Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador had meetings with top officials of the Trump Administration before the U.S. elections last November. What did the officials talk about with the ambassador? Is it standard procedure for political campaigns to engage with foreign government representatives?
Lessons could be learned from the Secret War Council's activities during World War I in the United States. The German government through its ambassador Count Bernstorff wanted to learn about attitudes of American politicians with respect to Germany, the German U-boat war, the peace movement, and the like. One of Bernstorff's goals was to find opposition to the Wilson administration which in effect could counteract American trade policies clearly favoring Germany's enemies. Wilson allowed American banks to extend huge loans to England and France through J.P. Morgan. One of the people who Bernstorff courted was Wilson's Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who strongly opposed these loans. He feared they would eventually pull the U.S. into the war, which indeed happened in 1917. Bernstorff also had close contacts with leaders of the labor movement, which were divided about arms and munitions sales to Germany's enemies. German-American lawmakers in Congress as well as senators and representatives with large German-American constituencies were on Bernstorff's short list for influence. So, are contacts between foreign governments, even if they are hostile, to American lawmakers normal? With respect to exchange of views and social interaction yes.
However, the German war strategy in the United States did not only involve the well-known and well-liked ambassador Bernstorff. Immediately at the onset of the war in August and September 1914, the German government sent a group of agents to New York to run the pro-German propaganda campaign, raise funds for cornering strategic industries, such as smokeless power (for munitions manufacturing), and chemicals needed for explosives. The German military ordered these German agents in 1915 to conduct sabotage operations against American factories, ships that transported munitions to the Allies, and logistics installations. This sabotage campaign caused tremendous damage to U.S. industries and Allied customers. German agents produced labor strikes in the rust belt so large, that only the implementation of a 40-hour work week quelled them. German agents also caused widespread violence along the Mexican-American border, culminating in Pancho Villa's attack on Columbus, New Mexico in March 1916. By the summer of 1916, literally the entire U.S. army and reserves were in Mexico or at the border to provide security and capture the Mexicans who had attacked the U.S.
What is important about these clandestine operations is that the German ambassador was widely suspected to have been in charge. He was not. In fact, he strongly opposed the sabotage campaign and other acts of war Germany was committing. We know today, that the German government used the Secret War Council in New York to run these missions. The ambassador knew about some of the operations but purposely tried to maintain plausible deniability.
Using the German example from World War I, it is likely that in the case of Russian election interference in 2016 Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, is not the person to look for. It is not likely that Russia used its ambassador for any more than information gathering, mingling with the political players of both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. Just like Bernstorff in 1915 and 16, Kislyak operates under the diplomatic mantra of plausible denial. The real agents are here in the United States but run under a different command and control structure. When Obama expelled a group of 35 agents and confiscated two Russian properties, he likely took out the modern Secret War Council. It is this group of agents, who conducted the election interference, hacking operations, and other yet unknown operations to throw the American political system into chaos. Any contact between them and members of the Trump campaign would be a completely different issue. Should these agents have found ways to synchronize leaks and misinformation with efforts of the Trump campaign to defeat the Clinton campaign, the Espionage Act of 1917, specifically instituted to combat German clandestine agents, would apply to anyone involved, including members of the Trump campaign.
Since the World War I example is especially fitting because German operations happened in a country officially at peace with the United States, the history of German clandestine operations in the United States between 1914 and 1916 might be especially instructive.