During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump loudly denied that he knew Russian President Vladimir Putin, but the year before he first announced his run for the White House, the fast-talking New York real estate developer and businessman was telling a very different story.
That matters now because of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and Trump’s refusal to put more sanctions on Russia, even after a bipartisan bill passed Congress ordering him to do so.
If Trump had a secret relationship with Putin and Russia, his lies could incriminate him.
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Which makes the footage of what he said in Las Vegas in July 2015, which has just surfaced, the key to answering those questions.
Trump was responding to a question at the libertarian event “Freedom Fest” in Las Vegas, where he was making a speech, when Maria Butina, who is described by Mother Jones magazine in an online post as a protege of powerful Russian banking official and Putin ally Alexander Torshin asked him a question from the floor.
In her accented English, she asked what Trump would do as president about relations with Russia, his attitude toward Putin and especially if he would continue the “damaging” U.S. sanctions put in place by President Obama.
After starting off by saying first that Putin loved Obama and later that Putin hated Obama, he finally got to the point.
“I know Putin,” Trump shot back, “and I’ll tell you what, we’re going to get along with Putin. Putin has no respect for Obama.”
Crucially, Trump then announced that he didn’t think that we needed any sanctions on Russia to the activist.
“I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin,” and Trump, “and I mean where we have the strength. I don’t think you need sanctions. I think we would get along very, very well. I really believe that.”
The repeal of the sanctions imposed by Magnitsky Act in 2012 is a major goal of Putin’s efforts to tilt the 2016 election in Trump’s favor, and is part of the alleged quid pro quo that was struck between Trump and Russia and documented in the Christopher Steele dossier.
Trump went on to repeat what he said in a 2013 interview with NBC taped when he was in Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant, which he owned at the time.
“I do have a relationship,” said Trump, “and I can tell you that he’s very interested in what we’re doing here today. He’s probably very interested in what you and I are saying today, and I’m sure he’s going to be seeing it in some form. But I do have a relationship with him.”
That same year, 2013, Trump told David Letterman on his CBS show that he had done with business with the Russians and had personally met Putin.
“He’s a tough guy,” Trump told the late-night host. “I met him once.”
By 2016, in the heat of the campaign, Trump’s story had changed. That July during a press conference in Florida, he said “I never met Putin. I don’t know who Putin is.”
Later in 2016, ABC’s George Stephanopolous pressed Trump on the conflict between his earlier statements and what he was saying then.
“I mean he was saying very good things about me, but I don’t have a relationship with him,” said Trump. “I didn’t meet him. I haven’t spent time with him. I didn’t have dinner with him. I didn’t go hiking with him. I don’t know — and I wouldn’t know him from Adam except I see his picture and I would know what he looks like.”
So if you are Mueller, what would you make of that: Trump is clearly lying.
And if he is lying about that, then he may be lying about his entire relationship with Russia and its influence on his presidential campaign.
So what he said on that day in July does matter, as a piece of the puzzle that shows Trump is not to be trusted about Russia, or for that matter, much else.