokesman, Jason Maloni, says it "is becoming increasingly apparent that there was no collusion between the campaign and the Russian government."
Flynn's lawyers have criticized media reports about his connection to the Russia investigation as peddling "unfounded allegations" and "outrageous claims."
Page denies working with any Russians as part of the Kremlin's election meddling, though he admits interacting with some Russians during the campaign.

Stone denies collusion and says his conversations with Guccifer 2.0, which he since posted online, were innocuous.

Seven Theories of the Case: What Do We Really Know about L’Affaire Russe and What Could it All Mean? By Jane Chong, Quinta Jurecic, Benjamin Wittes at Lawfare (May 1, 2017)

As a general matter, we avoid predicting which of these theories is most likely to be the true. We will say, however, that the two most extreme theories we lay out—everything as giant coincidence (Theory #1) and Trump himself as a Russian agent (Theory #7)—seem to us highly improbable. That leaves us with a number of intermediate alternatives that are by no means mutually exclusive and that might operate in conjunction with one another.

The Innocent Explanation, Part #1 by Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo (March 3, 2017)

If Trump is significantly dependent on capital out of Russia, those sanctions are going to put a crimp on all his ventures. It won’t be fatal. But it will hurt – potentially a lot. They’re also bad for a lot of people he works with and likes and needs. That also means they’re bad. Remember, what is good for Donald Trump is right and vice versa. The sanctions regime is bad for Donald Trump. It’s bad for his friends. Ergo the sanctions regime is bad. We should also remember that by 2015 Trump had spent 10 to 15 years working in the company of people like Felix Sater, Tevfik Arif, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort. They are all from or invested in or implicated in that world. They think a certain way and he does too.
It’s not clear these broad outlines require anything illegal or any one thing beyond putting personal financial interest above the national interest.

Obama’s CIA chief just offered a Trump-Russia quote for the ages by Yochi Dreazen reporting on the testimony of John Brennan at Vox (May 23, 2017)

"His overall point was something damning in a different way: Trump aides were in regular contact with Russia and never stopped to ask themselves whom they were actually working with or why Russians would be taking so strong and direct an interest in an American presidential election.

“I know what the Russians try to do. They try to suborn individuals and try to get individuals, including US individuals, to act on their behalf, wittingly or unwittingly,” he told the panel. “I had unresolved questions in my mind as to whether or not the Russians had been successful in getting US persons involved in the campaign or not to work on their behalf.”

Trump Jr.’s Russia meeting sure sounds like a Russian intelligence operation by Rolf Mowatt-Larssen at the Washington Post (July 14, 2017)

But everything we know about the meeting — from whom it involved to how it was set up to how it unfolded — is in line with what intelligence analysts would expect an overture in a Russian influence operation to look like. It bears all the hallmarks of a professionally planned, carefully orchestrated intelligence soft pitch designed to gauge receptivity, while leaving room for plausible deniability in case the approach is rejected. And the Trump campaign’s willingness to take the meeting — and, more important, its failure to report the episode to U.S. authorities — may have been exactly the green light Russia was looking for to launch a more aggressive phase of intervention in the U.S. election.

An ex-CIA officer: the Trump Jr. meeting shows how the Russians exploit intelligence targets by Sean Illing interviewing Glenn Carle at Vox (Jul 14, 2017)

If you're an intelligence agency or officer, you never walk up to somebody that you want to recruit or influence and tell them directly that you want to recruit or influence them. You act upon them indirectly, whether they’re witting or unwitting or complicit — and all of those things are slightly different. But in any case, you always have a cover story — always. And you always act in a way that can be masked.
It also seems certain that Trump is uncontrollable and would not ever consider himself a spy, but many spies don't consider themselves spies and often don't even know that they're spies. And intelligence services couldn’t care less about that.

What matters to them is exploiting people, and that is what is happening here.

Oh, Wait. Maybe It Was Collusion. By John Sipher and Steve Hall at the New York Times (Aug. 2, 2017)

The goal of the Russian spy game is to nudge a person to step over the line into an increasingly conspiratorial relationship. First, for a Russian intelligence recruitment operation to work, they would have had some sense that Donald Trump Jr. was a promising target. Next, as the Russians often do, they made a “soft” approach, setting the bait for their target via the June email sent by Rob Goldstone, a British publicist, on behalf of a Russian pop star, Emin Agalarov.

They then employed a cover story — adoptions — to make it believable to the outside world that there was nothing amiss with the proposed meetings. They bolstered this idea by using cutouts, nonofficial Russians, for the actual meeting, enabling the Trump team to claim — truthfully — that there were no Russian government employees at the meeting and that it was just former business contacts of the Trump empire who were present. When the Trump associates failed to do the right thing by informing the F.B.I., the Russians probably understood that they could take the next step toward a more conspiratorial relationship. 

We’re Back to Manafort by Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo (Aug. 4th, 2017)

But this was literally Manafort’s world. Not just working in and around spies for years but for more than a decade doing so in the lands of the former Soviet Union. It is simply not possible that the nature of what was happening and what was being discussed wasn’t immediately clear to Manafort.

And yet, so far as we know, he made no effort to cut the meeting short or the larger line of communication off. There was no note to file written to protect himself or the campaign later. And we appear to know to close to a certainty that he made no effort to contact US intelligence authorities or the Secret Service or even notify the campaign’s own lawyers of what was happening.

Again, this should have been completely obvious to me from the start. I’m not sure why it wasn’t. But Manafort is really the key person in the meeting.