ATLANTA — Over and over again in the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump denied any contacts whatsoever with Russia or Russians.
“They said, ‘Maybe Donald Trump is involved with projects with the Russians,’” Trump told voters at a rally in October 2016, at the height of the campaign. “The answer is no! No!”
Trump denied it during the primaries; he denied it into the general election.
He denied it in interviews, in debates, in speeches and rallies. He denied it before winning the presidency, and he denied it after winning the presidency.
“I have nothing to do with Russia,” he said. “I have no relationship with Russia whatsoever.”
More recently, though, Trump has taken that entire history and run it through his magic distortion machine.
Now that his fixer, Michael Cohen, has revealed Trump’s effort to build a 100-story Trump Tower in Moscow — the tallest in Europe, had it been built — Trump wants to wipe all of those previous denials off the record and out of our minds.
“Everybody knew about it. It was written about in newspapers. It was a well-known project,” Trump now claims. “So (Cohen) is lying about a project that everybody knew about. I mean, we were very open with it.”
Trump hadn’t been alone in those repeated, comprehensive denials. His sons had denied any contact with Russians; his campaign manager had denied it. His campaign spokesman had denied it, emphatically and completely.
“It never happened,” said aide Hope Hicks after the election. “There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.”
His running mate also denied it.
“Of course not,” Mike Pence said. “Of course not. Why would there be any contacts?”
That question — “Why would there be any contacts?” — has haunted me ever since Pence posed it back in January of 2017, because it seems to make sense.
Why would a presidential campaign be in regular, secretive, widespread contact with the government of a competing foreign power? Pence wanted us to believe that the whole idea was too crazy to be true.
It was crazy AND true.
We now know that even as Trump campaigned for president, even as he argued in debates and interviews that we should cancel economic sanctions against Russia and re-establish friendly relations with Vladimir Putin, Trump was courting Putin for permission and even financing to build a huge luxury apartment building in Moscow.
Thanks to Cohen’s account — an account bolstered by emails, phone records and other documents — we now know that the Trump Organization was aggressively pursuing the project, with Trump’s full knowledge.
Cohen had even been invited to Moscow to meet with Putin or his second-in-command.
Plans were underway for Trump himself to travel to Moscow to nail down the negotiations once he accepted the GOP nomination.
It was derailed only after news broke that Russians had hacked into the Democratic National Committee.
As described in court documents filed last week by special counsel Robert Mueller:
“… The Moscow Project was a lucrative business opportunity that sought, and likely required, the assistance of the Russian government. If the project was completed, (Trump’s company) could have received hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources.”
So, to resurrect Pence’s question: “Why would there be any contacts?” There are hundreds of millions of reasons. Mueller’s investigation is going to take its course, and there’s more we have yet to learn.
But look at what we already know: While campaigning for president, Trump was pursuing a highly lucrative deal with a foreign foe, for his own personal benefit, and was lying about it repeatedly to the voters whom he was asking to serve as commander in chief.
—Jay Bookman is a columnist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution