On Tuesday afternoon, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said “nothing” led him to believe that any pre-election contact between Donald Trump’s campaign staff and the Russians was even a possibility.
“There’s nothing that would conclude me that anything has changed with respect to that time period,” Spicer said haltingly, after ABC News White House correspondent Jonathan Karl asked whether Spicer could say “definitively” that no member of Trump’s campaign had Russian contacts before the election.
Seven hours later, The New York Times reported that four former and current U.S. government officials had alleged that members of Trump’s campaign and other Trump associates had made repeated contact with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year leading up to the 2016 general election.
Spicer’s tortuous reply earlier in the day at first appeared to be a doubling-down on a position long held by the four-week-old Trump administration and its most senior officials: that despite allegations to the contrary—including from Russia’s deputy foreign minister—the Trump campaign was never in contact with Russian intelligence. But reports that the U.S. government had intercepted repeated calls between Trump’s campaign staff and associates, including from former campaign chairman and one-time Kremlin-backed political consultant Paul Manafort, make Spicer’s disinclination to provide a definitive answer look almost like a walkback from the position taken publicly by the president himself, as well as by top White House officials.
During a press conference on Jan. 11, after initially dodging a question about contact between Trump associates or campaign employees and the Russian government, the then-president-elect responded after the event’s conclusion with a succinct, “No contact.” Four days later, now-Vice President Mike Pence said on CBS’s Face the Nation that the campaign had had zero contact with the Kremlin.
“Of course not,” Pence told host John Dickerson. “And I think to suggest that is to give credence to some of these bizarre rumors that have swirled around the candidacy.”
It was during the same interview, of course, that Pence defended Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn against allegations that the future (and now former) national security adviser had discussed Obama administration sanctions against Russia with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak—allegations that have since proved shockingly accurate.
Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway made similar refutations of allegations that Trump campaign staff had contacted Russian intelligence officers during an interview on MSNBC in December, calling such speculation “dangerous.”
“Absolutely not,” Conway said at the time. “Those conversations never happened. I hear people saying it like it’s a fact on television. That is just not only inaccurate and false, but it’s dangerous, and it does undermine our democracy.”
The White House has not yet responded to requests for comment on the revelations, although Manafort called the allegations “absurd,” telling The New York Times that he never “knowingly” discussed anything with Russian intelligence officials (who would, he contended, presumably be adept enough at espionage that a person might accidentally speak with them unintentionally).
“It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer,’” Manafort said.
The administration’s reaction to Flynn’s late-night resignation on Monday following news of his own contact with the Russian government, however, may indicate a response to the latest allegations along the lines of: “So what?”
“There was nothing wrong or inappropriate about those discussions,” Spicer said of the Trump administration’s first Russia-related crisis of the week. “It purely came down to a matter of trust.”