The Trump-Russia story is a drama that has unfolded in four acts:
Act I: Denial
George Stephanopoulos: “Are there any ties between Mr. Trump, you or your campaign and Putin and his regime?”
President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort: “No, there are not. That’s absurd.” — July 24, 2016
Trump: “I have nothing to do with Russia. I don’t have any jobs in Russia. I’m all over the world, but we’re not involved in Russia.” — July 26, 2016
Former White House staffer Hope Hicks: “There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.” — Nov. 11, 2016
Chris Wallace asks if there were any contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Vice President Mike Pence: “Of course not. Why would there be?” — Jan. 15, 2017
Act II: Contacts Discovered
“There were contacts,” according to a Russian official. — New York Times, Nov. 10, 2016
“Members of the Trump campaign interacted with Russians at least 32 times.” — The Washington Post, Nov. 13, 2017
“Trump and his associates had more than 100 contacts with Russians before the inauguration.” — The New York Times, Jan. 26, 2019
Act III: Russia’s Role
“Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.” — U.S. Intelligence Community assessment, Jan. 6, 2017
Russian agents purchased advertising on Facebook and distributed inflammatory posts that reached at least 126 million Facebook users. The Russians published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded more than 1,000 videos on YouTube. — Statements for congressional hearings, October 2017.
Russian intelligence conspired “to gain unauthorized access (to ‘hack’) into the computers of U.S. persons and entities involved in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, steal documents from those computers, and stage releases of the stolen documents to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” — Indictment of 12 Russians, July 13, 2018
Act IV: Confession
Trump acknowledges that even as his presidential campaign was underway in 2016, his business was in discussions with Russia about building a Trump property in Moscow. — New York Times interview, Jan. 31, 2019
Manafort tells prosecutors that he had repeated talks with a Russian, Konstantin Kilimnik, who is believed to have ties to Russian military intelligence. Kilimnik flew to New York for one crucial dinner meeting on Aug. 2, 2016, while Manafort was Trump’s campaign chairman, and they discussed a peace proposal for Ukraine that would resolve the dispute over Putin’s intervention there. This issue was high on Putin’s agenda. Manafort may also have handed over confidential polling data to Kilimnik.
A federal prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann, says on Feb. 4, 2019, “This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating.”
“I chose to participate in the illicit act of the president rather than to listen to my own inner voice, which should have warned me that the campaign finance violations that I later pled guilty to were insidious. … Most all, I want to apologize to the people of the United States.” — Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, statement to the court, Dec. 12, 2018, after earlier confessing to lying to Congress about Trump’s investment interest in Russia
To the Audience
A recent Washington Post/Schar poll found that 43 percent of Americans still are skeptical that Russia interfered with the 2016 election. That should no longer be in doubt.
What isn’t clear is the role that the Trump campaign played, if any, in that interference.
Unlike a play, the stakes here are enormous: This drama is about the integrity of America’s political system. We should be careful about assuming we can predict the ending, but I keep coming back to Pence’s excellent question when he denied — falsely — that there had been any contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign: “Why would there be?”