The New York Times published somewhat of a bombshell report last night - I even received a breaking news alert on my phone - with an attention-grabbing headline sure to fuel the anti-Trump fever: “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence.”
I read the story. By the time I got to the third paragraph, I realized that the media's spin on the story would not match what was actually in it. Let's take a look and then you can decide for yourself how much of a 'bombshell' this really is.
Here's the NYT's opening paragraph:
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, according to four current and former American officials.
However, just two and a half paragraphs in, the NYT provides some crucially important context:
The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election. The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.
So there's no smoking gun. Evidence that Trump associates communicated with the Russians may contradict what the White House has been claiming - which is definitely an issue - but it's not illegal. Nor is it unusual. As a related CNN report admitted this morning, contact between campaigns and foreign officials is common.
But let's continue. Just who are these “members of the Trump campaign and Trump associates” who spoke to the Russians? The anonymous sources only provided one name:
The officials said that one of the advisers picked up on the calls was Paul Manafort, who was Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman for several months last year and had worked as a political consultant in Ukraine. The officials declined to identify the other Trump associates on the calls.
Manafort resigned in August precisely over his business connections to Russia, so this is not too shocking. But even then, the NYT admits that such connections are not unusual:
Several of Mr. Trump’s associates, like Mr. Manafort, have done business in Russia. And it is not unusual for American businessmen to come in contact with foreign intelligence officials, sometimes unwittingly, in countries like Russia and Ukraine, where the spy services are deeply embedded in society. Law enforcement officials did not say to what extent the contacts might have been about business.
That last line, bolded for emphasis, seems like important context, no? Trump allies who have business in Russia discussing business with Russians is hardly headline news. Moreover, there's a possibility these Trump associates may not have even known they were talking with Russian spies. We don't even know how close to the president these “associates” are.
Far lower, the New York Times admits that they really don't have much at all:
The officials would not disclose many details, including what was discussed on the calls, the identity of the Russian intelligence officials who participated, and how many of Mr. Trump’s advisers were talking to the Russians. It is also unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Mr. Trump himself.
This is alarming - but not alarming about Trump. This is alarming because, yet again, politically-motivated members of the intelligence community are selectively leaking classified information to the media in order to damage the administration. They got their headline but there's not much substance here. There's no smoking gun. There's not even a toy gun.
That's not to say what is being reported is false. It's just the opposite. There are a couple narrow facts and then the NYT goes to great lengths to explain the conjecture that they can't actually confirm.
The FBI is already investigating the White House's connections to Russia, as it has been for some time. They declined to comment on the NYT story. Let's wait to see what they say publicly. In the meantime, as I wrote last night, Congress needs to investigate the source of these politically-motivated leaks.