TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany...
SAUL LOEB

Trump World's dishonesty about its Russia contacts matters

Just how many members of Team Trump were in contact with Russia before Donald Trump's presidential inauguration? The Washington Post published an interesting tally that puts the number at nine.

In all, documents and interviews show there are at least nine Trump associates who had contacts with Russians during the campaign or presidential transition. Some are well-known, and others, such as [Trump foreign policy adviser George] Papadopoulos, have been more on the periphery.

The "at least" caveat makes some sense, because the overall number is arguably larger, but nine seems like a decent place to start: Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, J.D. Gordon, Jeff Sessions, and Michael Flynn.

There's no shortage of angles to this, but I want to focus on just a couple. The first is the dishonesty.

As regular readers know, Trump World told the public repeatedly, over the course of several months, that there were no communications between the Trump campaign and Russia during Russia's attack on the American elections. It's one of the most dramatic falsehoods Team Trump pushed as the scandal unfolded.

Indeed, just a few days before Inauguration Day, for example, CBS's John Dickerson asked Mike Pence, "Did any adviser or anybody in the Trump campaign have any contact with the Russians who were trying to meddle in the election?"

The vice president-elect responded at the time, “Of course not.”

This wasn’t an isolated incident. As we discussed in February, when reports first surfaced that Russia was in talks with Team Trump during Russia’s election crimes, the response from the Republican camp 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.

Indeed, 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 Russians, said, “Absolutely not.” She added the conversations “never happened” and any suggestions to the contrary “undermine our democracy.”

At a pre-inaugural press conference, Donald Trump himself said no one from his team was in contact with Russians during the campaign. During his tenure, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer also denied the communications.

What's more, there's ample reason to believe various officials in the Trump campaign knew about the Russian contacts, even while the campaign denied the communications were happening.

The second angle is the odd attempt to move the goalposts. From the Washington Post article:

Trump in the past denied that he or his associates communicated with Russia during the campaign. Now, he and his allies are seeking to minimize the importance of the contacts that have emerged.

"I think the American public can fully appreciate that those are isolated, obviously disconnected events, quite small in number for a presidential campaign," said Ty Cobb, a White House lawyer. "Nothing about the actual facts published to date suggests that the president while he was a candidate ever met a Russian, ever spoke to a Russian, or colluded with anybody."

The usual number for a presidential campaign is zero, not nine, so the first sentence in Ty Cobb's quote is bizarre. But more to the point, whether or not Donald Trump himself was in communications with Russian nationals during the campaign isn't the salient question. What matters are the frequent, undisclosed contacts between Trump's aides and Russia during Russia's espionage operation targeting the United States.

It's a little late now to say the campaign contacts, which Trump World lied about for months, don't count so long as Trump wasn't personally chatting with Moscow in 2016.