A child walks past a graffiti depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on the walls of a bar in the old town in Vilnius, Lithuania, May 14, 2016.
Photo by Mindaugas Kulbis/AP

Russian official claims pre-election contacts with Trump camp

We may never know for sure how significant a role FBI Director James Comey played in electing Donald Trump to the presidency, but it’s hard dismiss his role altogether. As early voting was underway across much of the country, Comey, a Republican appointed by President Obama, issued a highly damaging letter about Hillary Clinton, raising fresh email allegations – which soon after proved to be baseless.

There’s ample data that showed the story dramatically undercutting Clinton’s advantage at a critical moment, also damaging Democratic hopes of additional congressional gains.

Compounding the problem, however, was the fact that the FBI concluded that Russia was intervening in the American presidential election, taking unprecedented steps to boost Donald Trump’s candidacy, but Comey didn’t want to share this with the public – because he said it was too close to the election to  share the findings.

Of course, now that the election is over, and Russia’s favorite candidate prevailed, there’s apparently no point in hiding Team Trump’s relationship with Moscow. Bloomberg Politics reported this morning:
Russia said it was in contact with President-elect Donald Trump’s team during the U.S. election campaign, despite repeated denials by the Republican candidate’s advisers that any links existed.

“There were contacts” before the election, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Thursday, according to the Interfax news service. “We continue this work of course,” he said, without giving details of what the contacts were.
The same report added that Russia’s Foreign Ministry requested meetings with Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which refused to have pre-election discussions, but members of Trump’s campaign accepted meetings with Russian officials.

As the Washington Post added, Ryabkov also told Russia’s state-run news agency that “quite a few” members of Trump’s team “have been staying in touch with Russian representatives” ahead of the American election.

Mr. Comey, if you’re reading this, it seems like the kind of detail U.S. voters probably should’ve known before casting their ballots.

Keep in mind, there are at least two angles to a controversy like this one. The first is that Trump, who has a nasty habit of dishonesty, denied during the campaign that his team was in contact with Russian officials. According to Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, the president-elect’s denials weren’t true.

The second is that the alleged behind-the-scenes contacts between Moscow and an American presidential campaign raise all kinds of questions about what, if anything, Trump’s team may have promised Russian officials while Russia apparently took steps to undermine Trump’s political opponent.

We may be looking at the first scandal of the Trump/Pence administration.

Postscript: While I suspect Republicans will try to downplay the significance of developments like these, consider a hypothetical. Imagine it’s 2008, and Putin’s government, worried about John McCain’s saber-rattling, takes steps to steal McCain campaign documents to boost Barack Obama. Then we learn that members of Obama’s team were having back-channel discussions with Russian officials, even while the Democrat denied the existence of these meetings.

Do you suppose a story like that would be a big deal?