At first, it was all so simple. The Trump White House said there were “no contacts” — zero, zilch — between Trump’s campaign and Russia. But in time this elegant defense encountered a formidable opponent: reality.
And so for a year now, Trump and his advisers, facing mounting evidence of their campaign’s entanglement with Russia, have redrawn lines of defense and revised talking points with such daring that it has amounted to a veritable Marshall Plan for the moving of goal posts.
As details of campaign contacts with Russia piled up, Trump and his officials instead said there had been “no collusion.” As more evidence came in showing attempts at high-level collusion, the White House retreated to another line of defense: Trump himself didn’t collude. “Nothing about the actual facts published to date suggests that the president … colluded with anybody,” was White House lawyer Ty Cobb’s careful phrasing.
Now, with four Trump campaign officials indicted and two of them, including Trump’s former national security adviser, pleading guilty, even that distinction no longer seems safe.
One of Trump’s attorneys, Jay Sekulow, just told the New Yorker that it doesn’t matter whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, because “there is no crime of collusion.” Another Trump attorney, John Dowd, told Axios that technically the president “cannot obstruct justice, because he is the chief law enforcement officer.”
A year after the Trump team debuted its “no contacts” defense, the attenuated new White House position amounts to this: Who cares whether Trump colluded with Russia and obstructed justice?
It has been quite a journey. Let’s recall some scenic vistas.
Original position: “There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.”
Revised position: Carter Page traveled to Russia when he was a Trump campaign adviser, but he was only “a low-level volunteer.” Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians, but he was only in a “voluntary position.” Former campaign manager Paul Manafort was indicted in the Russia probe, but this doesn’t count because “he was replaced long before the election.”
Original position: Attorney General Jeff Sessions “did not have communications with the Russians.”
Revised position: Sessions “did meet one Russian official a couple of times.” But Sessions conducted no “improper discussions with Russians.”
Revised position 2: Sessions does “not recall any discussions” with Russians “regarding the political campaign.” But he does recall that he had no conversations with Russians “concerning any type of interference with any campaign.”
Original position: Donald Trump Jr. did not set up meetings with Russians, or if he did he wasn’t “representing the campaign in any way, shape or form.”
Revised position: The campaign meeting he set up with Russians was about “adoption of Russian children.”
Revised position 2: The “adoption” meeting was with a Russian attorney promising Russian government dirt on Hillary Clinton. But Trump Jr. received “no meaningful information.”
Original position: President Trump was “not involved” in the false Trump Jr. statement alleging the meeting was about adoption.
Revised position: Trump “weighed in, as any father would.”
Original position: When Michael Flynn, incoming national security adviser, called the Russian ambassador during the transition, they “did not discuss anything having to do with” Russia sanctions.
Revised position: Flynn “couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”
Revised position 2: Flynn “inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and others with incomplete information.”
Revised position 3: Flynn “lied to the vice president and the FBI.”
Original position: A report that Jared Kushner suggested a secret, secure “communications channel” with Russia was based on “a lot of facts that are not substantiated.”
Revised position: Kushner asked the Russian ambassador whether he had a “communications channel” that could be used to relay information from the Kremlin.
Original position: FBI Director James Comey’s firing “had zero to do” with Russia investigation.
Revised position: Trump cited “this Russia thing” in firing Comey.
But there is one position on the scandal Trump hasn’t changed — his reluctance to accept what the entire intelligence community and his own CIA director do: That Russia meddled in the election.
Position: Election hackers could have been “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
Position: U.S. intelligence agencies were led by “political hacks” and employ “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
Position: Vladimir Putin “said he absolutely did not meddle in our election” and “I really believe that when he tells me that he means it.”
That’s the exception that proves the rule.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. @Milbank