Imagine the names were different.
Imagine Chelsea Clinton had taken Bill Clinton and campaign chair John Podesta to a meeting set up by a Chinese government intermediary who claimed to have damaging information about Donald Trump’s tax returns and said over email they were willing to share the information in a bid to defeat Trump. Imagine emails emerged in which Chelsea, Bill and Podesta were all told the meeting was with a lawyer for the Chinese government and “is part of China and its government’s support for Ms. Clinton.”
Imagine this information came out mere weeks after stories revealing a major Democratic funder, acting on the behest of prospective National Security Adviser Susan Rice, had been trying to work with Chinese hackers to steal copies of Trump’s tax returns.
Imagine, during all of this, that Hillary Clinton herself had gotten on a stage and begged the Chinese government to release Trump’s tax returns. “China, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the tax returns,” Clinton said in Florida. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Imagine that these stories were not isolated. They came alongside dozens of strange meetings between Clinton campaign aides and Chinese staffers — contacts left off security clearance forms and “forgotten” during sworn congressional testimony — and were buttressed by Clinton herself lurching toward a strangely pro-China policy and an unusual, and repeatedly articulated, affection for China’s leader.
And imagine that in a crucial stretch of the campaign, hackers backed by the Chinese government really did break into the Trump family’s systems and release a bevy of damaging financial documents in a successful effort to elect Clinton.
To simply write out this story is to strain credulity. It reads like a bad spy novel or a fevered conspiracy. Can you imagine what Fox News would be saying? What Rush Limbaugh would be saying? How deafening the calls for impeachment and investigation would be?
But this is where we are. The best defense of Trump’s associates, at this point, is they were too dumb to know what they were doing — a defense that doesn’t work when it includes experienced international operators like campaign manager Paul Manafort and ex-Defense Intelligence Agency Director Michael Flynn. Donald Trump Jr.’s own defense of himself is that he attempted to collude with Russian agents but they didn’t have any useful information and so he didn’t. This is, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp notes, no defense at all — even if it is true, Trump Jr. may well have committed a crime.
What’s more, we know for a fact that the Russian hacking of Democratic files happened, that it was successful, and that Trump has stubbornly resisted efforts to admit or investigate Russia’s intervention into the campaign while repeatedly praising Putin. We also know Trump has, since taking office, undermined the NATO alliance while cozying up to Putin — the two of them joked about their shared dislike for the American media at the G20 last week and pledged to work together on cybersecurity.
This isn’t just smoke. We can see the damage done by the fire. We are watching our president pal around with the suspected arsonists. And so we are past the point where innocent explanations on Trump and Russia remain credible. Consider the context of Trump Jr.’s meeting:
- The most important fact about Trump Jr.’s meeting is that Manafort and Kushner were there. Absent their involvement, this may have just been Trump Jr. entertaining himself. But Manafort and Kushner were Trump’s campaign manager and key consigliere, respectively. Their presence suggests the Trump campaign was keenly interested in this kind of collusion, though we don’t yet know whether it actually happened.
- It was only days after Trump Jr.’s meeting that Trump himself publicly asked Russian hackers to find and release Clinton’s missing emails. Under criticism, Trump played off the comments as a joke, but it seems plausible that there was a theory floating around the campaign that Russian hackers had breached Clinton’s files and could reveal information that would devastate her campaign.
- Currently, the White House is saying Trump only learned of his son’s meeting in the past few days. So the going defense of the president is this: His son, his son-in-law, and his campaign manager met with Russian operatives to try to obtain dirt on Clinton — potentially both committing a crime and giving the Russians leverage over the candidate — and no one bothered to ask Trump whether this was a good idea. As with many of Trumpworld’s excuses, it’s hard to know whether it’s more damning if it’s true or if it’s false.
- Remember that all this took place in June 2016 when Trump was considered a serious underdog to win the race. The risk of colluding with a foreign power — if that risk was even understood and appreciated by Trump’s team — might well have seemed worth it to have a chance at winning the election. A gamble that looks insane in retrospect might have looked reasonable at the time, particularly if its consequences weren’t fully understood or expected.
- It is always worth asking how people involved in clear wrongdoing might have seemed like the hero of the story to themselves. Trump and his family bought into the most fevered conspiracies about the emails Clinton withheld from the State Department as personal, and they likely believed there was information crucial to American interests lurking in those documents. If they had obtained the emails and proven Clinton dangerously unfit to lead, or revealed that foreign powers had more information or leverage over American policymaking than we knew, they would have done the country a great service, or at least it’s easy to believe how they would see it that way. Recall former CIA Director John Brennan’s comment: "Frequently individuals who go along a treasonous path do not even realize they are on that path until it gets to be a bit too late.”
- “If The New York Times knows all this, imagine what Bob Mueller knows,” writes Axios’s Mike Allen. It is, for the Trump administration, a scary thought. But also remember: Obstruction of justice is a strange and somewhat vague crime that relies heavily on intent to undermine an investigation. Trump’s intent looks quite different if it turns out he was trying to protect his beloved son and son-in-law from investigation than if he was just annoyed by James Comey’s reticence.
How hard is Vladimir Putin laughing at us right now? One theory of Russia’s involvement in the election is they never expected to elect Trump — they just wanted to sow doubt in America’s institutions and its leaders. Look how easily and wildly they succeeded.