“I may have met him — possibly. It might have been in Cleveland.”
That was former Donald Trump adviser Carter Page's tortured non-denial in response to MSNBC host Chris Hayes's repeated attempts to get him to confirm a meeting with Russia's ambassador at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last year. USA Today had reported hours before that Page and another Trump adviser had met with Sergey Kislyak in July, despite Page's denial last month that he had met with Russian officials. And Page wasn't about to totally confirm it, citing the forum's desire for confidentiality.
The interview is a good example of the hole that President Trump's team has dug for itself. As Hayes notes, any of these cases of officials denying specific contacts with Russia and then apparently being contradicted — Michael Flynn, then Jeff Sessions, then Page — could be dismissed as mistakes. Taken together, they give at least the whiff of secrecy and even a coverup.
In the case of Flynn, the now-fired Trump national security adviser, he denied discussing U.S. sanctions against Russia with Kislyak in December. But then, when it was reported that he had done just that, he basically argued that he didn't believe the sanctions he had discussed were actual sanctions.
In the case of Sessions, the attorney general denied contact with Russian officials during his confirmation hearing, and then explained this week that he only meant in the context of the campaign, which he said was the point of the questions at his hearing. He said Thursday that his response to a question from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) “was honest and correct as I understood it at the time.”
Page's situation echoes that of Sessions. He was asked on PBS in mid-February about contacts with Russian officials. Here's the exchange:
JUDY WOODRUFF: Did you have any meetings — I will ask again — did you have any meetings last year with Russian officials in Russia, outside Russia, anywhere?
PAGE: I had no meetings, no meetings.
Page, like Sessions, is now claiming that the line of questioning he faced was in the context of the presidential campaign, and that his meeting with Kislyak wasn't related to that — even though it was outside the Republican National Convention (as one of Sessions's encounters with Kislyak was).
So, three denials. Three seeming contradictions. All involving the Russian ambassador.
The question now is how all three men could fall victim to the same lack of specificity. When asked about Russia, each gave answers that suggested none of them thought very hard about having spoken with Russia's top envoy to the United States.
Is it possible that they considered a meeting with an ambassador to be so typical that it didn't cross their minds that this constituted contact with Russia? That's the most charitable conclusion. But the fact that it's now happened three times certainly doesn't put it to rest.
And responding to inaccurate statements with obfuscation and lack of disclosure doesn't really help.