Trump Confidants, Russia and a Pattern of Duplicity
Skepticism about President Donald Trump's denials that his campaign colluded with clandestine Russian efforts to help him win last year's presidential election are fueled by a disturbing reality: Trump operatives misled, lied or failed to disclose at least a half-dozen secret meetings they had with Russians last year until confronted afterward.
In the latest episode, the New York Times revealed on Saturday that Trump’s son and son-in-law, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, along with Paul Manafort, then the campaign manager, met in June of last year with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with ties to the government. Another Times article published Monday night said Trump Jr. had been told by email that he would be offered compromising information about Hillary Clinton as part of a Russian government effort to aid Trump's campaign.
When initially asked about this undisclosed meeting, the young Trump said it was about adoption, claiming that the discussion revolved around Russian lobbying for repeal of an American law that blacklisted Russian human rights offenders. Russian President Vladimir Putin had retaliated against the law’s passage by closing off American adoption of Russian children.
Confronted by the Times the next day with reporting that revealed that the meeting agenda included an accusation that Russians were financing Democratic campaigns, Trump Jr. changed his story. But he insisted that the meeting was benign and insubstantial. A spokesman for the president's lawyer suggested that the Trump team may have been set up by the Russians.
That seems unlikely. Manafort has had extensive dealings with Russians for years; he never has been accused of naivete.
The meeting with the Russian lawyer might be more easily dismissed if it were just one example of duplicity involving Trump operatives and Russians officials or their associates. Here are other examples:
- The White House fired Michael Flynn from his post as national security adviser in February, after it was revealed that he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about meeting secretly with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak. The meeting took place after the election and before Trump’s inauguration, and Pence publicly denied—based on Flynn’s assurances—that there had been any communication between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Flynn also, according to House Democrats who have reviewed congressional reports, appears to have lied to the Pentagon when applying for a security clearance about income he had received in 2015 and 2016 from Russian sources. It took the White House more than two and a half weeks to fire Flynn after it was informed of these contacts. Flynn, a former Army general, has hired a lawyer and has been silent for months.
- Attorney General Jeff Sessions, during his confirmation hearing early in the year, said he was unaware of any communication between "anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign" and the Russians in 2016. Weeks later it was revealed that he'd spoken to the Russian ambassador twice in 2016. Sessions claimed he had misunderstood the question and that his meeting was in his capacity as a U.S. senator from Alabama. During the campaign, though, he was one of the most important Trump supporters and surrogates. The disclosure was important enough that he felt compelled to recuse himself from the federal investigation into links between Trump and Russia. The probe is now being conducted by a special counsel, Robert Mueller.
- Carter Page, a Trump campaign adviser on Russia who has had business ties in Moscow, denied in February that he had any meetings with Russians last year. A month later it was disclosed that he had met with the Russian ambassador during the Republican convention.
- Kushner failed to disclose during his national-security clearance inquiry that he had contact with the head of a Russian-owned bank as well as with Kislyak. When this was reported, he claimed it was an oversight and that he filed a revised disclosure. When the news broke over the weekend of his 2016 session with Trump’s son, Manfort and the Russian lawyer, Kushner’s lawyer said the disclosure would be updated again.
Manafort has also updated his disclosure filings, as a lobbyist, for some of his meetings with Russians and to take account of money he received before last year from helping pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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Jonathan Landman at firstname.lastname@example.org