Let’s be clear from the start: There is no evidence that Donald Trump or his campaign coordinated with Russia to hack the Democratic National Committee’s emails or funnel them to Wikileaks; no evidence that they are puppets of Vladimir Putin; and no proof that the Kremlin possesses kompromat on the president.
There are suspicions voiced by members of Congress, leaked by parts of the intelligence committee, held by journalists at respected publications who are investing lots of time and money chasing down leads, and of concern to millions of Americans.
And that status quo is unhealthy for American democracy.
I would welcome proof that Trump is innocent of any wrongdoing in this matter, because the alternative is a compromised president, the possibility of a constitutional crisis, and consequences that are hard to predict.
If he is guilty of anything I want the truth to out.
Either way, the major obstacle is Trump’s untrustworthiness. He is a frequently mendacious man, and many of his associates possess the same deficiency in character. I do not know if the many untruths Trump and his team have uttered on this subject are making them appear guiltier than they are or obscuring a shocking reality.
But the contradictions cannot be ignored.
A couple weeks ago, Trump gave a lengthy, combative press conference where he was asked, “Can you say whether you are aware that anyone who advised your campaign had contacts with Russia during the course of the election?”
He said no, aside from Mike Flynn, who ostensibly resigned from the Trump administration for misleading Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
Then Trump went much farther.
Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia. Haven't made a phone call to Russia in years. Don't speak to people from Russia. Not that I wouldn't. I just have nobody to speak to. I spoke to Putin twice. He called me on the election. I told you this. And he called me a few days ago. We had a very good talk, especially the second one ... I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge no person that I deal with does. Now, Manafort has totally denied it. He denied it. Now people knew that he was a consultant over in that part of the world for a while, but not for Russia. I think he represented Ukraine or people having to do with Ukraine.
Even two weeks ago, Trump’s claims were highly dubious.
Now consider what we have learned in the last 24 hours.
“Three weeks before Election Day, Donald Trump Jr. left the campaign trail and the country to speak at a private dinner in Paris organized by an obscure pro-Russia group that promotes Kremlin foreign policy initiatives and has since nominated Russian President Vladimir Putin for the Nobel Peace Prize,” ABC reported.
Then CNN reported that J.D. Gordon, a former national security adviser to Trump, attended an event with the Russian ambassador at the GOP convention. Trump national-security advisers Carter Page and Walid Phares were there, too. And Jared Kushner and Mike Flynn met with Russia’s ambassador at Trump Tower in December.
One can imagine non-nefarious explanations for all of these meetings. USA Today’s writeup of the Cleveland RNC event makes it sound especially innocuous.
But they inevitably create suspicion when they directly contradict bygone untruths told by the president and his team; follow Manafort and Flynn resigning over matters related to Russia; concern a president who will not release his tax returns; and dovetail with a dossier that alleges alarming ties between Trump and the Kremlin.
Look again at Trump’s words from his press conference: “I have nothing to do with Russia,” the president said. “To the best of my knowledge no person that I deal with does.”
That is bullshit. Among many other things, Russia’s ambassador clearly made a concerted effort to interact with many on the Trump team and succeeded spectacularly.
Nor do the contradictions end there.
On CNN, Jim Acosta reported more about his phone conversation with J.D. Gordon.
“Gordon said he was part of the effort pushed by the Trump campaign to put some language in the GOP platform that essentially said that the Republican Party did not advocate for arming the Ukrainians in their battle against pro-Russian separatists,” Acosta related. “He said that his is the language that Donald Trump himself wanted and advocated for back in March at a meeting at the unfinished Trump hotel here in Washington D.C. J.D. Gordon says then-candidate Trump said he did not want to ‘go to World War III over Ukraine,’ and J.D. Gordon says at the Republican convention in Cleveland he advocated for language in that Republican Party platform that reflected then-candidate Trump’s comment.”
In my view, there was nothing substantively wrong with softening the language in the Republican Party platform. I find establishment Republicans and hawkish Democrats like Hillary Clinton terrifying when they seem eager for conflict with Russia.
But Team Trump’s behavior surrounding the change was very odd.
After The Washington Post reported that the Trump campaign orchestrated the change in the GOP platform, the Trump campaign denied any involvement. Paul Manafort went on Meet the Press, where he could not have been any clearer about the matter:
Chuck Todd: There’s been some controversy about something in the Republican Party platform that essentially changed the Republican Party’s views when it comes to Ukraine. How much influence did you have in changing that language, sir?
Paul Manafort: I had none. In fact, I didn’t even hear of it until after our convention was over.
Todd: Where did it comes from then? Because everybody on the platform committee had said it came from the Trump campaign. If not you, who?
Manafort: It absolutely did not come from the Trump campaign. And I don’t know who everybody is, but I guarantee you it was nobody that was on the platform committee–
Todd: So nobody from the Trump campaign wanted that change in the platform?
Manafort: No one, zero.
That seemed even more unlikely later that month when Trump gave an interview to George Stephanopolous:
George Stephanopolous: Then why did you soften the GOP platform on Ukraine?
Donald Trump: I wasn’t involved in that. Honestly, I was not involved.
Stephanopolous: Your people were.
Trump: Yeah. I was not involved in that. I’d like to — I’d have to take a look at it. But I was not involved in that.
Stephanopolous: Do you know what they did?
Trump: They softened it, I heard, but I was not involved.
Stephanopolous: They took away the part of the platform calling for the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine to defend themselves. Why is that a good idea?
Trump: Look, I have my own ideas. He’s not going into Ukraine, OK?Just so you understand. He's not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.
Stephanopolous: Well, he's already there, isn't he?
Trump: OK, well, he's there in a certain way, but I'm not there yet.
Trump appeared to acknowledge that his team pressed for the change. And days later, The Daily Beast quoted four sources in the room who confirmed the campaign’s involvement. Eric Brakey, a Maine delegate who favored the change, told the web site, “Some staff from the Trump campaign came in and … came back with some language that softened the platform. They didn’t intervene in the platform in most cases. But in that case they had some wisdom to say that maybe we don’t want to be calling … for very, very clear aggressive acts of war against Russia.”
That’s where the matter rested … until Thursday, when CNN’s Jim Acosta filed his standup dispatch in front of the White House suggesting that Trump was, at the very least, involved in the matter directly, and more deeply than he led us to believe.
Gordon’s story doesn’t reveal any nefarious plot, or even any surprising view. Trump was constantly touting his desire to get along with Russia and avoid World War III. He repeatedly said things about Russia and Putin on the campaign trail that were far more controversial and eyebrow-raising then a desire to soften platform language. So why did Team Trump strain itself to obscure its involvement?
For months I’ve urged Congress to assert itself more on this matter.
As the weeks pass, the press continues to uncover contradictions, and Team Trump’s demonstrable untruths pile up, making it impossible for the public to trust their president when he denies inappropriate contacts with a foreign adversary because they can’t trust anything he says, the need to get to the bottom of whatever they are hiding only grows more urgent—whether to exonerate a president who creates the appearance of serious impropriety with every absurdity he utters about Russia, or to uncover whatever nefarious truth he is contorting himself to hide.