Even if Trump is right about collusion, Russia story is big (not fake) news

For a moment, let’s give President Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt about the week’s blockbuster news in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Let’s say his tweets of this morning on the matter perfectly put things in appropriate context: “The Fake News is working overtime. As Paul Manaforts lawyer said, there was ‘no collusion’ and events mentioned took place long before he came to the campaign. Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar. Check the DEMS!”

First of all, it is true that the indictment of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort centered on activities before he became involved in the Republican’s run for the White House. As for the “young, low level volunteer named George” — Papadopoulos, incidentally; let’s assume the president was just running out of characters in his tweet — we can only hope that a 30-year-old who until recently listed Model UN among his qualifications was a nobody and not really a guiding light in the development of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy. Let us further suppose that Mr. Trump mentioned him by name when the Washington Post’s editorial board asked him who his foreign policy advisers were simply because he didn’t really have any at that point and not because Mr. Papadopoulos was actually influential.

Though Mr. Trump may be loath to credit the source, The New York Times has some reporting on Mr. Papadopoulos that backs up that possibility to a degree. The Times’ Scott Shane has details of Mr. Papadopoulos’ repeated efforts to foster connections between the campaign and the Kremlin — up to and including a meeting between Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to Mr. Shane’s report, none other than then-senator, now Attorney General Jeff Sessions stopped Mr. Papadopoulos when he proposed that last idea and instructed those present at a campaign meeting in Washington not to speak of it again.

Furthermore, although documents related to Mr. Papadopoulos’ guilty plea in Mr. Mueller’s investigation reveal that he knew that Russia possessed thousands of emails with “dirt” on Ms. Clinton months before that was publicly known, they do not document any cases in which he shared that information with others in the campaign.

So, the benefit-of-the-doubt explanation here is that Mr. Papadopoulos was, in fact, a “nobody” engaged in a fruitless and misguided attempt to boost his status through fostering connections to the Russian government that wiser heads in the campaign recognized as a bad idea.

Of course, that beneift of the doubt breaks down at several points. After all, Donald Trump Jr., Mr. Manafort and Jared Kushner weren’t shy about having their own meeting later in the summer with a Russian attorney who was advertised as acting as part of the Putin government’s effort to help the Trump campaign and who supposedly had damaging information about Ms. Clinton. Nor did Mr. Sessions’ wariness about contact with the Russians preclude him from meeting with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak at least twice and discussing matters related to the campaign and policy issues a President Trump might later address — meetings that Mr. Sessions initially failed to disclose and about which he later made statements that appear to be, at best, misleading. Nor did any concerns about the Putin regime’s interference stop Michael Flynn, who would briefly serve as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, from talking to the Russian government after the election but before the inauguration (and then lying about it). Nor, of course, did it stop Mr. Trump from bragging to Mr. Kislyak in the Oval Office that he had fired FBI director James Comey because of the investigation into possible Russian collusion with his campaign.

Even if we ignore all that and ascribe to the president and his advisers the purest of motives, the documents unsealed Monday in the Papadopoulos case add yet more evidence of some facts that should by now be undeniable: Not only did the Putin regime hack into the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems but it made repeated efforts to connect with the Trump campaign. If there was no collusion, it wasn’t for a lack of trying on the part of the Russians. That’s not a hoax, it’s not fake news, and it’s not excuse-making by the Democrats. It’s a real threat to our democracy, and if the president keeps blowing it off, you can bet the next time will be worse.

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