It's worth noting that their reporting includes significant caveats. Most importantly, it's not clear these discussions involved the campaign. The Times says the contacts were with “Russian intelligence officials,” while CNN says it was with “Russian nationals known to U.S. intelligence.” And, as the Times notes, “it is not unusual for American businessmen to come in contact with foreign intelligence officials, sometimes unwittingly, in countries like Russia and Ukraine, where the spy services are deeply embedded in society.”
So basically, conclusions that this proves collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government are premature. That claim is based on the preponderance of evidence rather than any real, conclusive — and even anonymously sourced — reporting.
But importantly, the new reports do seem to contradict claims the Trump campaign and now the Trump White House have made about their lack of contact with Russia. They have said in various ways that there was no contact, on multiple occasions, and as recently as Tuesday afternoon.
Trump reportedly denied any campaign-season contact between those close to him and Russia after a mid-January news conference. After being asked about it at the end of the conference, he didn't answer the question. Reporters chased him down afterward, at which point, according to CNN's Jim Acosta and ABC's Cecilia Vega, Trump flatly denied any contact between his associates or his campaign and Russia.
Fortunately ABC's Cecilia Vega asked my question about whether any Trump associates contacted Russians. Trump said no.
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) January 11, 2017
— Cecilia Vega (@CeciliaVega) January 12, 2017
White House press secretary Sean Spicer was asked Tuesday — before the explosive reports came out — if that was still the company line. He didn't amend it:
QUESTION: Back in January, the president said that nobody in his campaign had been in touch with the Russians. Now today, can you still say definitively that nobody on the Trump campaign — not even General Flynn — had any contact with the Russians before the election?
SPICER: My understanding is that what General Flynn has now expressed is that during the transition period — well, we were very clear that during the transition period, he did — he did speak with the ambassador.
QUESTION: I'm talking about during the campaign.
SPICER: I don't have any — I — there's nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said this back in a December appearance on “Face the Nation” with John Dickerson:
DICKERSON: Did anyone involved in the Trump campaign have any contact with Russians trying to meddle with the election?
CONWAY: Absolutely not. And I discussed that with the president-elect just last night. Those conversations never happened. I hear people saying it like it's a fact on television. That is just not only inaccurate and false, but it's dangerous and it does undermine our democracy.
There was also then-Vice President-elect Pence, during Jan. 15 interviews in which he also passed along Michael Flynn's faulty information about Flynn not having discussed sanctions with Russia's ambassador to the United States. Speaking to “Fox News Sunday's” Chris Wallace, Pence also denied any contact between the campaign and the Kremlin:
WALLACE: I’m asking a direct question: Was there any contact in any way between Trump or his associates and the Kremlin or cutouts they had?
PENCE: I joined this campaign in the summer, and I can tell you that all the contact by the Trump campaign and associates was with the American people. We were fully engaged with taking his message to make America great again all across this country. That’s why he won in a landslide election.
WALLACE: -- if there were any contacts, sir, I’m just trying to get an answer.
PENCE: Yes. I — of course not. Why would there be any contacts between the campaign? Chris, the — this is all a distraction, and it's all part of a narrative to delegitimize the election and to question the legitimacy of this presidency. The American people see right through it.
And here he was the same day on "Face the Nation":
DICKERSON: Just to button up one question, did any adviser or anybody in the Trump campaign have any contact with the Russians who were trying to meddle in the election?
MIKE PENCE: Of course not. And I think to suggest that is to give credence to some of these bizarre rumors that have swirled around the candidacy.
All of these statements could be parsed endlessly.
Spicer's comments Tuesday don't seem to double down on Trump's words, so much as not want to say anything new. So he let Trump's comments stand.
Conway was responding directly to a question about contacting “Russians trying to meddle with the election.” The new reports don't indicate that the contacts were specifically with such people, so much as Russians tied to intelligence more generally.
And Pence was asked specifically about contact with “the Kremlin or cutouts they had.” Again, the reports don't indicate direct contact with the Kremlin — only Russian intelligence officials or Russians known to U.S. intelligence (whose status might not have been known to the Trump campaign team, per the Times).
But these denials take a pretty hard line against the idea of any contact between the Trump campaign and Russia, involving a whole lot of people. And as we get more specific details, we'll see how well they hold up.