Why the NYT report claiming Trump aides & Russia talked is “controversial” and what it suggests moving forward

Alleged ties between Trump officials and Russia have intensified over the past two months.

Two weeks ago on February 14, the New York Times first reported that President Donald J. Trump’s 2016 campaign aides and other top associates repeatedly communicated with senior Russian intelligence and government officials leading up to the election.

Since the report was published in that Tuesday edition of the New York Times, President Trump has responded saying such reports suggesting talks between his top aides and Russia are “a joke” and “fake news put out by the media.”

“I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does,” Mr. Trump said to reporters. Press secretary Sean Spicer has also concluded that “there’s nothing there” between Trump and Russia.

Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, has denied any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, calling the Times report “complete garbage.” Priebus went as far as to ask F.B.I deputy director Andrew McCabe if he could cite anonymous senior intelligence officials in dismissing the report and its claims. Preibus, McCabe and F.B.I director James Comey spoke privately about the matter at the White House, which may be in violation of Justice Department rules that aim to prevent ongoing F.B.I investigations from being interfered by political influence.

Although senior administration officials claim that McCabe privately said the reports are “BS” and that Comey called Preibus telling him he also believed the stories are inaccurate, neither Comey, McCabe or the agency have publicly addressed the matter.

The F.B.I, however, subsequently rejected the White House’s request to publicly “knock down” or deny media reports regarding contacts between Trump associates and Russia.

It is evident that the Trump administration and its senior White House officials are in clear denial about the report and its weighted claims, while top U.S intelligence officials are reluctant to jump the gun as the investigation persists and they wait and see what is dug up.

Let’s dive into the original New York Times article and begin with its lead:

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.

The significant part of this claim is the ending, “according to four current and former American officials.” The report does not identify these four American officials due to anonymous sourcing. The article mentions this “condition of anonymity” in the fifth paragraph:

All of the current and former officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the continuing investigation is classified.

The report is explaining that these current and former American officials chose to speak anonymously because the classified investigation is ongoing.

The report also claims that these officials would not reveal what was discussed on the calls, who on the Russian side was in contact with Trump’s aides and associates, and how many of Trump advisors communicated with Russia.

Here’s what the former and current U.S officials sourced in the article did disclose to the NY Times, according to the report:

  • U.S law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the calls around the same time they were finding evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee.
  • The intercepted communications were not limited to Trump’s campaign officials and included other associates of Trump. (Like previously mentioned, we are not told who or how many were involved)
  • The Russian contacts also included members of the Russian government outside of their intelligence services.
  • Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman and political consultant in Ukraine last year, was one of the advisers picked up on the intercepted calls. He remains the only Trump associate identified in talks with Russia. “The officials declined to identify the other Trump associates on the calls.”
  • The F.B.I. has obtained banking and travel records and conducted interviews as part of its inquiry into the found communications with Russian intelligence. The F.B.I is investigating into the contacts made between Trump associates and Russia as well as the Russian hacking into the DNC.
  • These intercepted calls were not related to the previously reported wiretapped calls between Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn and Sergey I. Kislyak, Russia’s U.S ambassador, that discussed Obama-imposed sanctions against Russia and resulted in Flynn’s resignation.
The National Security Agency, which monitors the communications of foreign intelligence services, initially captured the calls between Mr. Trump’s associates and the Russians as part of routine foreign surveillance.

According to the report, it was the N.S.A who originally discovered these calls between Trump associates and Russians while performing a routine protocol of foreign surveillance.

What we have in this article is a lot significant claims made by these anonymous former and current U.S officials. There is no substantial or verifiable pieces of evidence provided by the Times to directly prove such communications between Trump aides and Russia.

Because these officials spoke anonymously, they therefore can not be asked follow up questions publicly about the claims this article brings forth — we simply do not know who these sources are.

We should be asking ourselves:

  1. Why did the officials only cite Paul Manafort as a communicator with Russia and decline to identify the other Trump associates on the calls?
  2. Why wouldn’t these officials provide their complete knowledge of this matter (on the condition of anonymity) with such high stakes? Were they only permitted to disclose Manafort’s involvement, and if so, why?
  3. If senior U.S intelligence officials called this report and its claims “BS” and “inaccurate,” as White House officials have repeatedly claimed, why have McCabe and Comey failed to publicly address the issues or defend their alleged stances? One could argue it is because they are the heads of the agency responsible for carrying out the investigation in the first place.

These are the aspects we must consider when examining the larger essence behind this story and its claims.

You may be thinking: was there absolutely no feasible way for the N.S.A, or these sourced officials, to provided the Times with an ounce of physical evidence showing the call logs and phone records? It’s safe to assume those documents are highly-classified because they are evidence within a highly-classified investigation, and therefore inaccessible to the publishing access of media outlets — at this moment, anyway.

If this New York Times article — and other ground-breaking articles around the media — tell us anything, it is that we must not lose faith in the vast abilities of both the reporter and the American intelligence official to uncover the facts. Soon enough, with the help of both parties — and hopefully the parties on both sides of the aisle in Washington— some degree of first-hand, verifiable evidence will take the stage and provide us with additional pieces to this incomplete puzzle.

We need to trust that the press and the intelligence community is doing everything in its power to get to the bottom of this national security risk and conflict-of-interest.

This New York Times article is a positive sign that our questions are at the very least trying to be answered.

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