The latest Trump foreign policy keeps getting stranger by the minute. Overnight, as the three liberal-leaning US newspaper launched another attack on Trump, alleging that officials linked to the president, most notably Tim Manafort, engaged Russian intel officials in the not too distant past, the Russian government dismissed allegations that the country’s intelligence officials were in repeated contact with Donald Trump’s team ahead of the US election.
“Let's not believe anonymous information,” Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “It's a newspaper report which is not based on any facts.”
A Russian senator, Vladimir Jabbarov, cited by the Independent went so far as to tell state media the latest claims "were part of an intelligence community conspiracy to have the President impeached."
“This is a common tactic to try to discredit a particular person,” he added.
Meanwhile, following Sean Spicer's statement during his Tuesday press conference that Trump wants Crimea "returned" to Ukraine, Russian officials struck a combative stance with the US on issues including the Ukrainian conflict, after the White House said Mr Trump “expects the Russian government to de-escalate violence in Ukraine and return Crimea”.
Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry, told a press briefing the occupied territory would not be relinquished. “We don't give back our own territory,” she told a news briefing. “Crimea is territory belonging to the Russian Federation.”
Tweeting on the topic of Ukraine, moments ago Trump said that "Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama Administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?"
Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama Administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2017
The Ukrainian conflict was one of the key areas of discord between Russia and the Obama administration, including Mr Putin’s backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and increasing tensions with Nato. But the new President has made more friendly overtures to his Russian counterpart, dismissing allegations of Russian interference in the US election and calling Mr Putin “very smart” and a “great” leader.
The pair have vowed to repair ties between the US and America and have spoken on the phone ahead of a meeting expected later this year.
After overnight the NYT published allegations of “repeated contacts” between Mr Trump’s campaign staff and associates and senior Russian intelligence operatives in the year leading up to the election, President Trump lashed out in a series of tweets, saying first "the fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred. @MSNBC & @CNN are unwatchable", adding that "this Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton's losing campaign", and concluding "Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?).Just like Russia""
The President’s representatives have previously denied any untoward contact with the Kremlin but fresh claims have emerged in the wake of a separate scandal that caused the national security advisor’s resignation. In an interview with the FT, former Trump campaign chair Tim Manafort said “I have never had any involvement with Putin or the Russian government on any matter,” and added that “furthermore, I have never knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers and I have never been involved in any projects that include the Russian government or the Putin administration or parties acting in concert with or on behalf of the Russian government.”
Asked whether the Trump administration was undertaking efforts to examine contacts with Russia, Mr Spicer said there was “no new information”. When challenged specifically on discussions held during the campaign, Mr Spicer said: “There’s nothing that would conclude me…that anything different has changed with respect to that time period.”
Mike Pence, the Vice President, also denied contact had taken place with Russia before the election in a Fox News interview on Sunday. “Of course not. Why would there be any contact between the campaign?” he said. “This is all a distraction, and it's all part of a narrative to delegitimise the election.”
Then again, in November, Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said there had been communication between the Russian government and members of Mr Trump’s political team. “There were contacts,” he told Interfax. “We are doing this and have been doing this during the election campaign.”
The only question now that matters is what information was exchanged during those contacts.