A Year of Trump's Comments on Russia1:33
THE denials have been flowing thick and fast. Yet Donald Trump’s team cannot shake allegations of Russian collusion. So here’s a look at the tangled web that binds the US president’s fate with Moscow.
He had stormed his way through the Republican presidential nomination process. All opponents were simply brushed aside by the tide of populism by the controversial showman’s indomitable style.
But in the final race for the presidential goalpost, the self-styled amateur of governing knew he’d need all the help he could get.
It’s where he got that help — and whether or not it violates the US Constitution — that has left a dark stain on the early days of the 45th presidency.
It’s a concept that may have come as something of a shock for the real-estate mogul, who is well versed in the dark arts of making a deal.
Since the scandal exploded in the final months before Trump’s election as President of the United States, he and his team have consistently denied any ties whatsoever with Russia or its representatives.
And they paint a worrying picture of a campaign willing to do any deal to get their man into the top job.
So here are all of the Russian ties that lead back to President Trump. That we know about.
Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was bluntly asked on the US ABC on July 24, 2016, if there were any links between his efforts, Russia and its president — Vladimir Putin. “No, there are not. And you know, there’s no basis to it.”
It was just the first of some 20 outright denials by Trump’s trusted campaign officials in the face of persistent claims of regular contacts with Moscow.
But the exposure of Carter Page, Trump’s foreign policy adviser, was among the first warning signs of potentially suspect business and political ties. The ex-navy businessman had drawn the attention of the FBI in 2013 when he was targeted for recruitment by a Russian intelligence agency. Then, in 2016, he gave a startlingly Russia-friendly speech shortly after joining the Trump team and appears to have met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
He stepped down from his role in September when he became the subject of an FBI surveillance warrant.
It didn’t end there. In November it was revealed the by now former Trump campaign manager Manafort was also being investigated by the FBI. He flatly denied allegations of links to Moscow: “None of it is true …. (it’s) political propaganda, meant to deflect”. He remains under a cloud amid revelations he had lobbied on behalf of a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine and had a $US10 million contract working for Russian aluminium magnate and Putin confidant, Oleg Deripaska.
“Informal” adviser to Trump Roger Stone Jr boasted he knew in advance that a mass of emails from Hillary Clinton’s Democratic National Committee were about to be released. He said he’d been in direct contact with Julian Assange, though he then back-pedaled and said all communications had been through an ‘intermediary’.
US media and intelligence agencies drew links between the hack and Russian operatives. But a blogger called Guccifer 2.0, who conversed with Stone Jr via Twitter after news of Russian involvement broke, later claimed it was he who conducted the hack — not Moscow — and gave the documents to Assange. However, Guccifer 2.0 was himself later found to have ties to Russia.
A joint briefing by the CIA, National Security Agency and FBI failed to convince Trump that Moscow was behind the attack. In fact, the FBI’s persistent assertion it was Russia may have generated the tensions between its director, James Comey, and President Trump which resulted in his firing earlier this year.
Then there was Moscow-born Trump campaign adviser Boris Epshteyn. He raised eyebrows when he loudly asserted Russia had not actually seized Crimea, the cause of extensive economic sanctions targeted at key Moscow businessmen.
The particulars of his argument were noted to closely mirror the official Kremlin line.
It was a sense of collusion reinforced in November when Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Interfax news agency that Moscow officials had contacted members of Trump’s campaign team during the election. “Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage,” Ryabkov said.
Trump’s communication director Hope Hicks quickly moved to damp-down the damage: “It never happened. There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.”
A two-page British intelligence dossier on Trump made headlines in January. It allegedly exposed a classic case of Russian ‘Kompromat’ — where key dignitaries and businesspeople are sexually and financially compromised in order to make them vulnerable to extortion. Here, Trump had allegedly indulged in dalliances during the 2013 Miss Universe contest, then held in Moscow.
But the Miss Universe contest itself exposes a degree of Russian collusion in Trump’s business affairs. Billionaire Aras Agalarov reportedly paid Donald Trump up to $US20 million to stage the pageant in Moscow.
