Another day, another leak, another drip in the bucket of evidence showing ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The Washington Post reported Monday evening that a campaign aide tried repeatedly to set up meetings between the billionaire candidate and Kremlin officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, before Donald Trump was even the Republican nominee.
That's a bad look for a president whose son already has acknowledged meeting with a woman he thought was a Russian government lawyer offering damaging information about Hillary Clinton and whose former campaign chairman recently was the target of a pre-dawn raid by the FBI.
Plus, The Post's report is a product of another leak: A person with access to campaign emails that have been turned over to congressional committees investigating Russian election meddling read some of the emails to The Post, and two others with access confirmed the tone and select passages.
But it's not all bad for President Trump. In fact, there are a few bright spots:
The aide who tried to coordinate the meetings was a low-level staffer
George Papadopoulos was the youngest of Trump's foreign policy advisers and not a prominent figure. The Post's Tom Hamburger, Carol D. Leonnig and Rosalind S. Helderman put it like this: “Less than a decade out of college, Papadopoulos appeared to hold little sway within the campaign, and it is unclear whether he was acting as an intermediary for the Russian government, although he told campaign officials he was.”
To the extent that Papadopoulos did something improper, it is far easier for Trump to plead ignorance than it has been when Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner or Paul Manafort have been the centers of news reports about Russian connections.
Also, it seems possible that Papadopoulos was exaggerating his connections. If that is the case, then these proposed meetings between Trump and Kremlin officials might not even have been realistic possibilities.
Senior campaign advisers were appropriately alarmed
Hamburger, Leonnig and Helderman reported that Papadopoulos's first proposal for a meeting “sent a ripple of concern through campaign headquarters in Trump Tower.”
Campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis wrote that he thought NATO allies should be consulted before any plans were made. Another Trump adviser, retired Navy Rear Adm. Charles Kubic, cited legal concerns, including a possible violation of U.S. sanctions against Russia and of the Logan Act, which prohibits U.S. citizens from unauthorized negotiation with foreign governments. …
Among those to express concern about the effort was then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who rejected in May 2016 a proposal from Papadopoulos for Trump to do so.
We are past the point where Trump can credibly claim that no one on his campaign team tried to work with Russians. Some clearly did — including his eldest son. But, in this case, it appears that his senior advisers were appropriately alarmed by Papadopoulos's suggestions and shot down the idea of setting up meetings.
The emails don't exactly show attempted collusion
Hamburger, Leonnig and Helderman included this important caveat about Papadopoulos's messages: “While the emails illustrate his eagerness to strengthen the campaign’s connections to the Russian government, Papadopoulos does not spell out in them why it would be in Trump’s interest to do so.”
It is a short leap to assume that the Russian officials Papadopoulos represented — if he really did — wanted to help undermine Clinton; that was the stated purpose of Donald Trump Jr.'s sit-down with the Russian lawyer in June, after all. But it is still a leap. The goal could conceivably have been more innocuous — beginning to establish a diplomatic rapport with a possible future U.S. president.