As early as March 2016, a low-level Trump campaign aide claimed none other than the president of Russia was trying to meet then-candidate Donald Trump and his campaign.
From March to October, aide George Papadopoulos presented some seven requests from people who claimed to be tied to the Russian government who wanted to meet with Trump and his team, report The Washington Post’s Tom Hamburger, Carol D. Leonnig and Rosalind S. Helderman, who obtained emails from the Trump campaign during that time.
One of the most eyebrow-raising subject lines from Papadopoulos: “Meeting with Russian Leadership — Including Putin.”
There’s no evidence Trump’s campaign took Papadopoulos up on the invitations to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin; in fact, emails show senior campaign officials thought it could be a bad idea.
But news that Russia was trying at all completely unravels President Trump’s claim that Russia wasn’t trying to meddle in the election, or that the investigations into whether the Trump campaign helped are “fake news.” The Russians were meddling in the election, and it appears the Trump campaign was aware they were seeking its help to do it. Which raises the question of why Trump aides met with anyone tied to the Russian government at all during the campaign.
There can be only one reason for Russia’s attempts to reach out to Trump’s campaign, former intelligence officials have said: The Russians wanted to infiltrate it. The intelligence community has determined the Russians wanted Hillary Clinton lose, Donald Trump to win, and to undermine Americans’ confidence in their democracy in the process. And it’s very possible they wanted Trump’s help doing it.
“I know what the Russians try to do,” former CIA director John Brennan told Congress in May. “They try to suborn individuals, and they try to get individuals, including U.S. persons, to try to act on their behalf, either wittingly or unwittingly. And I was worried by a number of contacts that the Russians had with U.S. persons.”
Donald Trump Jr. more or less confirmed Brennan's suspicions in July. Emails he released about setting up a meeting with a Russian lawyer to get dirt on Clinton show he got a heads up that Russia was trying to help his dad win.
Now we know that months before that meeting, an aide was pinging Trump’s top advisers telling them Russia wanted “a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss US-Russia ties under President Trump.” When it comes to Russia’s interest in the presidential election, it doesn’t get much clearer than that.
None of this is proof that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. The emails show that then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort outright rejected at least one proposal to have Trump meet with Russian officials. (Manafort’s home was raided by the FBI in July in conjunction with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Trump-Russia collusion.)
There’s also nothing unusual about campaigns meeting with foreign officials in normal circumstances.
But what’s not normal is to get repeated overtures from a government that U.S. intelligence later determined tried to undermine democracy and not have the president at least acknowledge those findings, or the resulting investigation. It’s also odd that a lower-level aide would continue to try so hard to set up a meeting even as his superiors appeared to bat him away, as Hamburger, Leonnig and Helderman point out.
The CIA’s attention certainly spiked when it started noticing all these Trump-Russia connections, real and proposed. The Russians are uncannily good at getting people to do their will, either by persuasion or blackmail, experts say.
“My radar goes up early when I see certain things that I know what the Russians are trying to do, and I don’t know whether or not the targets of their efforts are as mindful of Russian intentions as they need to be,” Brennan told Congress.
Brennan’s radar also likely went up as top-level Trump officials continued to meet with a number of Russians during the campaign, suggesting they weren’t nearly as wary about the dangers as seasoned intelligence officials were.
Also perplexing: After the campaign, Trump’s team was the opposite of forthcoming about all of these meetings — even though once they became public, they described all of them as benign. While under oath in his confirmation hearing, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he couldn’t recall meeting with any Russians. Later reporting showed he did meet twice with the Russian ambassador during the campaign and apparently talked politics with him.
Trump Jr. originally said, at the behest of his father, that his meeting with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Clinton was primarily about adoptions. President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner and Sessions both didn’t initially disclose in official government security clearance forms that they each met with the Russian ambassador, and Kushner was in the meeting with the Russian lawyer.
Three big questions here that keep popping up the more journalists reveal the extent of Russia’s interest in the campaign: If Trump’s campaign was sophisticated enough to decide not to meet with Putin, then why did campaign aides keep meeting with other top Russians? And why didn’t they acknowledge those meetings afterward? And why does Trump refuse to acknowledge Russia’s meddling?
“I think it could very well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries. I won’t be specific,” Trump said in Poland in July.
“There is no collusion,” Trump told reporters at his New Jersey golf course Thursday. “You know why? Because I don’t speak to Russians.”
At the very least, Trump’s campaign was totally naive about the dangers of Russia trying to infiltrate them. At worst, they were or are hiding something.
Only investigations will determine if Trump’s campaign actually conspired to collude with Russia. We now know that a low-level aide at least gave the impression Russia wanted to establish a relationship with Trump’s campaign. And that makes it impossible for Trump to keep ignoring that Russia messed with the 2016 election.