In light of the allegations that the Trump campaign had direct ties to Russian officials, Steve Benen reminds us of something important today. Back in November, this was pretty widely reported in the press:
Russian government officials conferred with members of Donald Trump’s campaign team, a senior Russian diplomat said Thursday, a disclosure that could reopen scrutiny of the Kremlin’s role in the president-elect’s bitter race against Hillary Clinton.
The statement came from Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who said in an interview with the state-run Interfax news agency that “there were contacts” with the Trump team.
“Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage,” Ryabkov said.
“We have just begun to consider ways of building dialogue with the future Donald Trump administration and channels we will be using for those purposes,” Ryabkov was quoted as saying.
Ryabkov provided no further details, and his remarks drew a swift denial from Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks, who said the campaign had “no contact with Russian officials” before Tuesday’s election.
As an aside, I’ll point out that this might be the one and only time that Trump and/or his spokesperson has ever contradicted something a Russian official said. Nevertheless, it is important to keep this statement from Rybakov in mind when they categorically deny any contact with Russia prior to the election.
The documents released by Buzzfeed name three Trump staff/advisors who held meetings with top-level Russian officials on behalf of the campaign: Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Michael Cohen. At the news conference this morning, it was alarming that Sean Spicer said this about Carter Page:
Carter Page is an individual who the president-elect does not know and was put on notice months ago by the campaign.
That is an obvious lie given that back in March 2016, during an interview with the Washington Post editorial board, Trump named Page as one of his foreign policy advisors. Then in September last year, Page announced that he was “taking a leave of absence from his work with the Trump campaign.” The reason Page gave for that leave was the story by Michael Isikoff (probably based on the same documents that were released yesterday) that Page had met with both Igor Sachin (“a longtime Putin associate and former Russian deputy prime minister who is now the executive chairman of Rosneft, Russian’s leading oil company”) and Igor Diveykin (“a former Russian security official, Diveykin now serves as deputy chief for internal policy”).
When it comes to Michael Cohen, both he and the Trump organization have made statements denying his involvement in meeting with Russian officials. Here is what Spicer said at the news conference today:
Michael Cohen, who is said to have visited Prague in August and September did not leave or enter the United States during this time. We asked him to produce his passport to confirm his whereabouts on the dates in question and there was no doubt that he was not in Prague.
In fact, Mr. Cohen has never been in Prague. A new report actually suggests that Michael Cohen was at — at the University of Southern California with his son at a baseball game. One report now suggested apparently it’s another Michael Cohen.
This is what Cohen told Mic last night:
The Trump loyalist said he was in Los Angeles celebrating his 50th birthday with his wife and son during the late summer timeframe when the document claimed he was supposedly hobnobbing with the Russians at a secret meeting overseas.
The actual documents relate a fair amount of confusion about when/where the alleged meeting with Michael Cohen happened. The final report simply says that it took place in Prague either in the last week of August or the first week of September. So neither statement above is a direct contradiction to the possibility that the meeting occurred.
However, Jake Tapper reports that another man named Michael Cohen (different country of origin and different birthdate) is the one who travelled to the Czech Republican during that time frame. So perhaps this part of the story is not true.
What we are left with from all this is that a high level Russian official confirmed in early November that there had, in fact, been meetings between the Trump campaign and officials from his country. We also know that the Trump campaign lied today about the involvement of Carter Page in the organization and that he took a leave of absence when allegations that he had met with high level Russian officials surfaced.