The Agalarov and Trump families also appear to have close personal ties. Aras’s son, Emin, is a pop star. Donald Trump made a guest appearance in one of his music videos, and sent a video greeting card for the billionaire’s son’s birthday in 2014.
After the Trump election win, Emin boasted on Russian state television: “I met many times with the sons, Eric and Donald. We message each other constantly.”
It was reportedly he who suggested Trump Jr meet with a Moscow lawyer to hear details that may be damaging to Hillary Clinton.
Michael Cohen, Trump’s long-term personal lawyer, was challenged about allegations contained within the intelligence dossier relating to business ties with Russia and a trip to Prague to broker a Moscow-backed peace deal for Ukraine. He flatly denied ever making the trip.
He’s since been subpoenaed by the US Congress’ House Intelligence Committee — and the White House has been keen to distance itself from Cohen’s campaign role.
Then Trump nominee for the role of Attorney-General of the United States Jeff Sessions was challenged under oath at his Senate confirmation hearing about personal contacts with Russian representatives during the 2016 election campaign. “I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians,” he asserted.
But it was soon revealed he had actually spoken with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice during that sensitive time.
Rumblings about President Trump’s new National Security Advisor, General Flynn, having repeatedly met with Russia’s ambassador during president-elect Trump’s transition were at first met with rejection.
But then came an admission from Trump’s mouthpiece, Sean Spicer: “My understanding is that what General Flynn has now expressed is that during the transition period — well, we were very clear that during the transition period, he did speak with the ambassador.”
Flynn was forced to stand down after just a few weeks, with revelations of business ties to Russia and attending a function in Moscow with Vladimir Putin.
Former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson has a long list of his own business ties to both Russia and President Putin. He drank champagne with Putin in 2011 to seal a deal to drill inside the Russian Arctic — a deal since suspended by sanctions imposed after Russia seized Crimea. But that is just one of many such deals, some with close associates of Putin. Putin himself awarded Tillerson Russia’s Order of Friendhip medal in 2013.
Senior Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner was with Flynn when he met Russian Ambassador Kislyak at Trump Tower. It’s alleged the purpose of the meeting was to establish a secret communications channel with Moscow. But Kushner managed to avoid the scandal which eventually saw Flynn fall on his sword. Kushner was also present at a prior meeting between Trump Jr and a Russian lawyer, and has been tied to a Russian-spy-turned-banker, Sergey Gorkov. His lawyer says an FBI security questionnaire did not contain details about the meetings as it was submitted in error, prematurely.
Among the most recent revelations of contact between Moscow and Trump Tower is that of a meeting between Donald Trump Jr and a Russian lawyer. Trump Jr had previously flatly denied any contact with any Russian on any campaign matter. Then, all of a sudden, he unreservedly declared the reason behind a meeting with Moscow lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya in June last year: Digging dirt on Hillary Clinton. He’s since had to hire an expert lawyer to represent him in all questioning over the chat, which included Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Manafort. It’s also emerged Trump Jr flew to Paris three weeks before the US election to meet with a pro-Russian think tank that has nominated Vladimir Putin for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The US president still refuses to reveal the one thing that would clear him of persistent allegations of deep business links with key Russian officials and entrepreneurs: his tax returns.
He continues to emphatically deny any Russian interests, calling such claims a “political witch hunt” and a “complete and total fabrication”.
To back his assertions he had no conflicts of interest among his business dealings, he wheeled out law firm Morgan Lewis — named “2016 Russian Law Firm of the Year” — to detail the distancing mechanisms that had been put in place.
In a statement to media on February 16, he said: “Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia. Haven’t made a phone call to Russia in years. Don’t speak to people from Russia. Not that I wouldn’t. I just have nobody to speak to. I spoke to Putin twice. He called me on the election. I told you this. And he called me on the inauguration, a few days ago. We had a very good talk, especially the second one, lasted for a pretty long period of time. I’m sure you probably get it because it was classified. So I’m sure everybody in this room perhaps has it. But we had a very, very good talk. I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge no person that I deal with does. Now, Manafort has totally denied it. He denied it. Now people knew that he was a consultant over in that part of the world for a while, but not for Russia. I think he represented Ukraine or people having to do with Ukraine, or people that — whoever. But people knew that. Everybody knew that.”