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As Russia scandal unfolds, Cambridge Analytica draws new scrutiny

A person man uses a laptop. (Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa/AP)
A person man uses a laptop.

There's no shortage of relevant angles to Donald Trump's Russia scandal, but it's worth appreciating the significance of Cambridge Analytica's role in this mess.

As you've probably seen Rachel mention on the show, Cambridge Analytica is the data firm the Trump campaign hired during last year's presidential election. The firm took on added significance two weeks ago when the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump donor Rebekah Mercer asked Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix "whether the company could better organize the Hillary Clinton-related emails being released by WikiLeaks," which allegedly received stolen documents from Russian hackers.

The WSJ added some additional details to the timeline late Friday, reporting that Cambridge Analytica initiated contact with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in "early June 2016."

When Mr. Nix's approach to WikiLeaks was reported by The Wall Street Journal last month, it wasn't clear whether Cambridge was working for the Trump campaign at the time. Federal Election Commission records show the first payment by the campaign to Cambridge Analytica is dated July 29, 2016.New details about the timing of Cambridge Analytica's Trump campaign work show that the firm's effort to obtain the Clinton emails—which U.S. intelligence agencies later determined had been stolen by Russian intelligence and given to the Sweden-based WikiLeaks—came as the company was in the advanced stages of contract negotiations with the campaign and had already dispatched employees to help it.

The same article added that Cambridge Analytica "collected close to $9 million from the campaign, including $6 million that was publicly disclosed and additional funds routed through Giles Parscale, a firm run by Trump digital director Brad Parscale, according to a person familiar with the payments -- about 50% more than publicly reported."

Trump World, true to form, has tried to downplay its connections with the firm. It's an odd thing to lie about.

The significance of a story like this is that it points to another possible avenue connecting Team Trump with its suspected Russian benefactors. The infamous Trump Tower meeting last summer is one potential avenue; George Papadopoulos' Russian contacts are another; Roger Stone is another; Michael Flynn is another; and so on.

Cambridge Analytica, which denies any wrongdoing, is another still, and according to House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ties between Cambridge Analytica and WikiLeaks are of "deep interest" to the committee.