Two things happened over the weekend that complicate our understanding of President Trump’s awareness of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The first is that Trump was interviewed by Fox News’s Jeanine Pirro. She raised the question of collusion — that is, whether elements of the Trump campaign assisted the Russian effort to influence the results of the 2016 election.
“After 18 months, not any kind of reference to any collusion,” Pirro said.
To which Trump replied:
“That is true, Jeanine. You have all these committees, everybody’s looking. There is no collusion. No phone calls — I had no phone calls, no meetings, no nothing. There is no collusion. I say it all the time. Anybody that asks. There is no collusion.”
For some time, it’s been unclear exactly what Trump means when he says there was “no collusion” (as he often does). In January, the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman asked press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders what exactly was meant when Trump used the term.
“Look,” Sanders replied, “I think he’s stating for himself and to anything that he would be a part of, or know about, or have sanctioned. But that would be something that, again, I think he’s very clearly laid out he and his campaign had nothing to do with.”
To Pirro, Trump used a narrower definition: He himself made no phone calls and had no meetings related to Russian interference.
What that doesn’t cover, though, is whether there was tacit awareness of Russian interference efforts. Was Trump told that the Russians were trying to help him, perhaps even told about specific actions or information, and did nothing?
A review of Trump’s public comments from the database at Factba.se reveals no specific denial by Trump since Election Day that he knew about Russian interference during 2016.
So we turn to the other revelation from this weekend. The House Intelligence Committee released a memo from the Democratic minority outlining its response to allegations posed by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and his staff that the FBI’s investigation into Trump and his campaign were tainted by partisanship. Included in the new memo was a specific date that had been elusive: The counterintelligence operation looking at whether the Trump campaign aided Russia began on July 31, 2016.
Why is that important? For one thing, it clarifies the broader timeline of activity during the summer. But it also comes only four days after Trump, during his last news conference of the year, publicly requested that Russia release emails stolen from Hillary Clinton.
“By the way, they hacked — they probably have her 33,000 emails,” Trump said, referring to emails that were on Clinton’s private email server but that were determined not to be work-related by her attorneys and therefore were deleted. “I hope they do. They probably have her 33,000 emails that she lost and deleted because you’d see some beauties there. So let’s see.”
This was days after WikiLeaks began dumping emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee, a hack that was already attributed publicly to Russia. Trump, as he would continue to do over the next year, denied that it was clear that Russia was involved. (“Let me tell you, it’s not even about Russia or China or whoever it is that’s doing the hacking,” he said. “It was about the things that were said in those emails.”)
Later, he issued a call to action: “I will tell you this — Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Four days later, the FBI began its investigation into whether the Trump team was aiding Russia’s interference effort.
The impetus for that investigation wasn’t Trump’s news conference, though, according to both the Democratic memo and Nunes’s — and according to reporting. It stemmed, instead, from comments made by George Papadopoulos, an adviser to the campaign, to an Australian diplomat in London that May.
At that point, Papadopoulos had been in contact with Russia-linked individuals for months and was working to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He said he was pushing for it during a meeting of Trump’s foreign policy advisory team meeting that the candidate attended on March 31, 2016 — though it’s not clear if Trump was in the room when Papadopoulos raised the subject.
In late April, Papadopoulos’s main contact in London mentioned that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of emails. Specifically, his contact told Papadopoulos that “they have dirt on her”; “the Russians had emails of Clinton”; “they have thousands of emails.”
The next day, Papadopoulos emailed senior campaign adviser Stephen Miller and told him that he had “some interesting messages coming in from Moscow about a trip when the time is right.”
Is that where it ended? Did Papadopoulos tell the campaign specifically about the stolen email messages? The next month, he told it to Australian High Commissioner to Great Britain Alexander Downer over drinks in London. Once the DNC leaks began, Australia tipped off the FBI about the conversation with Papadopoulos, and the investigation began. Is it likely that Papadopoulos told a foreign diplomat about what he had learned — but never told anyone else in the campaign? That never got back to Trump? Despite Trump saying that he believed the Russians to be in possession of Clinton emails — which the DNC leaks that were public on July 27 were not?
