As the Trump administration was struggling to put behind itself the sacked national security Adviser Michael Flynn’s controversial dealings with Russia and lying about them, it was hit by fresh allegations that the president’s campaign aides and associates had been in constant contact with Russian intelligence for months ahead of the presidential election in 2016.
Though the allegations, first reported by The New York Times and followed up by other media outlets such as CNN based on their own sources, did not go as far as to point to cooperation or coordination between Trump aides and Russians, they did add to the administration’s growing Russia problem.
The revelations, based on phone records and intercepts by US intelligence and law enforcement, were found alarming enough for some to acknowledge this was growing into the worst political scandal in US history, comparable to Watergate that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.
The president responded to the reports in a string of tweets on Wednesday morning, just hours before he receives Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a much anticipated meeting at the White House, by denouncing them as an instance of “fake news media going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred”.
“This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign,” he wrote, and followed that up with a few more tweets slamming the leaks as “un-American” and claiming President Barack Obama had been soft on Russia — for letting it take Crimea from Ukraine — and not him.
The president seemed clearly troubled by the reports that come at a time when the administration is appearing to be in complete turmoil — Senator John McCain has said “nobody knows who’s in charge and nobody knows who’s setting policy” — hit by the Flynn controversy and a muddled response to it.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer sought to draw a picture of an administration in control, telling reporters on Tuesday the president knew that Flynn had not told the truth about his calls to the Russian ambassador to the US, but fired him after a thorough review that found he had violated no laws, but only because he had lost his trust and that of Vice-President Mike Pence.
Flynn had lied to Pence who, it turned out, was kept in the dark about it even after the president was told; he found out only from news reports that he had been misled by the NSA.
The White House also struggled to speak with one voice on the issue, with a senior aide claiming on national television the president had full confidence in Flynn only to be contradicted by a colleague hours later.
Less than a month old, the Trump presidency is in full crisis mode. And now allegations of Trump aides in touch with Russians, which has been widely reported before, but that those Russians were intelligence operatives adds a new edge to it.
Paul Manafort, Trump campaign chairman for a few months, has been the only one named in these new reports. In denying contacts with Russian intelligence officers, he told The New York Times: “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer’.”
These contacts with Russian intelligence were first noticed, according to reports, around the time US intelligence and law enforcement agencies were discovering Russian attempts to hack into the computer network of the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
What was particularly alarming was “the amount of contact that was occurring while …Trump was speaking glowingly about the Russian president Vladimir V Putin,” the New York Times said.
But none of the media reports provided any evidence of Trump aides cooperating or coordinating with Russians on the hacking.
The US has accused Russia of meddling in the presidential election to help Trump win the White House, and the Obama administration slapped a slew of sanctions against Russia in retaliation last December.
The new developments were alarming enough for some, such as veteran journalist Dan Rather, to be reminded of Watergate. “Watergate is the biggest political scandal of my lifetime, until maybe now,” he wrote on Facebook on Tuesday night.
“It was the closest we came to a debilitating Constitutional crisis, until maybe now. On a 10 scale of armageddon for our form of government, I would put Watergate at a 9. This Russia scandal is currently somewhere around a 5 or 6, in my opinion, but it is cascading in intensity seemingly by the hour.”