The question is no longer whether Trump and his campaign colluded with Russians in advance of the election of 2016. The New York Times reported recently that “Donald J. Trump and at least 17 campaign officials and advisers had contacts with Russian nationals and WikiLeaks, or their intermediaries,” during the 2016 campaign for president. “Among these contacts are more than 100 in-person meetings, phone calls, text messages, emails and private messages on Twitter.”
“Mr. Trump and his campaign repeatedly denied having such contacts with Russians during the 2016 election,” The Times reported. They dropped that last assertion like an afterthought, but in fact, the denials by Trump and his henchmen that they had any contacts with Russians go to the heart of the case of collusion. Prosecutors call it “a sign of guilt,” the repeated denial of facts that are later shown to be true. Why would Trump stand up at his very first news conference after taking office on February 16, 2017, and deny that neither he or any of his associates other than Michael Flynn had any contacts with Russians? He was asked the question repeatedly, in different forms. Did he have any business dealings in Russia? No. Did anyone working on his behalf have any contacts with Russians? “No, nobody that I know of.” Can we get a yes or no answer, sir? “Russia is a ruse.” “It’s all fake news.” “It’s a joke.”
In an off-the-cuff manner, Trump told reporters at his first press conference that he had already talked to Russian president Vladimir Putin twice: once right after the election, and the second time after he had been inaugurated. Reporters didn’t question him about what they had talked about. Everyone was concerned with whether there had been contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russians before election day, not after.
But not enough attention has been paid to the number of times Trump and Putin have talked since the election. According to The New York Times, Trump and Putin have had at least five meetings in person, and nine conversations over the phone since Trump won the election on November 9, 2016. Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep those conversations secret, including taking away his own translator’s notes after a private meeting with Putin in Hamburg, Germany at the G-20 Summit in 2017. He also had a second meeting with Putin after a dinner at the same summit, during which Trump’s own interpreter was barred from the meeting. “There is no official United States government record of what was said,” according to the Times.
It has been widely reported that Trump accepted Putin’s denials of Russian interference in the 2016 election over the opinions of his own intelligence officials. But we didn’t know until this week with the publication of former FBI deputy director, Andrew McCabe’s book, “The Threat” that Trump had taken Putin’s word over that of American intelligence agencies about the ability of North Korean ICBM’s to reach American shores. During an intelligence briefing in the White House, Trump told his intelligence chiefs, “I don’t care. I believe Putin,” according to the interview McCabe gave to “60 Minutes.”
Why would Trump accept the word of an aggressive adversary over that of his own intelligence agencies? Why would he go to such great lengths to keep secret what he and Putin have talked about in person and on the phone? I think we now have our answer. It’s part of Trump’s continuing collusion with Russian president Vladimir Putin. The collusion didn’t end with the election. It’s ongoing. It’s constant. In fact, I don’t think we really know how many times Trump has talked to Putin. McCabe was asked during an interview this week when Trump had learned from Putin about the abilities of North Korea’s missile program. “I don’t know,” McCabe replied. Neither do we.
Trump’s contacts with the Russians go beyond his conversations with Putin. Remember what happened after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May of 2017? One day later, he welcomed into the Oval Office the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, and Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and bragged about firing Comey. “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump told the Russians.” “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” He then added, apparently unprompted, “I’m not under investigation.”
But we didn’t learn that from a White House transcript of the Oval Office meeting with the Russians. Nor did we learn it from members of the White House press corps who were present, because none were. No, we learned it days later from leaks by the Russian media, who were present in the Oval Office.
Trump had already spoken with Putin on the phone twice. Now he was reassuring the Russians that he had taken care of the man who had announced he was investigating Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, and that he himself was not a subject of an FBI investigation.
That would not remain true for very long. We now know from McCabe’s book that he had opened a criminal and counterintelligence investigation of President Trump soon after he fired Comey. “I was very concerned that I was able to put the Russia case on absolutely solid ground in an indelible fashion that were I removed quickly or reassigned or fired that the case would not be closed or vanish in the night without a trace,” McCabe told CBS’ “Sixty Minutes” last Sunday.
McCabe was correct to be worried that the FBI investigation of Trump would either disappear or come under attack by the president. The New York Times reported yesterday that Trump has attacked the Russia investigation more than 1,100 times. “The attacks, which number nearly 1,200, are part of a strategy to beat back the investigations. They have also opened him to possible obstruction of justice charges. They include statements made on Twitter, in official speeches, at rallies and during news media interviews and other press events.”
Attacking the investigation being carried out by Robert Mueller hasn’t been enough, however. What Trump has been doing with Putin isn’t collusion, it’s a conspiracy. The foundational crime of the conspiracy was to steal the election of 2016. What’s happened since has been a continuing conspiracy to destroy the Mueller investigation and push back at Democrats who are now gearing up to hold hearings to look into Trump and his Russia contacts. That’s why we have recently seen reports of Russian action on social media against Democrats during the midterm election for the house and senate in 2018. And now we’re seeing reports that the same Russians who interfered in the elections of 2016 and 2018 are starting to go after Democratic candidates who have announced for president, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren among them.
Practically every meeting Trump has had with American allies has been hostile. He has constantly threatened the NATO alliance and been critical of close allies like Germany, France, Canada, and Mexico. But everything he’s ever said about Russia and Putin has been positive. Everything. Even after he called off a formal meeting with Putin at the latest G-20 summit in Argentina last November, he managed to have a private conversation with the Russian leader at a dinner that was closed to the press, the White House had to admit later.
The collusion between Trump and Russia didn’t stop after the election. It’s ongoing, every time Trump appears with Putin at a summit, every time they have a private meeting, every time they pick up the phone. You think they might be getting ready for the election in 2020? I do.