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False denials, misleading statements and faulty memories behind Trump-Russia meetings

The recent admission by Trump ally Roger Stone -- that he met a shadowy Russian figure during the 2016 campaign who offered dirt on Hillary Clinton -- felt like a spell of déjà vu.

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Marshall Cohen (CNN)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — The recent admission by Trump ally Roger Stone -- that he met a shadowy Russian figure during the 2016 campaign who offered dirt on Hillary Clinton -- felt like a spell of déjà vu.

Maybe that's because it wasn't the first Russian meeting that came to light after the campaign dust settled. It wasn't even the second meeting of this nature. It was the third known liaison with an explicit offer of assistance to the Trump campaign or a reference to Russian dirt on Clinton.

Each new revelation has followed a similar pattern. They have all featured the same kinds of denials that ended up being flat-out wrong or incredibly misleading. And many of these campaign officials said they weren't hiding anything but their memories simply needed refreshing.

Here is a breakdown of the three critical months in spring 2016 when five associates of Donald Trump met with Russians, or people with Kremlin ties, and discussed the presidential campaign.

April 2016: Outreach to George Papadopoulos

In April 2016, there were no public signs that the Russians, under orders from President Vladimir Putin, were already entrenched in a far-ranging campaign to interfere in the election.

The focus of the campaign was elsewhere. The first of the three known instances of Russian offers of help or Clinton dirt for the Trump campaign took place two days after a stunning development in the Republican campaign: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the last two men running against Trump, agreed to a ceasefire of sorts to try to block Trump from the nomination.

But across the Atlantic Ocean, Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos met with a Maltese professor with Kremlin ties. The professor, Joseph Mifsud, told Papadopoulos that the Russians have thousands of damaging emails about Clinton, according to court records. The April meeting was one in a series of conversations between Papadopoulos and Mifsud during the campaign.

The Papadopoulos affair remained largely unknown until October 2017, when court filings indicated that Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his Russian contacts. He met Mifsud a few times, and communicated with a Russian foreign policy analyst for months.

Before that, Trump officials gave blanket denials that didn't hold up after the new revelations.

"There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign," Trump transition spokeswoman Hope Hicks told The Associated Press shortly after the election.

May 2016: A sit-down with Roger Stone

Weeks after Papadopoulos' meeting, another Russian national reached out to another Trump campaign staffer hoping to discuss potentially damaging information about Clinton.

The outreach made its way to Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo, who spent years working in Russia in the 1990s and runs a communications firm with his Russian business partner. Caputo says he referred the man to Stone, who in turn says the Russian asked for $2 million from Trump in exchange for unspecified dirt about Clinton.

Stone denies accepting any deal and has alleged that the Russian was an FBI informant. The man, who called himself Henry Greenberg, has previously claimed in court filings that he once worked as an FBI informant, though he told The Washington Post he wasn't acting on the FBI's behalf when he met Stone.

Despite the meeting that came to light recently, Stone had repeatedly insisted that he was clear of Russian connections. "I have no ties to Russia," Stone said in January 2017. "I have no Russian contacts," he said in February 2017. "I myself had no contacts or communications with the Russian state, Russian intelligence or anyone fronting for them or acting as intermediaries for them," Stone said in March 2017.

In September 2017 testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, which conducted its own investigation into Russian meddling, Stone said he "never had any communication with any Russians or individuals fronting for Russians, in connection with the 2016 presidential election."

As for Caputo, his role came to light two years after it happened because he forgot and only remembered while preparing for his interview with special counsel Robert Mueller, according to his lawyer Dennis Vacco.

"During the course of our preparation for that interview... his recollection was refreshed regarding one brief interaction with a Russian national in May of 2016," Caputo's lawyer wrote.

June 2016: The Trump Tower meeting

By June 2016, the Republican primaries were over. Kasich and Cruz had dropped out after the early May primary in Indiana, so Trump locked up the nomination. His campaign was planning for the Republican National Convention and preparing a general election game plan.

Other plans were underway as well: a meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer who was said to have incriminating information about Clinton. At the meeting, Trump Jr. was joined by his brother-in-law Jared Kushner and then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

The meeting led to nothing, according to congressional testimony provided by most of the participants. But it demonstrated -- in clear terms -- that Trump Jr. was excited by the prospect of Russian help for his father's campaign. And nobody who was involved ever alerted the FBI.

In an ABC News interview one month after the meeting, Manafort was asked directly, "Are there any ties between Mr. Trump, you or your campaign and Putin and his regime?" Manafort replied, "No, there are not. That's absurd. And, you know, there's no basis to it."

Kushner joined the Trump administration and did not include the meeting on the first versions of his security clearance forms, which required disclosure of any contact with foreign nationals. The White House senior adviser said in July 2017 he "did not remember the meeting and certainly did not remember it as one with anyone who had to be included" on the forms.

When news reports revealed the existence of the meeting in July 2017, a misleading statement was put out in Trump Jr.'s name that claimed the meeting was primarily about Russian adoptions. Trump's lawyers recently acknowledged that the President personally dictated the statement.

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