On January 15, then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence went on Fox News and was asked by Chris Wallace whether there had been communication between the Trump campaign and Russian officials before the election.
“Of course not,” Pence replied. “Chris, this is all a distraction and it’s all part of a narrative to delegitimize the election and question the legitimacy of this presidency. The American people see right through it.”
On the same day, Pence went on CBS and was again asked about whether the Trump campaign had been in touch with Russian officials.
“Of course not,” Pence replied. “I think to suggest that is to give credence to some of these bizarre rumors that have swirled around the candidacy.”
Two new reports contradict what Pence said during those interviews. On Tuesday night, CNN reported that “high-level advisers close to then-presidential nominee Donald Trump were in constant communication during the campaign with Russians known to US intelligence.” The report cites “multiple current and former intelligence, law enforcement and administration officials.”
The story was also reported by the New York Times.
“Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials,” the Times reports.
While it remains unclear why Trump’s advisers and associates were in touch with Russian intelligence before the election, the CNN and NYT reports are the strongest indication yet that the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials. The U.S. intelligence community has already made public its findings that Russia used cyberattacks and other methods to meddle in the election on behalf of Trump.
Five days before Pence did the aforementioned TV interviews, news emerged of an unconfirmed intelligence dossier containing allegations that Russian officials are in possession of compromising information about Trump and his campaign. We know now that some of “conversations between foreign nationals” detailed in the dossier have been confirmed.
Also in the news in mid-January were communications Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice for national security adviser, had with the Russian ambassador in late December, including on the day the Obama administration imposed new sanctions on Russia for the election meddling.
Pence told Wallace that Flynn and the ambassador “did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.”
We now know Pence spoke falsely on this topic. Flynn and the ambassador did indeed talk about sanctions, and their conversations “were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election,” the Washington Post reported on February 9.
Though the White House was informed by the Justice Department that Flynn talked about sanctions with the Russian ambassador late last month, the Post reported that Pence didn’t learn that Flynn misled him about his communications until February 9, “a full two weeks after other White House officials were briefed on the matter, an aide to Pence said on Tuesday.”
On Wednesday morning, Trump responded to the bombshell CNN and NYT reports not by questioning their accuracy, but by blasting the sort of leaks he said he loved during the campaign’s closing weeks.
Flynn may have misled Pence about his communications with the Russian ambassador, but the White House hasn’t yet offered an explanation for the contradiction between what Pence repeatedly said about the lack of contact between the Trump campaign and Russia and what the new reports indicate about their “constant contact.”
UPDATE (2/15/17, 11:15 a.m.): During his press conference on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer characterized Flynn’s communications with the Russian ambassador as an “isolated incident” — a claim contradicted by reports of “constant contact” between Russian officials and the Trump campaign that broke hours later.
During the presser, a reporter asked Spicer, “is the administration undertaking any sort of effort… to make sure that everyone comes forward who had any communications with the Russians about sanctions or otherwise?”
In response, Spicer suggested such an effort is unnecessary.
“As far as we are aware, that is an isolated incident that occurred,” he said.