At that point, remember, the campaign was being run by Paul Manafort, who himself had ties to the Russian leadership, thanks to his years of work for oligarch Oleg Deripaska and on behalf of former Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Putin’s.
In June, Manafort was one of three campaign representatives to meet with a Kremlin-linked attorney named Natalia Veselnitskaya and a lobbyist named Rinat Akhmetshin who is rumored to have ties to Russian intelligence. The other two campaign attendees were son-in-law Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. — the latter of whom was told explicitly that the meeting was intended to share “dirt” on Clinton that would be provided by the Russian government as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Trump Jr.’s response? “If it’s what you say it is, I love it.”
He tried repeatedly to downplay what was discussed in the meeting, notably offering conflicting explanations for its intent, but we’ll come back to that.
The meeting was finally set on June 7, 2016. That evening, Trump gave a speech in New Jersey after winning the primary in that state.
“The Clintons have turned the politics of personal enrichment into an art form for themselves,” he said, mentioning Clinton’s private email server. “Designed to keep her corrupt dealings out of the public record, putting the security of the entire country at risk, and a president in a corrupt system is totally protecting her — not right. I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week, and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting. I wonder if the press will want to attend. Who knows?”
That speech didn’t happen the following Monday; over the weekend the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando took place.
The Times asked Trump if he knew about the meeting at the time. He said he didn’t.
“It must have been … a very unimportant meeting, because I never even heard about it,” he said. “Nobody told me.”
So what was the speech he promised?
“There was something about the book, ‘Clinton Cash,’ came out,” he said. When the Times’s Peter Baker noted that the book had come out a year earlier, Trump explained: “We were developing a whole thing. There was something about ‘Clinton Cash.’”
On June 22, Trump gave a speech including critiques from the book. Our fact-checkers noted at the time that the speech’s central argument “ignores the fact that the actions of Clinton and Clinton Foundation have been heavily scrutinized over the years.”
Trump Jr. has denied telling his father about the meeting. The elder Trump, however, took an active hand in Trump Jr.’s initial response when the meeting came to light, reportedly dictating a statement that skipped over the fact that the conversation was predicated on the promise of dirt offered by the Russian government. Trump also repeatedly dismissed the idea that Trump Jr. had behaved inappropriately by taking the meeting.
“Most people would have taken that meeting,” the president said.
In July, campaign adviser Carter Page — the subject of the FBI surveillance warrant at the heart of the Nunes memo — traveled to Moscow with the campaign’s blessing. Two weeks later, Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer conducting research for Fusion GPS (on the dime of the DNC and Clinton’s campaign) was told that Page, too, had been informed of the existence of compromising material on Clinton. (The DNC leaks began three days later.)
Page denied meeting Kremlin official Igor Diveykin and told the House Intelligence Committee during testimony that he had only briefly greeted Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich during his trip.
After his return to the United States, though, Page sent the campaign a memo to say that he had spoken with Dvorkovich in a “private conversation” in which the deputy prime minister “expressed strong support for Mr. Trump.” He also sent an email to two campaign staffers saying that he would “send you guys a readout soon regarding some incredible insights and outreach I’ve received from a few Russian legislators and senior members” of the Putin administration.
Page explained to the House committee that he gleaned those insights from hearing speeches.
We’re asked to believe, then, that there were three instances in which Trump campaign staff were, or may have been, informed about potential dirt on Clinton that was being offered by the Russian government. That in the two cases where that clearly happened, that Trump himself was never informed of that incriminating information, even when one of the recipients of that offer was his own son.
These points of contact were embraced by at least two campaign staffers — Papadopoulos in April and Trump Jr. in June — and, probably, at least two more (Kushner and Manafort). We’re asked to believe, too, that even if Trump had been informed about any or all of the Russian outreach efforts, that this doesn’t constitute collusion on the part of the president with the Russian interference effort. (Though earlier this year, his press secretary articulated that it would.)
There are two groups of people who know how valid Trump’s argument is. The first is Trump and his close family. The other, it seems fair to assume, is special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his team.