Cillizza: There's a lot of smoke around Donald Trump's associates and Russia

Story highlights

  • Trump insists that there is no there there. That there is no fire.
  • But there is a whole heck of a lot of smoke.

(CNN)President Donald Trump likes to dismiss the allegations surrounding the contacts between top aides on his campaign and Russian officials as "fake news."

Trump insists that there is no there there. That there is no fire.
To date, he's right. But there is a whole heck of a lot of smoke.

Consider:

Erik Prince, who founded Blackwater.
Erik Prince, who founded Blackwater and is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's brother, was part of a secret meeting in January in the Seychelles Islands with a Russian close to Vladimir Putin, according to reporting from the Washington Post on Monday. Russia's goal in the meeting, according to the Post, was to establish a sort of unofficial line of communication with the Trump administration. Prince played no formal role in the Trump campaign or the transition, but did donate $250,000 to a combination of Trump campaign entities.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions at his swearing-in February 8.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced to recuse himself from any investigations regarding any investigation into Russia's attempts at meddling in the 2016 election due to revelations that he had met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on two occasions despite insisting during his confirmation hearing that he had no contact with the Russians during the campaign.
Retired Gen. Michael Flynn in January.
Michael Flynn resigned as Trump's national security adviser following reports that he had not only talked with Kislyak during the transition but that -- contrary to his assertions -- he had discussed the recently-imposed sanctions against Russia imposed by the Obama Administration as a punishment for the election meddling. Flynn, through a lawyer, said he would be interviewed by Congress in regard to the Russian meddling into the election but would only do so if he was granted full immunity. The Senate Intelligence Community rejected that offer.
Ivanka Trump and her husband White House senior advisor Jared Kushner at the White House in February.
Jared Kushner: Trump's son-in-law -- and someone with a vast portfolio in the administration -- met with Kislyak and Flynn at Trump Tower during the presidential transition period. Kushner also met with a Russian bank executive at Kislyak's request.
Paul Manafort, then an advisor to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's campaign, in May 2016.
Paul Manafort, who served as Trump's campaign chairman for a large chunk of the GOP nomination fight, has long had ties to pro-Putin forces un Ukraine -- having spent a decade working with Ukrainian Prime Minister Victor Yanukovych. And, according to the Associated Press, Manafort inked a $10 million deal with a billionaire ally of Putin in the mid 2000s in order to help promote Putin and Russian interests in the United States and other countries. Manafort has said his work for Oleg Deripaska did not include anything political. Late last month Manafort did say that he would be willing to sit for an interview with the House Intelligence Committee to discuss Russia's role in the election.
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Carter Page, brought on as a foreign policy adviser to Trump's campaign on March 2016, almost immediately became a lightning rod due to his close ties to Russia. (Page spent three years in the Moscow office of Merrill Lynch and claimed to be an adviser to several; state-owned and run energy companies.) Page was eventually fired from the campaign in late September after reports that during a July trip to Moscow he has huddled with a number of senior Russian executives, a claim he denied.
Roger Stone speaks to the media at Trump Tower on December 6, 2016 in New York City.
Roger Stone, noted political gadfly and Trump friend and quasi-adviser, has acknowledged that he exchanged Twitter messages with Guccifer 2.0, the hacker allegedly behind the leaking of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Stone insists he had nothing to do with the coordinated release of the documents during the course of the 2016 campaign.

That's A LOT of smoke. Now, just because there's tons of smoke doesn't mean there's a fire somewhere in there. But, what it does do is suggest that Trump's dismissal of questions about his campaign's ties to Russia are much more than "fake news."
And, if Trump truly believes that there is no fire, his best move would be to put his full weight behind a bipartisan investigation aimed at getting out all of the facts. He has yet to do so.
Editor's note: Regarding the March 22, 2017 Associated Press report referenced in this story, Oleg Deripaska issued a statement rejecting any suggestion in it that he was involved in a plan to influence politics that would benefit the Russian government. In his statement, he said, "I have never made any commitments or contracts with the obligation or purpose to covertly promote or advance 'Putin's Government' interests anywhere in the world." He also said the AP story "falls into the negative context of current US-Russian relations and causes fresh unfair and unjustified concerns and alarm in the US Congress about Russian involvement in US domestic affairs," and stated that he was prepared to testify before Congressional hearings if asked to do so.