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Can new appointees fix Trump's Russia problem?

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White House vulnerable after another undocumented meeting is revealed

The investigation into Russia's involvement in the 2016 election almost certainly has not claimed its last Washington scalp.

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have recused himself from any official investigations into the topic, but his position still looks vulnerable.

Within minutes of Mr Sessions concluding his Thursday press conference, the New York Times published an account of another previously undocumented meeting between Russian officials and Mr Donald Trump's son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner.

The truth behind the allegations, innuendo and rumour is less important than the problems they are causing.

Within the White House, there is clearly concern. And, it seems, something of a change in both personnel and tone.

The Trump administration picked Ms Fiona Hill, former National Intelligence Officer for Russia under the George W. Bush administration, as their point person on Russia.

Author of a hard-hitting biography on Mr Vladimir Putin that focused heavily on his background as a former intelligence operative, she is one of the brightest and most no-nonsense regional specialists around.

Within her field, she is at least as respected as new National Security Adviser, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, also brought in by Mr Trump after Mr Mike Flynn's resignation.

While Mr Flynn was seen as uncomfortably close to Moscow, the new arrivals are likely to recommend a tougher stance.

Their positions are similar to former US Marine and Defence Secretary James Mattis, who made a point of reassuring allies in Europe that he, too, favoured a strong approach towards Putin.

These appointments suggest that the Trump administration could take a different stance towards Russia than that which many expected. At the very least, they provide a counterbalance to the White House's escalating Russia problem.

It's hard to see how Mr Sessions can survive for long.

During his confirmation hearing, Mr Sessions was asked what he would do if he learned of evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign had communicated with representatives from Moscow during the 2016 campaign.

He replied: "I did not have communications with the Russians" during that time.

According to Justice Department officials, we now know that he spoke twice with Mr Sergei Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the US.

Mr Sessions said he believed he was answering a question specifically on whether he met with Russians as an emissary of the Trump campaign, something he denies.

If recent reporting in the New York Times is correct, the fact that Mr Sessions - like Mr Flynn before him - has been caught out so quickly is no coincidence.

According to the paper, members of the Obama administration went to considerable lengths to document contacts between Russian officials and those close to Mr Trump.

Russia almost certainly has intelligence operatives in the US and elsewhere that have so far eluded Washington's intelligence community.

But Washington had been keeping close tabs on Mr Kislyak, as well as documenting a range of contacts between those around Mr Trump and Russian officials, as well as others linked to the Kremlin.

Much of this material remains classified, but the Times' reporting suggests many are able to access it.

Mr Trump has already expressed outrage at current and former officials sharing classified information. But more leaks are inevitable. And in attempting to distance themselves from Russia, it is possible that others close to Mr Trump will be caught out by untruths.

The irony is that all of this is still unlikely to produce the kind of "smoking gun" evidence that Mr Trump's enemies so clearly wish existed, proof that the president conspired with Mr Putin or others in Moscow to win the election.

If such information truly existed - for example, in the form of intercepted e-mails, telephone calls or other communications - then the Obama administration would probably have found and revealed it.

Those who really know what has happened may be increasingly unlikely to talk.

Over the last four months, at least six Russian diplomats have turned up dead around the world, sometimes in unclear circumstances.

So did a former Russian spy chief linked to the dossier produced by a former British intelligence official who made salacious - but still unproven - allegations about Mr Trump.

What almost certainly does exist is a chain of suspicious-looking meetings, which doesn't in itself prove anything.

If Mr Sessions falls, then former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort - who conducted business in Russia for years - may be the next target.

Anything that happens to him will damage the president. But Mr Manafort has no current government role, so he cannot be forced to resign.

He could be prosecuted should he be found to have committed some kind of criminal activity.

Finding proof of wrongdoing - let alone proof of wrongdoing linked to the election and Mr Trump - is a very different matter.

The problem is that all this sound and fury makes any kind of reasonable diplomacy that much harder.

It seems increasingly likely that relations with Russia may define the Trump era. But we have less idea than ever what that might ultimately mean.

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. This commentary was published by Reuters on March 3.

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