There is much to be shocked by in the revelation that Donald Trump Jr. was offered incriminating information about Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump.” There’s the fact that the president’s son accepted the offer. There’s the fact that he offered advice on when the information should be released for maximal political impact (“especially later in the summer”). There’s the fact that he took a meeting with someone described to him as a “Russian government lawyer” to discuss the information.
And then there’s the fact that he did all this in an email chain, a chain that could be and was retrieved and released for the public and prosecutors to see.
What Trump Jr. did was morally wrong — there’s little doubt about that. What you do when foreign governments offer you assistance in an election is call the FBI, just like the Gore campaign did in 2000 when they were mysteriously sent video of George W. Bush’s debate practice.
But Trump Jr.’s behavior was not just wrong. It was staggeringly, astonishingly incompetent. He didn’t just engage in a conspiracy to enlist a foreign government to help win an election, he left written records proving that was what he had done.
Beyond the criminal and moral issues at stake, this incident should make us doubt the basic competence of the people the president has chosen to advise him and help run the country.
Donald Trump Jr. is a very incompetent conspirator
If Trump Jr. had wanted to get the materials being offered but cover himself, he would’ve emailed back to say he was appalled at the suggestion, but then used a more secure means of communication to contact Rob Goldstone, who was offering the files, and set up a meeting.
Trump Jr. didn’t do that. He just conducted business over email. Easily hackable, subpoena-able email, during a campaign that centered on his father’s opponent’s poor email management skills.
The incompetence extends from the initial crime to the subsequent cover-up. Trump Jr. kept telling easily debunkable lies, and then changing his story when these lies were exposed. First, he said he'd never met with Russians when he was "representing the campaign in any way, shape or form."
Then, when this meeting came to light, he told the New York Times that, oh, actually, he did meet with Russians, to discuss "a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government."
Then when the New York Times found that the meeting was about getting information on Clinton, Trump Jr. admitted that this was true, but failed to mention that he had been promised information as part of a Russian government effort.
And then, to preempt yet another Times scoop, he posted all his highly incriminating emails about the meeting on Twitter.
None of this actually made him look less involved or guilty. It just served to erode his credibility and confirm that he had something to hide all along.
Trump Jr. appears to have not taken even basic steps to defend himself and his administration as the scandal unfolded. He only announced this week that he had hired a lawyer; he would not say when the lawyer was hired, but the lawyer's statement that he "look[s] forward to assisting Donald Jr.” suggests the hiring was rather recent. Trump Jr. knew he did something suspicious. He should’ve been consulting with a lawyer at least since the meeting took place, and taking that lawyer’s advice on what to tell the public and prosecutors. He did not.
And the incompetence appears to extend further. Then-campaign chair Paul Manafort and now-White House senior adviser Jared Kushner both attended the meeting with Russians as well. Trump Jr. says he told Manafort and Kushner “nothing of substance” about how the meeting came about. That appears to not be true at all — Trump Jr.’s emails show he forwarded the whole chain of communication, including the discussion about “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” to Kushner and Manafort. They knew exactly what the meeting was about and attended anyway.
Manafort and Trump Jr. are not formally involved in the Trump White House. But Kushner is. That should worry anyone who cares about competence in the executive branch.