Almost immediately after the 2016 election, Americans learned of communications between Russian officials and Donald Trump’s political operation well ahead of Election Day. Republicans were categorical in their denials, but high-ranking officials in Moscow made no effort to hide the interactions – and the Kremlin had no incentive to lie about this.
Two years later, the ambiguity has evaporated. There’s no longer any question about whether Team Trump had contacts with Vladimir Putin’s government during Russia’s attack on our elections; the question is just how many members of Team Trump interacted with Moscow during the foreign intelligence operation. The Washington Post reported over the weekend:
Again and again and again, over the course of Donald Trump’s 18-month campaign for the presidency, Russian citizens made contact with his closest family members and friends, as well as figures on the periphery of his orbit.
Some offered to help his campaign and his real estate business. Some offered dirt on his Democratic opponent. Repeatedly, Russian nationals suggested Trump should hold a peacemaking sit-down with Vladimir Putin – and offered to broker such a summit.
In all, Russians interacted with at least 14 Trump associates during the campaign and presidential transition, public records and interviews show.
Michael McFaul, who served as ambassador to Russia under President Obama, told the Post. “Both the number of contacts and the nature of the contacts are extraordinary.”
That’s true, of course, but it’s only part of the problem. The communications between the Republican operation and Russia during the Kremlin’s attack obviously appears damaging to Trump World, but making matters far worse is the frequency with which the president and top members of his team lied about those interactions.
This is especially relevant now in light of Friday’s revelations involving Michael Cohen, but let’s not overlook the fact that the list of Team Trump members who denied the communications with Russia is nearly as long as the list of Team Trump members who interacted with Russia.
* At a pre-inaugural press conference, Donald Trump himself said no one from his team was in contact with Russians during the campaign.
* Kellyanne Conway, asked about the possibility of communications between the Republican campaign and Russians, said, “Absolutely not.” She added the conversations “never happened” and any suggestions to the contrary “undermine our democracy.”
* On the same issue, Hope Hicks said, “There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.”
* Sarah Huckabee Sanders added, “This is a non-story because, to the best of our knowledge, no contacts took place.”
* Reince Priebus said last year, “Of course, we didn’t interface with the Russians.”
What’s more, as regular readers may recall, there’s ample reason to believe various officials in the Trump campaign knew about the Russian contacts, even while the president and his team denied that the communications were happening.
To be sure, I understand the rationale behind the lying. Russia’s military intelligence operation targeting our elections was a serious attack against the United States, which was launched in order to put Trump in power. If Trump’s team was in communication with our attackers during the attack, it would look awful for the Republican president and those around him, so they denied the interactions.
But those denials weren’t true. As complex as the broader scandal may seem at times, this is a foundational element: We know that Trump World did communicate with Russia during the Kremlin’s attack, just as we also know that Trump World lied about it.
* Update: Thanks to the alert readers who flagged the Priebus quote, which I added after this post was originally published.