Did Donald Trump Jr just clear the air — or bury himself? Put your bets on the latter — politically speaking, at least. Hoping to get ahead of a new story from the New York Times that actually quotes directly from the e-mail chain about a meeting with a Kremlin-linked attorney, the president’s son posted the entire chain himself on Twitter as a means to put an end to the story.
Good luck with that. It reads like a confession instead, of at least a willingness to deal with the devil:
Here's my statement and the full email chain pic.twitter.com/x050r5n5LQ
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) July 11, 2017
If this is supposed to debunk the earlier reports from the NYT and Washington Post, it fails miserably. Contrary to Trump’s earlier statements, music promoter Rob Goldstone expressly informed him that Natalia Veselnitskaya had connections to the Russian government:
“Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting,” Mr. Goldstone wrote in the email. “The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”
He added, “What do you think is the best way to handle this information and would you be able to speak to Emin about it directly?”
In fact, Goldstone characterized her assistance as part of the Russian government’s assistance to Donald Trump in the campaign, a quote that the Times inexplicably left out from this exchange:
Emphasis mine: “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information,” Goldstone wrote, “but it is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump — helped along by Aras and Emin.” Goldstone explained why he went to Don Jr rather than Trump himself by noting that “it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first.” In a later prompt, Goldstone reminds Don Jr of the imminent arrival of “the Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow,” emphasizing Goldstone’s understanding that this was a push from the Putin regime.
And what was Don Jr’s reply to this offer of oppo-research dirt courtesy of the Russian government? He wanted to speak with Emin first, but “if it’s what you say I love it.” Bear in mind that four months ago, Don Jr categorically denied taking any meetings with Russian officials or representatives that were “set up” for him. Mark Berman pointed out the evolution of Don Jr’s shifting explanations:
Trump Jr. timeline:
March: Had no mtgs
Sat: A mtg on adoption
Sun: Seeking dirt on Hillary
Tues: Was told Russian govt wanted to help Trump pic.twitter.com/i4I1Fii6nn
— Mark Berman (@markberman) July 11, 2017
As bad as this looks, it’s still lacking for evidence of actual collusion in a legal context. It is evidence of dishonest representations from the principals involved in the meeting, and it certainly shows a reckless disregard for the issue of collusion. As John Dickerson put it this morning, it paints Don Jr as “collusion curious.” However there still isn’t any evidence that any quid pro quo took place, and the NYT alludes to that in the new article too:
The precise nature of the promised damaging information about Mrs. Clinton is unclear, and there is no evidence to suggest that it was related to Russian-government computer hacking that led to the release of thousands of Democratic National Committee emails. But in recent days, accounts by some of the central organizers of the meeting, including Donald Trump Jr., have evolved or have been contradicted by the written email records.
Don Jr continues to insist that nothing came of it, and that it’s normal practice to look for negative information on one’s political opponents. That’s certainly true, but it’s not normal to conspire with agents of foreign governments to get that dirt — although both sides did exactly that in the 2016 campaign. The difference between the two, as I write in my column for The Week, is that Democrats understood how to better buffer those efforts:
The real conclusion, then, is not the existence of ham-fisted collusion. It is the considerable risks of amateurs running high-profile political operations. Even if the meeting turns out to be a “nothing burger,” as the White House has said, one has to wonder how Veselnitskaya got access to three members of Trump’s inner circle in the first place. The Washington Post notes that Veselnitskaya’s client list includes several with links to the Kremlin, and she has been active in pursuing Russian interests in the U.S. Among seasoned politicos, that would have immediately raised red flags.
Even more to the point, no experienced campaign would allow senior members to meet with a source without ensuring it would be productive first. As an example, recall that the Democrats worked with a foreign government to dig for dirt on Trump, too. Politico‘s Kenneth Vogel and David Stern reported in early January that the DNC contacted officials from the Ukrainian government for their own oppo research efforts. These contacts did not involve cut-outs, as Veselnitskaya may or may not have been, but did directly assist in searching for damaging information that could be used in the election.
But where Trump’s own flesh and blood was involved in clandestine meetings, the DNC was careful to keep Clinton and her family at arm’s length, handling the connections to Ukrainian officials through operative Alexandra Chalupa. Chalupa, whose work included engaging with expatriate Democratic voters, suspected Manafort was using his Russian connections to boost Trump. According to Politico, she began coordinating with officials at Ukraine’s Washington embassy to expedite her research, in the hopes of provoking Congress into holding a hearing before the election about Russian contact with the Trump campaign.
Nothing came of Chalupa’s work, either, but at least the Clinton campaign was smart enough to stick to domestic contacts for those tasks. Bill Clinton didn’t take those kinds of meetings during the campaign, and neither did Chelsea Clinton. If nothing else, the Clinton machine understood the need for firewalls between negative-research efforts and the candidate.
At best, what this demonstrates is a bungling, amateurish operation that still managed to win because of the nature of their opponent. That matches up well against the amateurish and bungling manner in which Don Jr and the White House have dealt with the Veselnitskaya meeting, and their serial dishonesty raises serious questions about what we still haven’t discovered about their activities. No one can seriously rely on their denials after this debacle, especially after Don Jr keeps issuing denials while revealing evidence that immediately contradicts them.
Former prosecutor Preet Bharara notes that what this reveals isn’t illegal, but it’s damaging nonetheless:
— Preet Bharara (@PreetBharara) July 11, 2017
Why did Don Jr keep talking so long? The Daily Beast’s Betsy Woodruff reports that prosecutors and defense attorneys are asking the exact same thing, and wonder whether he’s getting very bad legal advice or merely ignoring good legal advice:
Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, told The Daily Beast that Don Jr.’s comment wasn’t very smart.
“He’s stupid for saying what he said about why he took the meeting,” said Mariotti, who now does criminal defense work at Thompson Coburn.
“It’s very hard for me to believe that any lawyer would advise him to make a public statement containing factual assertions about what happened in a meeting with an agent of the Russian government,” he added. “What’s more likely is that Donald Trump Jr. spoke without consulting legal counsel.”
It was also deeply unwise for him to speak for himself, said Scott Greenfield, a New York criminal defense attorney. Lawyers usually speak for their clients in these situations to keep them from saying something that could hurt them in court. That’s why Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn are keeping mum about the Russia probe: They have good lawyers and appear to be following their advice. Not so, at least over the weekend, for Don Jr.
And still not so. Perhaps his attorney, who built a reputation as a top-flight lawyer while defending accused mob bosses, might whisper a word or two about omerta to Don Jr. He might need to shout it, though — and repeatedly.