Just when it seemed that Trump was about to put the Russian allegations in the rearview mirror, if only for the time being, thanks to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller tasked with overseeing the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, this morning Reuters reported citing "familiar sources" that "Michael Flynn and other advisers to Donald Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race." Specifically, the 18 calls and electronic messages took place between April and November 2016, a period that is already in the public domain as being the focus of ongoing investigations, focusing on Flynn and Trump's ex-advisor Paul Manafort.
According to the Reuters sources, "in the conversations during the campaign, Russian officials emphasized a pragmatic, business-style approach and stressed to Trump associates that they could make deals by focussing on common economic and other interests and leaving contentious issues aside"
On the surface the story is a recap of what is already known: as Reuters itself points out inside the report, these previously undisclosed interactions "form part of the record now being reviewed by FBI and congressional investigators" which has now culminated with the appointment of a special counsel: one way or another, if Trump indeed colluded with Russia, as the daily barrage of media reports suggests, we will know shortly.
Furthermore, as Reuters also explicitly states, the sources "had seen no evidence of wrongdoing or collusion between the campaign and Russia in the communications reviewed so far", something which various FBI personnel have confirmed on more than one occasions under oath.
However, it's a Russia story, it has details, it names Trump (and it's not from the WaPo or NYT) so as one would expect, early traders were transfixed by it, and have sent risk sliding to session lows.
Here are some more details from Reuters:
Six of the previously undisclosed contacts described to Reuters were phone calls between Kislyak and Trump advisers, including Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, three current and former officials said. Conversations between Flynn and Kislyak accelerated after the Nov. 8 vote as the two discussed establishing a back channel for communication between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that could bypass the U.S. national security bureaucracy, which both sides considered hostile to improved relations, four current U.S. officials said.
Furthermore, Reuters also notes that while "contact with foreign officials during a campaign was not unusual, the number of interactions between Trump aides and Russian officials and others with links to Putin was exceptional."
“It’s rare to have that many phone calls to foreign officials, especially to a country we consider an adversary or a hostile power,” Richard Armitage, a Republican and former deputy secretary of state, told Reuters.
Reuters adds that these "discussions focused on mending U.S.-Russian economic relations strained by sanctions imposed on Moscow, cooperating in fighting Islamic State in Syria and containing a more assertive China." Some further details:
In addition to the six phone calls involving Kislyak, the communications described to Reuters involved another 12 calls, emails or text messages between Russian officials or people considered to be close to Putin and Trump campaign advisers. One of those contacts was by Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch and politician, according to one person with detailed knowledge of the exchange and two others familiar with the issue.
It was not clear with whom Medvedchuk was in contact within the Trump campaign but the themes included U.S.-Russia cooperation, the sources said. Putin is godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter. Medvedchuk denied having any contact with anyone in the Trump campaign.
"I am not acquainted with any of Donald Trump's close associates, therefore no such conversation could have taken place," he said in an email to Reuters.
Beyond Medvedchuk and Kislyak, the identities of the other Putin-linked participants in the contacts remain classified and the names of Trump advisers other than Flynn have been “masked” in intelligence reports on the contacts because of legal protections on their privacy as American citizens. However, officials can request that they be revealed for intelligence purposes.
On the Ukraine angle, it is likely that Medvedchuk communications took place with Paul Manafort, who was fired by Trump long ago. As for Flynn, who is the only campaign individual "unmasked" as part of the revelations, he too was sacked by Trump just three weeks into Trump's administration.
At its core, the Reuters report is a recap of what is already known, while putting some numbers to already known communications between the Trump campaign and various Russian individuals. As to whether this is a smoking gun, the good news is that with Mueller now supervising the probe, an answer will be provided in the not too distant future.
Expect an imminent response from the White House as well as something from Trump himself, who has been surprisingly quiet on Twitter over the past 24 hours.