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Those Finely-Worded Denials Don’t Pass the Smell Test

From the midweek Morning Jolt

Those Finely-Worded Denials Don’t Pass the Smell Test

Just what were “suspected Russian operatives” and folks like Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn talking about last year?

High-level advisers close to then-presidential nominee Donald Trump were in constant communication during the campaign with Russians known to US intelligence, multiple current and former intelligence, law enforcement and administration officials tell CNN.

President-elect Trump and then-President Barack Obama were both briefed on details of the extensive communications between suspected Russian operatives and people associated with the Trump campaign and the Trump business, according to US officials familiar with the matter.

Both the frequency of the communications during early summer and the proximity to Trump of those involved “raised a red flag” with US intelligence and law enforcement, according to these officials. The communications were intercepted during routine intelligence collection targeting Russian officials and other Russian nationals known to US intelligence.

Among several senior Trump advisers regularly communicating with Russian nationals were then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and then-adviser Michael Flynn.

Officials emphasized that communications between campaign staff and representatives of foreign governments are not unusual. However, these communications stood out to investigators due to the frequency and the level of the Trump advisers involved. Investigators have not reached a judgment on the intent of those conversations.

Manafort is denying this, and certain points that he emphasizes in his blanket denial start to strain credulity:

Manafort said he did not know where US officials got the idea that he was in contact with suspected Russian operatives during the campaign but said he never spoke with any Russian officials during that time.

“I don’t remember talking to any Russian officials, ever. Certainly during the time we’re talking about,” he said, calling the allegations “boggling.”

“I have knowingly never talked to any intelligence official or anyone in Russia regarding anything of what’s under investigation,” he said. “I have never had any connection to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin or the Russian government before, during or after the campaign.”

A direct connection? Perhaps not. But Manafort spent 2007 to 2012 working for and advising [Ukranian Prime Minister] Viktor Yanukovich, who was called “at heart a Soviet-style autocrat” and “loyal to Moscow” and a “a Putin ally.”

In case you’ve forgotten how things turned out for Yanukovich…

Ukraine’s former President Viktor Yanukovych has said he accepts some responsibility for the killings that led to his overthrow in February 2014.

“I don’t deny my responsibility,” he told BBC Newsnight, when asked about the shooting of demonstrators in Kiev’s Maidan Square.

He never ordered the security forces to open fire, he said, but admitted he had not done enough to prevent bloodshed…

In February 2014 Mr Yanukovych was whisked away by Russian special forces to a safe haven in Russia.

Within weeks Russian troops in unmarked camouflage took over Ukrainian bases in Crimea. Then in April pro-Russian rebels stormed government buildings in the heavily industrial Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, triggering civil war.

His opulent residence outside Kiev, thrown open to public gaze by protesters after he fled, did not belong to him personally, he said.

Receipts detailing millions of dollars spent on the complex were, he said, “political technology” and spin. The ostriches in the residence’s petting zoo, he maintained, “just happened to be there”.

“Yes, there was corruption, no one denies that. But a year and a half has passed, those in power have all the means at their disposal. Show us, where are the bank accounts of Yanukovych? They don’t exist and never have done.”

Interpol placed him on a wanted list in January this year, as Ukrainian officials accuse him of embezzling millions of dollars.

When Yanukovich found himself in trouble in the uprising against him, Vladimir Putin sent in Russian special forces to rescue him. You don’t do that for just any old guy. Yanukovich says Putin saved his life. Yanukovich is still in Russia, and Putin’s government granted him asylum.

So when Manafort says he has “no connection” to the Russian government, he’s hoping no one remembers his years of service to Putin’s man in Kiev.

This isn’t the first time Manafort has offered a finely-worded denial that left a lot of wiggle room. Back in August, Manafort insisted, “I have never received a single ‘off-the-books cash payment’ as falsely ‘reported’ by The New York Times, nor have I ever done work for the governments of Ukraine or Russia.”

As noted above, Manafort had worked for the political party that was running Ukraine, which makes that last bolded part seem like a bit of a dodge. If someone insisted they had never worked for President Obama, but had worked for the Democratic National Committee or Obama for America in 2012, would we have nodded in agreement? In both cases, they’re answering to the president, and it seems reasonable to conclude their viewpoints and interests align.

Way back in March 2016, I asked, “So the guy who’s been advising Vladimir Putin’s man in Ukraine is now running Trump’s delegate-securing operation? Will polonium be involved?” Ha-ha! Silly me, making FSB jokes about a high-level advisor to Trump! What are the odds?