At Tuesday afternoon’s press briefing, ABC News White House correspondent Jonathan Karl asked White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer if, in the wake of Michael Flynn’s resignation, he could “still say definitively that nobody on the Trump campaign, not even Gen. Flynn, had any contact with the Russians before the election.”
Spicer at first evaded with an answer about the transition, then when Karl pressed him, said no.
“I don’t have any — there’s nothing that would conclude me — that anything different has changed with respect to that time period.”
A blockbuster new report says Spicer was wrong
Then Tuesday night, Michael Schmidt, Mark Mazzetti, and Matt Apuzzo report for the New York Times, citing four current and former American officials, that Spicer was wrong. They say that, in fact, “phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.”
It’s an explosive lead. Deeper in, the story reveals that American intelligence agencies have “sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election” but that “so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.” That’s a good deal less explosive.
Still, the fact is that the contacts were there. And the investigation is apparently ongoing.
It appears Spicer either baldly lied to the press about the contacts or else was kept out of the loop entirely. Kellyanne Conway made similar statements in December to CBS. Either way, the story is certain to intensify both the Trump administration’s complaining about leaks and congressional Democrats’ demands for an investigation on Capitol Hill that could provide an alternative route for information to reach the public.
Lying in the middle of a scandal is bad
Based on the facts currently known, it’s certainly possible that the contacts in question were either innocent or else had nothing to do with the Trump campaign.
By the same token, it’s certainly possible that Flynn’s post-election phone conversations with the Russian ambassador were entirely proper. It’s not wrong per se for a transition official to have discussions with foreign governments. But what’s curious is why, if the conversation was so innocent, did Flynn mislead both the public and Mike Pence about what they were talking about?
Similarly on this story, if there’s no fire beneath the smoke of these contacts, why did Spicer say there was no contact at all? Maybe he was misinformed. He wouldn’t have been in Trump’s inner circle at the time of the campaign, and maybe wasn’t trusted with the real information. But that simply pushes the question one step back. If it’s all innocent, why not give Spicer the full information?
The old saw — that it’s the cover-up rather than the crime that gets you — is sometimes literally true. People who lie to federal investigators, or in sworn depositions, to avoid embarrassment can find themselves committing crimes. But it’s also a red flag to the media.
The allegation that the Trump campaign was actively colluding with the Russian government is so wild that one would normally hesitate to devote any resources at all to exploring it. But the Trump campaign’s struggle to provide consistent, accurate information about the contacts suggests that more reporting and more investigation is needed.