So is this it? Has the media finally found the smoking gun they’ve desperately been seeking to show that the Trump campaign “colluded” with the Russians during the 2016 election? To see the barely concealed joy on the faces of some cable news hosts last night and this morning one would certainly think so. (And for the record, yes… Joe Scarborough used the word “collusion” in the first ten minutes of his show today before I finally switched over to a Gilligan’s Island rerun.) We’re talking, of course, about the new report of a meeting Donald Trump Jr. and two campaign team members had with “a Russian lawyer” last summer. (Washington Post)
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, said in a statement Sunday that a Russian lawyer with whom he met in June 2016 claimed she could provide potentially damaging information about his father’s likely Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
He said he had agreed to the meeting at Trump Tower in New York because he was offered information that would be helpful to the campaign of his father, then the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.
At the meeting, which also included the candidate’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, the Russian lawyer opened by saying she knew about Russians funding the Democratic National Committee and Clinton, the statement said.
How this meeting wound up getting on the schedule and what was “promised” by whom are going to be the big subjects of inquiry going forward. Some of the headlines out there are already promising more than what’s found in the details, such as the Associated Press lead which reads, “Trump Jr. was promised damaging info about Clinton.” NBC News was a bit more circumspect with their description, but the implication was still clear… this could be the big one, folks!
But is it? There are clearly questions to be answered going forward and I’ll readily admit that the younger Trump’s descriptions and accounts thus far, while within the realm of possibility, require a bit of suspension of disbelief. The only fact which everyone (including Trump Jr.) seem to agree on thus far is that the Russian lawyer in question, Natalia Veselnitskaya, met with Trump Jr. and both Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner attended at the invitation of Donald Trump Jr. The meeting took place at the request of Veselnitskaya. Beyond that we’re getting into some he said, she said territory.
First of all, how did the meeting get on the schedule? Trump Jr. is claiming that it was arranged by an acquaintance of his, but with no hint as to what was to come or who it was with. This is from the NBC article linked above.
“I was asked to attend the meeting by an acquaintance, but was not told the name of the person I would be meeting with beforehand,” Trump Jr. said.
Really? That must be one influential acquaintance if they can pull Trump Jr. off of his usual schedule in the heat of the campaign for a meeting where they’re not disclosing the name of the person he’ll be meeting with nor the subject matter to be discussed. (Trump Jr. does say that things which “might benefit the campaign” were mentioned but that’s pretty vague.) So this meeting with an unknown person and only the most gauzy of topics was not only good enough to get Trump Jr. in the room, but sufficiently intriguing to have him drag Manafort and Kushner in for it?
I mention the above items primarily as a nod to the fact that this is fishy sounding enough to warrant a closer look. But at the same time, implausible as parts of the story may be thus far (as we know it, anyway), we’re still missing a lot of details which would be required to turn it into anything concrete and actionable. If the actual invitation was phrased more along the lines of, ‘Hey! This woman has some serious dirt on Hillary!‘ then that looks like the opening gambit in something that might have turned out to be collusion. But what did Veselnitskaya actually offer and was it used? I don’t recall any stories about the KGB funding the DNC and Clinton’s campaign coffers. And if there was even a hint of anything solid along those lines out there it would have been on the front pages everywhere.
Add to that the fact that Veselnitskaya isn’t actually a member of the Russian government, though she no doubt has some “ties” to the Kremlin. Also, the main focus of her previous work seems to actually have been the adoption issue. With all of that in mind, it’s actually not that implausible to think that she might have known someone who knew Trump Jr. well enough to land her a meeting as a favor and she used hints of having some dirt on the DNC as a key to get her in the door to talk adoption.
That still doesn’t answer the question of whether or not Trump Jr. was actually told about the Clinton/DNC dirt in advance and if that’s the reason that he took the meeting. That’s some horrible optics to be sure, but even if it’s the case, nothing actionable seems to have come of it. Neither the DNC funding questions or the adoption issue as a prominent campaign talking point were seen on the campaign trail in the aftermath. So does all that add up to “collusion” in reality? And could anyone ever actually tie the President to this meeting? If the answer to either of those questions is “no” then I think Trump’s detractors are right back where they were prior to this weekend’s breaking news. Trump Jr. on the other hand may find himself in hot water, though likely not to the extent of facing legal peril. He’s not even officially part of the government.
If nothing else, however, it’s a big win for the media. Rather than talking about the ceasefire in Syria, improvements in deportation efforts or increased accountability at the VA, we’re back to Russia, Russia, Russia this morning. And that was probably the goal all along.