Opinion writer

In response to the burgeoning Russia probe, President Trump bases his claim that it is all a “hoax” on two arguments, both of which we have come to see are flagrantly false.

First, Trump has promised he had no contact with Russians during the campaign. No business at all, he claims. We know that’s not true because the Trump Organization actively pursued a deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow. We know that his son-in-law, his son and a top campaign aide met in Trump Tower with Russian officials. We recently learned that ex-campaign chairman Paul Manafort was offering private briefings for a Russian oligarch. (“Less than two weeks before Donald Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination, his campaign chairman offered to provide briefings on the race to a Russian billionaire closely aligned with the Kremlin, according to people familiar with the discussions,” The Post reported. “Paul Manafort made the offer in an email to an overseas intermediary, asking that a message be sent to Oleg Deripaska, an aluminum magnate with whom Manafort had done business in the past, these people said.”) This strongly suggests that “Manafort’s willingness to profit from his prominent role alongside Trump … created a potential opening for Russian interests at the highest level of a U.S. presidential campaign, according to people familiar with the probe.”

The Post now reports on two more previously undisclosed contacts:

In one case, Trump’s personal attorney and a business associate exchanged emails weeks before the Republican National Convention about the lawyer possibly traveling to an economic conference in Russia that would be attended by top Russian financial and government leaders, including President Vladi­mir Putin, according to people familiar with the correspondence.

In the other case, the same Trump attorney, Michael Cohen, received a proposal in late 2015 for a Moscow residential project from a company founded by a billionaire who once served in the upper house of the Russian parliament, these people said. The previously unreported inquiry marks the second proposal for a Trump-branded Moscow project that was delivered to the company during the presidential campaign and has since come to light.

This is not a situation in which Trump or his son-in-law (who was obliged to revise a national security form to add foreign contacts) could have forgotten one or two brief social interchanges. What we see is a pattern of ongoing contacts between, on one hand, Trump’s personal representatives, relatives and campaign operatives and, on the other, Russian oligarchs and officials.

The second pillar holding up Trump’s contention that this is all a “hoax” is that Russia didn’t meddle on his behalf. That laughable assertion should have been dismissed out of hand when WikiLeaks released emails damaging to Hillary Clinton in the days leading up to the election. The notion that Russia wasn’t out to help Trump has been further discredited with each revelation about the extent of Russian disinformation, which came not only in the form of attacks on Clinton but also in social media that mirrored Trump’s own efforts to spur racial animosity and play on white grievance. The Post reports:

Russian operatives set up an array of misleading Web sites and social media pages to identify American voters susceptible to propaganda, then used a powerful Facebook tool to repeatedly send them messages designed to influence their political behavior, say people familiar with the investigation into foreign meddling in the U.S. election.

The tactic resembles what American businesses and political campaigns have been doing in recent years to deliver messages to potentially interested people online. The Russians exploited this system by creating English-language sites and Facebook pages that closely mimicked those created by U.S. political activists.

The type of campaign material spread by Russian operatives was remarkably Trump-like:

One such ad featured photographs of an armed black woman “dry firing” a rifle — pulling the trigger of the weapon without a bullet in the chamber — the people familiar with the investigation said.

Investigators believe the advertisement may have been designed to encourage African American militancy and, at the same time, to stoke fears within white communities, the people said. But the precise purpose of the ad remains unclear to investigators, the people said.

Another showed an image of Democrat Hillary Clinton behind what appeared to be prison bars.

In an election decided by less than 80,000 votes in three states, no one can say for sure that Russian propaganda didn’t put Trump over the top. Also recall that Trump benefited from the echoes of the disinformation once picked up in social media:

“Any American who knowingly or unknowingly clicked on a Russian news site may have been targeted through Facebook’s advertising systems to become an agent of influence — a potentially sympathetic American who could spread Russian propaganda with other Americans,” said Clinton Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “Every successful click gives them more data that they can use to retarget. It feeds on itself and it speeds up the influence dramatically.”

Then with talk radio and Fox News eager to regurgitate the same conspiratorial and racist themes, the Russians got an enviable return on their investment.

In short, Trump through multiple avenues had ongoing contacts with Russians during the campaign, contacts which he, his aides and his relatives went to great pains to deny. Since the extent of Russian propaganda efforts (styled in ways to appeal to his supporters and smear Clinton) has come to light, Trump’s Russia connections have become an exceptionally inconvenient fact pattern. One can imagine why Trump was so agitated by an investigation that sought both to uncover his Russia connections and to examine his business dealings. That investigation was and remains a sword of Damocles hovering over his presidency.