Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C.
Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

New questions surround Team Trump’s pre-election talks with Russia

Updated
We learned this week that Donald Trump’s former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, was in communications with Vladimir Putin’s government during the 2016 presidential election, while Russia was in the midst of an illegal espionage operation to help hand Trump the presidency.

The Rachel Maddow Show, 2/14/17, 9:24 PM ET

NYT: Trump camp and Russian intel officials in repeated contact

Rachel Maddow relays breaking news from the New York Times that U.S. officials say Donald Trump campaign aides had repeated contact with Russian intelligence officials, though evidence of collusion has not yet been found.
The New York Times published a report last night noting that Flynn wasn’t the only one.
Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.

American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said. The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.
CNN had a related report this morning, noting that “high-level advisers” close to Trump were in “constant communication” with Russian officials during the American election season. Investigators, the CNN report added, were struck by “the frequency and the level of the Trump advisers involved.”

It’s worth emphasizing that the Times’ reporting added that U.S. investigators have found “no evidence” of cooperation between the Republican campaign and Moscow, at least not yet.

And for Trump allies and much of the right, that effectively ends the conversation. Russia may have been trying to intervene on Trump’s behalf during the campaign, the argument goes, and Trump’s aides may have been talking to Russian officials at the time, but so long as Republicans weren’t actively colluding with Putin’s agents, the importance of the communications is limited.

But while this calculus may make Trump World feel better, it overlooks a key detail.

When reports first surfaced that Russia was in talks with Team Trump during Russia’s election crimes, the response from Trump’s transition team was categorical: those communications simply did not happen. Even after Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov acknowledged that “there were contacts” between the Russian government and Trump’s campaign team ahead of Nov. 8, Team Trump kept insisting otherwise.

As regular readers know, Trump and his aides left no wiggle room on the subject. Kellyanne Conway, asked about the possibility of these communications between the Republican campaign and Putin’s government, said, “Absolutely not.” She added the conversations “never happened” and any suggestions to the contrary “undermine our democracy.”

She wasn’t alone. At a pre-inaugural press conference, the president himself said no one from the Trump campaign was in contact with Putin’s government during the campaign. Asked if there were pre-election contacts between his ticket and Russia, Vice President Mike Pence said, “Of course not.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer also denied the communications.

And yet, here we are. The question of collusion is obviously important and in need of an answer, but we’re confronted with an even more basic controversy: as evidence emerges that the Trump campaign talked to Putin’s government while Russia intervened in the American election, why did Team Trump repeatedly fail to tell the public the truth?

Donald Trump, Russia, Scandals and White House

New questions surround Team Trump's pre-election talks with Russia

Updated