Donald Trump speaks during the USA Thank You Tour December 9, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 
DON EMMERT/GETTY

Trump struggles to give a straight answer on Russia scandal

Last summer, when Republican officials were putting together the party platform, Donald Trump and his campaign team were completely indifferent towards the document and the process – with one notable exception.

The only thing Team Trump quietly pushed was a subtle change to make the Republican platform more in line with Russia’s foreign policy preferences. One GOP congressman was quoted saying soon after that the “most under-covered story” of the Republican convention” was Team Trump’s efforts to change the party platform to be more pro-Putin.

About a month later, ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos asked the then-candidate about this. “I wasn’t involved in that,” Trump said. “Honestly, I was not involved.” Told that members of his team were responsible for pushing the platform in a direction Russia wanted, Trump added, “Yeah. I was not involved in that.”

It was an awkward moment, but it was also oddly clarifying. In Trump’s mind, if he wasn’t personally involved in doing Moscow’s bidding, that effectively ended the conversation. His aides, staffers, and associates may have done all sorts of things, but like Reagan during the Iran-Contra affair, Trump remained “out of the loop” – blissfully ignorant of what was going on around him.

This came to mind yesterday when the president was asked about the latest developments in Trump’s Russia scandal. A reporter asked, “Can you say definitively that nobody on your campaign had any contacts with the Russians during the campaign?” Trump avoided the question, which led to this exchange:
Q: The first part of my question on contacts. Do you definitively say that nobody –

TRUMP: Well, I had nothing to do with it.
He then started talking about Hillary Clinton getting a question to a primary debate last March.

In other words, in Trump’s mind, he personally “had nothing to do with” contacting Vladimir Putin’s government, which should serve as a persuasive answer.

It’s not. There are now multiple reports indicating that while Russia was illegally intervening in our election, trying to help put Trump in the White House, several people from Team Trump were in regular contact with Putin’s government – a fact that Trump and other White House officials appear to have lied about repeatedly.

“I had nothing to do with it” isn’t much of an answer.

Later at yesterday’s mind-numbing press conference, there was an additional exchange on this:
Q: I just was hoping that we could get a yes- or-no answer on one of these questions involving Russia. Can you say whether you are aware that anyone who advised your campaign had contacts with Russia during the course of the election?

TRUMP: Well, I told you, General Flynn obviously was dealing. So that’s one person. But he was dealing – as he should have been –

Q: During the election?

TRUMP: No, no, nobody that I know of.

Q: So you’re not aware of any contacts during the course of the election?

TRUMP: Look, look, how many times do I have to answer this question?

Q: Can you just say yes or no on it?

TRUMP: Russia is a ruse. Yeah, I know you have to get up and ask a question, so important. Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia, haven’t made a phone call to Russia in years. Don’t speak to people from Russia. Not that I wouldn’t, I just have nobody to speak to. I spoke to Putin twice. He called me on the election – I told you this – and he called me on the inauguration, and a few days ago. We had a very good talk, especially the second one – lasted for a pretty long period of time. I’m sure you probably get it because it was classified, so I’m sure everybody in this room perhaps has it. But we had a very, very good talk. I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.
Note that Trump and his team used to be categorical on the subject, answering the question about pre-election contacts with phrases like “absolutely not” and “of course not.”

As of yesterday, that’s evolved into a presidential response that focused on Trump personally and includes a new caveat: “Nobody that I know of.”

Donald Trump, Russia, Scandals and White House

Trump struggles to give a straight answer on Russia scandal