News reports breaking over the weekend suggest that Donald Trump Jr. not only met with a foreign national during June 2016 but also was seeking - or at least willing to accept - information from Russia on the Clinton campaign.
Steve Benen (MSNBC/Maddow Blog) connects two parts of this story.
Benen’s first post sets the context: Team Trump’s pre-election Russian contacts draw fresh scrutiny.
“Did any adviser or anybody in the Trump campaign have any contact with the Russians who were trying to meddle in the election?” CBS’s John Dickerson asked then Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Jan. 15.
“Of course not,” Pence replied.
We now know, of course, that this is one of several important falsehoods the vice president has peddled since the election, including a variety of bogus claims related to the Trump-Russia scandal.
But what sometimes gets lost in the shuffle is the fact that Pence wasn’t the only one denying the interactions between the campaign and the foreign adversary trying to help the campaign.
…Even after Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov acknowledged that “there were contacts” between the Russian government and Trump’s campaign team ahead of Nov. 8, Team Trump kept insisting otherwise.
Kellyanne Conway: “Absolutely not”, “never happened”
Sean Spicer: denied the communications (between the Trump team and Russians)
Even Trump himself: “Donald Trump himself said no one from his team was in contact with Russians during the campaign”
Benen’s second post shows how the Trump team narrative changes constantly when confronted with facts: Trump Jr. meeting takes Russia scandal in an alarming direction.
In any political controversy, when a relevant player starts dramatically changing his or her story, from one day to the next, it’s a sign of real trouble.
Three stories were told by Trump Jr.
[Story #1] In March, for example, Donald Trump Jr. said that during his father’s campaign, he never participated in any campaign-related meetings with Russian nationals. Over the weekend, that claim fell apart when the New York Times reported that he met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, best known for opposition to the Magnitsky Act, which blacklists suspected Russian human rights abusers.
The meeting took place in June 2016 in Trump Tower, and Trump Jr. was joined by Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, who was the campaign chairman at the time. None of the players deny that the meeting took place, but [Story #2] Trump Jr. said the discussion focused on an adoption program. …
[Story #3] Soon after Team Trump’s story changed again, this time in a statement from the president’s outside legal team, suggesting that Democrats were somehow to blame.
[Story #4] Yesterday, the story changed once more. As the Times reported, the meeting wasn’t about adoptions.
In a statement, Trump Jr. acknowledged that the meeting took place, and was arranged at the request of an acquaintance he did not name. “After pleasantries were exchanged,” he said, “the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.” He added that “the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting.”
Trump Jr. may not fully appreciate the significance of that statement.
One of the key questions in the Trump-Russia scandal is whether, and to what extent, the campaign may have cooperated with Russians during the attack on the American election. For Trump Jr. to join Kushner and Manafort for a meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer in the hopes of obtaining damaging information about Hillary Clinton looks quite a bit like collusion.
In his statement, Trump Jr. is dismissive of the meeting, saying Natalia Veselnitskaya had nothing of interest to share. But in the process, he also effectively confirms the accuracy of the report: the point of the meeting was to obtain Clinton-related information from a Russian national.
In other words, Trump Jr., who now appears to have been caught lying about the meeting, had a specific motivation that led him to participate in the conversation: he wanted Clinton-related dirt from Moscow and was willing to accept it during the campaign. That conclusion doesn’t require any great leaps; for all intents and purposes, he’s admitted as much in print.
The argument from Trump Jr. is, in effect, that he tried to collude with a Russian national and was disappointed when the information wasn’t useful – which sounds more like a confession than a defense.
That view is supported by another Times report saying that Trump Jr. Was Told in Email of Russian Effort to Aid Campaign.
Before arranging a meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer he believed would offer him compromising information about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump Jr. was informed in an email that the material was part of a Russian government effort to aid his father’s candidacy, according to three people with knowledge of the email.
The email to the younger Mr. Trump was sent by Rob Goldstone, a publicist and former British tabloid reporter who helped broker the June 2016 meeting. In a statement on Sunday, Mr. Trump acknowledged that he was interested in receiving damaging information about Mrs. Clinton, but gave no indication that he thought the lawyer might have been a Kremlin proxy.
