For months, President Donald Trump and his officials have dismissed allegations that anyone associated with his presidential campaign cooperated with Russian operatives or officials to influence the 2016 election. Blaming the “mainstream media,” “the Democrats” and the “Deep State,” the Trump team has cast claims of collusion as a conspiratorial effort to undermine the President and diminish his electoral victory.
They’ve stuck to this narrative as reports have emerged about Trump associates and individuals claiming ties to the campaign communicating with, or attempting to make contact with, Russian hackers; about the President’s son-in-law trying to open up a secret line of communication with the Russian government; and about the President’s eldest son trying to obtain damaging information about Hillary Clinton from a Kremlin-linked lawyer.
And an emerging line from the Trump administration’s sympathizers is that if those contacts do amount to collusion with Russia, then collusion may not be such a bad thing after all.
Here are some recent revelations that, to hear Trumpworld tell it, amount to next to nothing.
Donald Trump Jr. said Monday that he met with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian attorney with close connections to the Kremlin, in July 2016 at Trump Tower in the hopes of obtaining damaging information about Clinton.
Trump’s eldest son initially said that the meeting, which his brother-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign chairman Paul Manafort also attended, focused on a defunct program that allowed U.S. citizens about Russian children. He later acknowledged that he accepted the invitation, made through an acquaintance, because he was told that the person he was meeting would share “information helpful to the campaign.” a
Trump Jr. and White House staffers have insisted this is just how the game of politics is played.
“Obviously I’m the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent,” he snarked on Twitter:
Obviously I'm the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent… went nowhere but had to listen. https://t.co/ccUjL1KDEa
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) July 10, 2017
“The only thing I see inappropriate about the meeting was the people that leaked the information on the meeting after it was voluntarily disclosed,” White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday.
Former U.S. intelligence officials and campaign operatives say there is actually nothing typical about meeting with a foreign national claiming to have compromising information about a political opponent and then concealing that conversation from the public.
When Gore campaign was sent Bush debate brief book, they called FBI. If foreign interests offer you info on former SOS, you call the FBI.
— stuart stevens (@stuartpstevens) July 10, 2017
Roger Stone, a longtime confidante of Trump’s who spent a very brief stint as a campaign adviser, acknowledged exchanging private messages on Twitter with “Guccifer 2.0,” a hacker that U.S. officials believe is affiliated with the Kremlin and was involved with stealing and then disseminating emails from the Democratic National Committee.
Stone described the conversations as “completely innocuous” and “so perfunctory, brief and banal” that he didn’t recall them.
“This is does not constitute collusion,” Stone said. “I had no contacts with Russians. This one has been manufactured by the intelligence service with a nice assist from [billionaire philanthropist George] Soros and [Democratic operative David] Brock.”
The Wall Street Journal reported in May that Guccifer 2.0 complied in September 2016 with a Florida-based GOP operative’s request for stolen documents related to the campaign in the Sunshine State, handing over Democratic voter-turnout analyses for key swing states. The hacker flagged that same information to Stone. Stone acknowledged receiving the link, but said he didn’t share the stolen data with anyone else, according to the Journal report.
Claiming to have ties to senior members of the Trump campaign, a veteran GOP operative launched an effort last September to obtain emails that he believed Russian operatives had hacked from Clinton’s private email server, according to the Journal. Peter W. Smith told the computer security experts he tried to recruit for that task that he had connections to campaign adviser Michael Flynn and his son, Michael G. Flynn. Smith also cited other Trump campaign officials in a document he circulated to potential recruits.
“Smith routinely talked about the goings on at the top of the Trump team, offering deep insights into the bizarre world at the top of the Trump campaign,” Matt Tait, a cybersecurity expert contacted by Smith to validate whether a trove of emails obtained through a “Dark Web” source were really Clinton’s own, wrote in a recent post on LawFare.
The Trump campaign officials whose names Smith used in his recruiting materials, naturally, denied having any contact with him.
In December, Kushner and Flynn sat down with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at Trump Tower and proposed creating a secure and covert “backchannel” that would allow the Trump transition team to discuss policy with the Kremlin without the Obama administration’s knowledge. To Kislyak’s surprise, Kushner reportedly proposed establishing this direct line of communications and even suggested using communications equipment inside stateside Russian diplomatic facilities.
National security hands were stunned that a private civilian would take these extraordinary steps to establish contact with a foreign government. But the Trump White House, rather than deny the reports, argued that setting up a backchannel would have been a smart strategic move.
“We have backchannel communications with a number of countries,” national security adviser H.R. McMaster said. “What that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner so I’m not concerned.”
“I think any time you can open lines of communication with anyone, whether they’re good friends or not so good friends, is a smart thing to do,” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly concurred. “I don’t see any big issue here relative to Jared.”
One day after firing James Comey, Trump told top Russian officials that removing the “real nut job” former FBI director investigating Russia’s interference in the election took “great pressure” off him.
“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump told Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a chummy Oval Office meeting that was closed to U.S. press. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
Trump seemed unfazed about undermining his administration’s line that Comey’s ouster was completely unrelated to the Russia investigation.
After all, who among us hasn’t fired a senior intelligence official investigating our closest advisers and relatives for possible financial crimes and collusion with a foreign government?