The other shoe has finally fallen, and the Trump presidency may fall with it.
For months, as evidence has piled up of undisclosed and unexplained meetings between senior Trump campaign aides and Russians, the embattled Trump administration has relied on a simple, if implausible, defense. The White House has insisted the mysterious meetings were about sanctions, better cooperation in the ISIS fight, and a general desire to build closer ties between Washington and Moscow — and not about colluding with the Kremlin to help defeat Hillary Clinton and put Donald Trump in the White House.
That defense now lies in tatters, shredded by newly released emails showing that Donald Trump Jr. took a meeting with a Kremlin-linked envoy who explicitly promised information that “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”
In case that message somehow wasn’t clear enough, the emails, first obtained by the New York Times, went on to say the information is “obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Trump Jr.’s response? “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
It’s worth pausing for a moment and rereading both the email to Trump Jr. and his response. The president’s son was offered damaging information about Hillary Clinton that he had been explicitly told was coming from Russia, a hostile foreign power. He didn’t rebuff the offer. He didn’t alert the FBI. Instead, he made clear that he wanted the information — and even pulled Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort into the meeting where it was supposedly going to be provided.
There’s a second clear takeaway, one that raises new questions about the president himself.
Trump has repeatedly stunned lawmakers from both parties by publicly rejecting the US intelligence community’s unanimous belief that Russia interfered in the election with the explicit goal of helping him win the White House. Instead, Trump used a high-profile meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin late last week to say that he accepted Putin’s denials of any meddling.
For good measure, Trump said he’d work with Putin on a new joint effort to combat election hacking, a comment that would be laughable if its implications weren’t so dire. As I wrote at the time, that meant Trump — who has since tried to distance himself from the proposal — would have been trying to stop election hacking by working with the man who had weaponized election hacking against the United States.
And that’s where these emails come back in. Trump and his surrogates can no longer say that accusations of collusion are fake news ginned up by Obama administration holdovers and members of a “deep state” of disgruntled US spies. The evidence that his campaign had shady and very likely illegal election-related dealings with Moscow is now on the internet for all to see.
That has enormous legal and political implications for Trump’s top aides, and for the president himself. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller and an array of congressional committees have been looking into whether there was evidence of collusion between team Trump and the Kremlin. Donald Trump Jr. may have done their work for them.
Trump’s Russia connections are looking shadier than ever before
Comparing political scandals to Watergate is normally a very dangerous thing to do. Richard Nixon’s crimes plunged the nation into political chaos, sparked a genuine constitutional crisis, and set the stage for what would have been the first successful impeachment of an American president in history.
We’re not there yet, but we’re getting much closer.
Think of what we already knew even before the release of the new emails. An array of Trump campaign and White House aides like Manafort, Kushner, then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions had undisclosed meetings with either actual Russian officials or purportedly private citizens with close ties to Putin. The Trump aides lied about them, again and again and again. Mueller is now looking into whether those dealings broke the law.
The president himself has publicly disparaged the US intelligence community, continually praised Putin as a strong leader, talked of lifting the sanctions imposed on Russia for its misdeeds in Russia and Syria, weakened Washington’s historic commitment to NATO, and made clear that Putin would pay no real price for his election interference.
To top it off, Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey in May after Comey refused to drop the FBI investigation into Flynn. That move prompted Mueller’s appointment as special counsel and led to an ongoing criminal investigation into whether the president himself obstructed justice. Trump has since mused about firing Mueller too, and some legal scholars believe he could preemptively pardon Flynn, Kushner, or other aides before charges were even brought, let alone after potential convictions.
Russia, in other words, has been the dark cloud hanging over Trump since the campaign, when his pro-Putin rhetoric first began attracting public notice. That cloud has just gotten much darker.
It’s hard to imagine clearer evidence of collusion
Donald Trump Jr. was in serious legal trouble even before the New York Times obtained his emails.
As my colleague Zack Beauchamp has explained, his very decision to meet with Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya to see what dirt she had on Clinton may well have violated campaign finance law. That’s because you don’t have to actually get anything of value from a foreigner; simply sitting down with a Russian national to see whether she had information that could help Trump and damage his rival could be enough to constitute a federal crime.
“The most important legal issue raised by these revelations actually goes to the question where collusion might be criminal under campaign finance law,” Ryan Goodman, a former Defense Department special counsel and current editor of the legal site Just Security, told Beauchamp. “Even if the meeting didn’t produce anything ... solicitation itself is the offense.”
That was before we learned that Trump Jr. had taken the meeting after being explicitly told that the Russian government wanted to funnel him anti-Clinton information as part of an effort to boost Trump’s chances of winning the presidency.
It was also before we learned that Kushner and Manafort — already facing criminal investigations for their own potential ties to Moscow — were copied on the email chain. It will now be exponentially harder for them to claim they didn’t know Russia was trying to help Trump’s campaign and weren’t aware that the campaign itself was receptive to the offer.
The White House has tried to distance Trump from the new scandal surrounding his son by saying the president didn’t know about the meeting and didn’t participate in it. His aides may have broken the law, in other words, but he himself did not.
It’s quite possible that’s true, and that Trump himself won’t prove to be directly culpable in the collusion with Moscow that his own son seemed eager to carry out.
But it’s also possible that new evidence will emerge showing that Trump knew about his campaign’s dealings with the Kremlin and was supportive of them. If so, the comparison to Watergate wouldn’t overstate the severity of the Trump-Russia scandal; it would understate it.