Donald Trump Jr. is at the center of the latest revelations in the Russia scandal — as confirmed by emails he tweeted himself, he agreed to a meeting in June 2016 knowing full well it was the result of a Russian government attempt to discredit Hillary Clinton. But the latest twist in the story isn’t just about Trump Jr. It goes to the heart of Donald Trump’s campaign — and his presidency.
That meeting with Kremlin-affiliated lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya on June 9, 2016, also included Trump’s de facto campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and longtime close adviser to the candidate (and future senior adviser to the president) Jared Kushner.
Trump Jr. knew that Veselnitskaya was a “Russian government lawyer” who wanted to meet regarding “some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary” proffered by the Russian “crown prosecutor.” And he was downright gleeful at the possibility: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” he wrote.
But make no mistake — this wasn’t just a meeting with the president’s son. Top campaign officials went into a meeting that had been set up to gather damaging information about an opponent from a foreign entity. Though we don’t know exactly what Manafort and Kushner knew, they certainly don’t appear to have minded or cared what was behind the meeting — or asked too many questions at all.
Manafort was key in leading Trump to victory in 2016; Kushner has guided his presidency every step of the way. This story is about them — and, by extension, the circle of people advising the world's most powerful man — every bit as much as it's about Donald Trump Jr.
No one was willing to say “maybe we should totally avoid a foreign effort to discredit our opponent”
At the time of the meeting, in early June 2016, Paul Manafort was a relatively new hire to the Trump campaign, brought on to professionalize the operation (which was being run by Trump loyalists like Corey Lewandowski rather than career politicos). He hadn’t yet formally replaced Lewandowski as campaign manager, but his power was on the rise. Combined with Kushner (who had been intimately involved with the campaign from the jump) and Trump Jr. (who, like his siblings Eric and Ivanka, often tried to exert influence on the campaign’s direction), the Trump campaign sent three very heavy hitters to this meeting.
Either they did so deliberately — because they thought it was a particularly important opportunity to get an edge on Clinton — or they did so carelessly, not really caring who was behind the supposed gift.
It might sound implausibly generous to assume they simply didn’t care what was going on — that they took the meeting not because the Kremlin was involved, but simply because they were promised dirt on Clinton. But that’s actually plausible.
As NBC reporter Katy Tur explained in an interview last night, there was “a naive atmosphere” around the Trump campaign, where “unplanned meetings with unnamed people were frequent.”
Even if they didn’t distinguish “damaging information about your opponent” from “damaging information about your opponent dug up as part of an attempt by a foreign government to discredit her in the eyes of your nation’s voters,” that distinction matters to a lot of people — not to mention, under certain circumstances, the law.
If it didn’t occur to the nominee’s son-in-law and closest adviser, or his campaign-manager-to-be, that’s illuminating. It means that no one was willing to be the adult in the room and say, “Maybe this is an unplanned meeting we should not take” — or, “Maybe this thing, which looks good for us, is actually more trouble than it’s worth.”
There are no rules worth respecting
In the midst of his halfhearted spinning about the real purpose of the meeting with Veselnitskaya, Donald Trump Jr. tried to appeal to common sense: that if someone offered him “info on an opponent,” he “had to listen.”
Obviously I'm the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent... went nowhere but had to listen. https://t.co/ccUjL1KDEa— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) July 10, 2017
That is ... not how most campaign professionals in either party work. “It would be very odd for the campaign manager to appear at a meeting with a more-or-less random foreigner claiming they’re peddling” damaging information, a former Jeb Bush adviser told the Huffington Post’s Igor Bobic.
Trump Jr. isn’t formally involved in the administration. But his attitude — If it could help you and hurt your enemy, why wouldn’t you do it? — is at the core of Trump family ideology. And Trump family ideology (represented most notably by Kushner) is a powerful force within this White House, just as it was within the presidential campaign.
Kushner in particular has repeatedly shown a willingness to use all the tools at his disposal to get his preferred outcome — from pushing to discredit special prosecutor Robert Mueller to pressuring CNN to fire anti-Trump commentators after the election. The administration has also (reportedly) floated the idea of using Time Warner’s pending merger with AT&T as leverage to get CNN to go easier on the president.
If you care about freedom of the press or the rule of law, these actions cross bright ethical lines. If you don’t care about them — or care about them less than you do about winning — there are no bright lines worth keeping you from getting what you want.
What the revelations about the Veselnitskaya meeting tell us, more than anything, is that some of the people who did the most to get Donald Trump to the White House (at least one of whom is still assisting him there) didn’t see rules worth respecting. Even if they didn’t know, they failed, conspicuously, to care.