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Either Trump is lying about his campaign’s Russia ties or US spies are

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

In the midst of a rambling, angry press conference last Thursday, a reporter asked Trump for a “yes or no” answer on whether his campaign had any contact with Russia over the course of the election. Here’s what he said:

How many times do I have to answer this question? Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia. I haven’t made a phone call to Russia in years, I don’t speak to people in Russia — not that I wouldn’t, I just have nobody to speak to … I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.

This doesn’t add up. Earlier in February, the New York Times reported that members of Trump’s campaign team and other “Trump associates” had “repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials” prior to the November vote. The calls were intercepted by US officials monitoring Russian intelligence, who then leaked their existence to the Times.

Unless the New York Times totally blew this story, and four separate intelligence officials lied to them, then Trump’s people have, in fact, been in touch with Russia.

You might forgive Trump if he wasn’t aware of the New York Times report. But he clearly was. Later in his answer, he references a denial by Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager, of having anything to do with Russia: “Manafort has totally denied it.”

Except Manafort’s denial was in the New York Times story. And since the story’s publication, Trump has repeatedly taken to Twitter to complain about the “failing New York Times” reporting classified information, which sure seem like references to the intercepted calls:

Manafort was the only person the Times’ sources identified by name as being in contact with Russia. But the Times’ reporters (Michael Schmitt, Mark Mazzetti, and Matt Apuzzo) were very clear that the contact between the Trump team and Russia went well beyond one man.

“The officials said the intercepted communications were not limited to Trump campaign officials, and included other associates of Mr. Trump,” they write. “The officials said that one of the advisers picked up on the calls was Paul Manafort [but] declined to identify the other Trump associates on the calls.”

And while Manafort did indeed deny contact with Russian agents, he did so in a somewhat cagey manner. He didn’t tell the Times he never spoke to Russian agents; just that he never knowingly did so.

“I have never knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers,” Manafort said. “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’”

Even this is hard to believe, as Manafort has longstanding connections to the Kremlin. Manafort worked as a political adviser for Ukraine’s pro-Russian former president, Viktor Yanukovych, for years. Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign late August — right in the middle of the campaign — after a secret ledger was discovered with his name in it, suggesting he had quietly received $12.7 million between 2007 and 2012 from the Kremlin ally.

Regardless of the deal with Manafort, we know means the following things to be true about the president:

  1. Trump knows that, at the very least, he had top people working on his campaign who were closely aligned with Russia.
  2. He knows that US officials told the New York Times there are recordings of calls between some of his people and Russian intelligence agents.

So his conclusion on Thursday that “no person that I deal with” has contact with Russia seems like an awfully aggressive response that might not add up. Either Trump is lying about his campaign’s Russia ties or US spies are.