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Team Trump's pre-election Russian contacts draw new scrutiny

For months, Donald Trump and his team insisted there were literally zero contacts between the campaign and Russia in 2016. Those denials weren't true.
Image: President Trump attends Republican policy luncheon at the US Capitol
epa06286986 US President Donald J. Trump (R) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (L) walk in the Ohio Clock Corridor, through Russian flags with...

George Papadopoulos spent nearly a year as a foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump's presidential campaign, and during his tenure, he interacted with foreign nationals with ties to the Russian government -- who claimed to have "dirt" on Hillary Clinton they wanted to share. From NBC News' report:

The professor introduced Papadopoulos to a Russian who said he was close to officials at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs who then spoke with Papadopoulos over Skype about laying the groundwork for a meeting between the campaign and officials in Moscow.The Russian woman -- whom Papadopoulos mistakenly described in an email as the niece of Russian President Vladimir Putin -- also tried to arrange a meeting between the Trump campaign and Russian government officials, the documents say.Papadopoulos, 30, communicated with a "campaign supervisor" about his attempts to broker a meeting with the Russians to discuss U.S.-Russia ties during a Trump presidency, the court papers say."Great work," the supervisor, who was not named in the documents, told him in an email.

This is, of course, an extremely important development for all sorts of reasons, but let's take a moment to note that this counts as yet another communication between a member of Team Trump and Russia that happened during the 2016 presidential campaign.

And while that may not seem especially notable, we were told repeatedly, for months that no such contacts occurred, and while that's sometimes lost in the shuffle, it's also one of the most dramatic falsehoods Team Trump pushed as the scandal unfolded.

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.

Each of these denials came long before we learned that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort had a chat with a Kremlin-linked lawyer during the campaign, and before we learned about George Papadopoulos' efforts.

I can appreciate why Trump World hasn't been truthful about the communications. As we discussed in July, the fact that Russians launched an unprecedented attack on the American political system -- in part because Putin's government wanted to put Trump in power -- is itself scandalous, and if members of Team Trump admitted they were in touch with the Russians during the attack, it'd look pretty bad.

But we now know that's what happened. Top members of the president's team really were in communications with Russian nationals during Russia's election scheme, and the categorical denials from Trump, Pence, and others were, at a minimum, wrong.

To date, there's been no explanation from Trump or anyone from his team about why they issued bogus denials about pre-election Russian contacts.