On Thursday morning, Reuters reported that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and other Trump campaign advisers “were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race.”
That news stands in contrast to what Trump transition team chair-turned-Vice President Mike Pence said in January, when he repeatedly denied during TV interviews that there was any communication between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
In late February, CNN reported that the FBI “rejected a recent White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump’s associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign.” According to CNN, FBI Director James Comey denied White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’ request because “the alleged communications between Trump associates and Russians known to US intelligence are the subject of an ongoing investigation.” Comey publicly confirmed that investigation in March.
Comey was fired by Trump last week amid an investigation into the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia. Trump later admitted he fired Comey in part because of frustrations about the ongoing investigation. That apparent obstruction of justice has led to calls for Trump’s impeachment and the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the matter.
Reuters, citing current and former U.S. officials familiar with the communications, reports that the “previously undisclosed interactions form part of the record now being reviewed by FBI and congressional investigators probing Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election and contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia.”
Six of the communications involved calls between Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak and Trump advisers, including Flynn. Flynn lost his job as Trump’s national security adviser after officials leaked news that Flynn lied to administration officials about his pre-inauguration communications with Kislyak — including discussions of sanctions placed on Russia by the Obama administration in response to Russia’s meddling in the election on behalf of Trump.
Flynn wasn’t the only one who lied about his communications with Kislyak — so did Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who promised to recuse himself from any Russia-Trump campaign-related investigations after Justice Department officials leaked news that Sessions didn’t tell the truth during his confirmation hearing. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, didn’t disclose his December meeting with Kislyak on his security clearance form.
According to Reuters, during the transition period, Flynn and Kislyak discussed “establishing a back channel for communication between Trump and [Putin] that could bypass the U.S. national security bureaucracy, which both sides considered hostile to improved relations.”
The White House didn’t comment, but Reuters said the Russian embassy in D.C. issued a statement saying, “We do not comment on our daily contacts with the local interlocutors.”
From the time of the campaign through early March, Trump officials issued at least 20 separate denials of communications with Russia. On January 16, Trump told reporters, “I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.” A month later, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said despite Flynn’s transition-period contacts with Kislyak, he wasn’t aware of any Trump associates being in contact with Russian officials during the campaign. On February 20, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Trump-Russia “is a non-story because to the best of our knowledge, no contacts took place, so it’s hard to make a comment on something that never happened.”
Last week, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified before a Senate panel that she personally informed the White House on January 26 that Flynn was lying about his pre-inauguration communications with the Russian ambassador, and therefore at risk of being blackmailed by Russia. But the Trump administration waited nearly three full weeks before firing Flynn, and only did so after word of his false statements leaked to the press. Yates, by contrast, was fired four days later.
Also in late January, Trump administration officials, including Trump himself, signaled a willingness to remove sanctions on Russia.
“If you get along and if Russia is really helping us,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal, “why would anybody have sanctions if somebody’s doing some really great things?”
In addition to previously undisclosed contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, one of Trump’s longtime confidante and advisers, Roger Stone, has admitted to exchanging Twitter direct messages during the campaign with Guccifer 2.0, an account the US intelligence community believes was used as a front by Russian hackers.
Around the time those messages were being exchanged, Stone posted a tweet suggesting he knew the emails of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta would soon be published.
Trust me, it will soon the Podesta's time in the barrel. #CrookedHillary
— Roger Stone (@RogerJStoneJr) August 21, 2016
Emails Guccifer 2.0 hacked from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Podesta were shared with and published by Wikileaks, with the DNC emails hitting the internet just before the Democratic National Convention in July and Podesta’s emails trickling out in installments beginning in October.
In March, former FBI special agent Clint Watts explained how Russia and the Trump campaign team up to weaponize fake news during a Senate hearing.
“Part of the reason active measures have worked in this U.S. election is because the Commander-in-Chief [Trump] has used Russian active measures at times, against his opponents,” Watts said, before going on to cite two examples of the Trump officials weaponizing fake news stories during the campaign.
Reuters reports that the communications between Russian officials in the Trump campaign began in April 2016 — the same month Paul Manafort took over as Trump’s campaign chairman.
In March, the Associated Press broke news that Manafort “secretly worked for a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago and proposed an ambitious political strategy to undermine anti-Russian opposition across former Soviet republics.”
The AP, citing “interviews with several people familiar with payments to Manafort and business records obtained by the AP,” reported that news of Manafort’s secret work on behalf of Putin “appears to contradict assertions by the Trump administration and Manafort himself that he never worked for Russian interests.”