“Collusion” is back.
After a slowdown before the midterm elections, the Trump-Russia saga has reached a new crescendo, with Democrats pointing to what they call new evidence of collaboration between the 2016 Trump campaign and Moscow — even as President Donald Trump added legal weight to his denials.
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A dizzying flurry of headlines, leaks and legal action over the past several days have shined new light on contacts between Trump associates and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who in 2016 released Hillary Clinton campaign emails that U.S. officials say were stolen by Russian operatives. Democrats say they strengthen the case — widely dismissed by Republicans — that the Trump campaign was aware of or even helped to coordinate the email dumps.
“It’s always smelled like collusion,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview. But after this week’s developments, he said, “It doesn’t smell less like collusion. It smells more.”
Democrats like Swalwell vow that, when they assume control of the House in January, they will revisit testimony from witnesses who provided incomplete or contradictory testimony about their connections to Wikileaks and Russia.
Trump spent two years turning the phrase “no collusion” into a rallying cry for his base, and the lack of smoking-gun evidence had made the issue of collusion an elusive target for Democrats intent on highlighting questionable connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. Some Trump critics had begun to focus more on the prospect that the president sought to obstruct justice. But that was before this week’s reports that Trump associates Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi discussed the contents of Clinton campaign before they were made public. Stone and Corsi also discussed contacting Wikileaks boss Julian Assange to confirm the contents of the emails he had obtained. Corsi, after contacting an associate in London where Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, told Stone that Assange had emails that would damage Clinton and planned to release them in October 2016, prosecutors allege.
Both men deny ever actually connecting with Assange or having any definitive foreknowledge of what Wikileaks had possessed, however. And Trump himself is staking out firmer ground on the question. On Wednesday he retweeted a graphic calling collusion “a proven lie” and showing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, along with several prominent Democrats, behind bars.
According to CNN, Trump also told Mueller in written answers he sent to the special counsel this week that Stone had not told him Wikileaks would release Clinton’s emails. Trump also reportedly denied knowing ahead of time about a notorious June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower, attended by his campaign chairman Paul Manafort, with a Russian lawyer peddling “dirt” on Clinton that an intermediary had said was part of the Russian government’s effort to help Trump get elected.
In a Wednesday interview with the New York Post, Trump also declined to rule out a pardon for Manafort, saying that the option was not “off the table.” That report followed one on Tuesday by the New York Times revealing that Manafort’s legal team was briefing Trump’s lawyers about the Republican operative’s cooperation with Mueller, which some legal analysts suggested might have been an effort to curry favor with Trump.
That is only likely to further inflame Democrats, who were also energized this week by a Tuesday report in The Guardian that Manafort met with Assange in London three times, including in the spring of 2016. Manafort and Wikileaks vehemently disputed the account, but Democrats cited it as further evidence of a nefarious connection between the campaign and the Russian plot to sway the election.
“Reported Manafort contacts with Julian Assange could draw—for the first time—a direct line from the heart of the Trump campaign to documents stolen by the Russians & efforts to meddle in our election,” tweeted Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) on Tuesday, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Along with the Corsi-Stone revelations — and new questions about how far Trump will go to protect Manafort, who has longtime ties to the Putin-friendly Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska — Democrats are licking their chops.
“It’s that web of contacts which are so concerning in terms of collusion, conspiracy. That’s what you would expect a conspiracy to look like,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif)., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, who is expected to chair the panel when Democrats take the House in January. “These recent allegations bring that right to the president’s feet.”
“If it looks like collusion, meets like collusion, and acts like collusion, then it probably is collusion,” added Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), in a Tuesday tweet.
Schiff and other House Democrats have long argued that evidence points toward a possible conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russians. More than a dozen Trump associates were in contact with Kremlin-linked figures during the campaign, including at the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, which also included Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Trump campaign and transition officials also interacted with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and two Trump campaign foreign policy advisers made overseas contacts with Russia-connected individuals.
Trump allies have dismissed those contacts as inconsequential, routine and exaggerated by Democrats to support a made-up narrative. House Republicans also shuttered their own Russia investigation early this year, closing off avenues of inquiry that Democrats said prevented them from solving lingering mysteries about those contacts. Schiff noted that Republicans blocked Democratic efforts to dig deeper on Stone’s seemingly advanced knowledge of Wikileaks’ plans, which are now at the center of Mueller’s probe. The House Intelligence Committee never even discovered his connection to Corsi, Schiff noted.
“The majority sort of mocked why we were interested in Stone. It was quite clear why we ought to be interested,” he said. “Certainly we are interested in following up on this investigative thread that Republicans were unwilling to do.”
“We weren’t allowed to press and squeeze these witnesses,” added Swalwell. “If we’d been allowed to pick them up, turn them upside down and shake them like a tree, we would’ve found a lot of this evidence and instead, we took witnesses at their word, people who weren’t worthy of being taken at their word and look what we’ve been left with, this sham investigation.”
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who led the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe before shutting it down in March, said none of the developments in recent days have caused him to consider reopening the investigation.
“I haven’t seen anything,” he said, attributing reports about Stone, Corsi and Manafort to “unnamed sources.”
“Right now, you can make stuff up and get some reporter to report it by just saying it out loud,” he said, adding “Mueller’s in the best position to understand” what actually happened.
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), another House Intelligence Committee member, said this week’s developments underscore what he considers a truism after nearly two years investigating the Trump campaign: “There are no coincidences.”
“Look at all these things that have happened. What does Manafort do, when does he meet, when does he get involved with the campaign, when is he named chairman,” Quigley said. “There’s about 18 Trump associates communicating with the Russians.”
Quigley said those contacts would be fodder for Democrats in January, when they retake the House.
“I don’t like the word collusion,” he said. “I think there was cooperation and a conspiracy to cooperate. We’ll leave it at that until we get back to work.”