Mr. Goldstone’s message, as described to The New York Times by the three people, indicates that the Russian government was the source of the potentially damaging information. It does not elaborate on the wider effort by Moscow to help the Trump campaign.
Aaron Blake at the Washington Post provides evidence that Donald Trump Jr. just contradicted a whole bunch of White House denials of Russian contacts, even more than mentioned here so far.
… the information [about Donald Jr.’s meeting] isn’t just troubling because it suggests the Trump campaign sought out the help of Russians to win the presidency. It also contradicts a number of claims made by the White House, the campaign and Trump Jr. himself — claims made as recently as this weekend. For an administration and campaign that have repeatedly denied contact with Russians and had their denials blow up in their faces, it’s yet another dubious chapter.
Let’s recap all the times they suggested this kind of thing never happened. [Scriber: I’ll just list the headers.]
1. Trump Jr. on Saturday: The meeting was about Russian adoption 2. Trump Jr. in March: No meetings “representing the campaign” with Russians 3. President-elect Trump in January: No contact between Trump associates and Russia during campaign 4. Hope Hicks: “No communication” with a foreign entity 5. Kellyanne Conway in December: “Absolutely not” on contact with Russians trying to meddle 6. Vice President Pence in January: “Of course not” 7. Spicer in February: Doesn’t change Trump’s January statement 8. Trump Jr. in July 2016: Suggestions that Russians tried to help Trump are “lies”
The latest spin: Contacts yes, but collusion no?
Benen points out that “To date, there’s been no explanation from Trump or anyone from his team about why they issued bogus denials about pre-election Russian contacts.”
As of the press briefing today Team Trump just changed the question - or tried to. A reporter charged Sarah Huckabee Sanders with a history of saying that there was no contact between members of the Trump team/campaign and Russia. She responded that she, and other Trump officials, had always said there was no collusion. The reporter challenged her to answer the original question about denial of contacts. She stuck to her new story about denial of collusion.
But let’s suppose for a moment that there was in fact no collusion. Is Team Trump off the hook? David Remnick (New Yorker) has some things to say about that in The Truth Behind Donald Trump, Jr.,’s Meeting with a Russian Lawyer.
The Trump Administration should not win any moral or political plaudits even if it turns out, in the end, that there was no collusion between the President’s campaign and the Russian government. Its countless sins of lying, conflict of interest, shady business transactions, character assassination, and so much else assures it a place in history as a uniquely grimy Administration. And we are not yet a half year into its reign.
So, unless we are grading on a curve that even the most forgiving god would discount, innocence in the matter of collusion does not bring the Trump Administration nearer to the gates of heaven. But the issue is hardly the closed matter that Trump would propose it to be. Thanks to new reporting from the Times, we are starting to see evidence that fits the theory. Within two days of the President’s dispiritingly weak and erratic performance in Hamburg––his winsome meeting with Vladimir Putin, the disheartening spectacle of the Europeans treating the United States with suspicion on issues ranging from global security to the fate of the global environment––we learn that Trump associates, including the President’s son, met during the 2016 campaign with one Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Kremlin-connected lawyer, on the promise that she could provide them information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
So, yes, it is wrong to get ahead of the reporting. But the myriad implications of a hacked Presidential election, while too much to bear for the President—his ego seems to implode at any suggestion that his victory was possibly more complicated than the unambiguous “landslide” he imagines it to be—demands the answers that journalists, law enforcement, and Congress are pursuing. Part of that process is admitting error, as CNN did, quickly and responsibly recently after an errant story. Part of that process is having the patience to see what the truth, as it emerges over time, turns out to be. For now, we live in a moment when the President of the United States is, without shame, trying to intimidate the people whose business it is to come to an honest reckoning. He tries to intimidate the press. He has fired an F.B.I. director and considered going further. It’s reasonable to wonder why. Without assuming too much, too soon.
Given that track record of dissembling and out-and-out lies, it is not surprising that Trump’s approval ratings are in the tank. Neither should it be surprising that Trump’s behavior is robbing the American Presidency of its credibility on both national and international stages. What might not be surprising, but is certainly sickening, is how many of Trump’s supporters seem not to care.