Like any other American, Donald Trump Jr. is innocent as a matter of law until proven guilty and convicted by a jury. That said, there is something remarkable about the level of credulity essentially every Republican member of Congress, Fox News host, and CNN Trumpbot has managed to muster about his now-infamous meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya and that the mainstream press has, in its reflexively even-handed way, gone on to muster.
“He’s a good kid,” President Trump said of his son. “And he had a meeting. Nothing happened.”
But there is still such a thing as common sense. I don’t believe Trump Jr.’s account, and neither should you. He’s a man with negative credibility on this matter, and despite his father’s talismanic invocation of the word “transparency,” he’s been anything but transparent about it.
It’s certainly conceivable that he’s telling the truth and no valuable information changed hands. But when you are caught lying over and over again about a meeting — first by saying it never happened and then slowly being caught out in lie after lie — a reasonable observer is going to doubt you when you claim that this time you’ve fully come clean.
Until Trump Jr. answers a lot more questions and produces a lot more information, there’s no reason to assume good faith on his part. The benefit of the doubt is a valuable commodity, and it’s one that those at the highest levels of Trumpland have squandered.
Trump’s Jr.’s story has shifted a lot
My colleague Dara Lind has a detailed rundown of Trump Jr.’s shifting stories about this meeting, but here’s an express version:
- As of July 7, his operative story — as told to the New York Times back in March — was, “Did I meet with people that were Russian? I’m sure, I’m sure I did. But none that were set up. None that I can think of at the moment. And certainly none that I was representing the campaign in any way, shape or form.”
- Then on July 8, when the Veselnitskaya meeting first came to light, he explained it was “primarily” about “a program about the adoption of Russian children,” which “was not a campaign issue at that time.”
- Then on July 9, when more information about the meeting was revealed in the press, Trump Jr. conceded that it was in fact a meeting with “an individual who I was told might have information helpful to the campaign,” but he indicated that he hadn't known who she was and he didn’t mention anything about the Russian government.
- Then on July 10, when he realized the New York Times was about to publish an email exchange setting up the meeting, he got out ahead of the story and published it himself — including the previously omitted fact that the stated purpose of the meeting was for Veselnitskaya to serve as a conduit for information provided by the Russian government.
Having been caught, red-handed, in several different iterations of lying, this would have been a good opportunity for Trump Jr. to fully come clean. I’m not sure how he could excuse the months of lying about there having been no meetings whatsoever. But he could maybe write off the July 8 through 10 equivocations as simply a defensive response to having been under threat, apologize profusely, and offer a full and detailed account.
But he didn't. Instead, he and all of Trumpworld congratulated themselves on their transparency, insisted no meaningful information had changed hands, and began shifting into trying to insulate Trump Sr. from complicity in Trump Jr.’s lies and cover-ups.
Then came the news that Rinat Akhmetshin, possibly a Russian spy himself, was also at the meeting.
Akhmetshin’s presence is significant in its own right — he’s a US citizen born in Russia, formerly working for Russian intelligence and more recently working as a lobbyist on Russia-related issues — but it’s mostly significant because it leaves Trump Jr.’s credibility in the dust.
The big, obvious questions Trump Jr. hasn't answered
This leaves a couple of big, obvious questions that neither Trump Jr. nor Trump Sr. has seen fit to answer in their various softball media appearances and that Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders have evaded in their hardball ones.
- What’s up with Rob Goldstone’s casual reference to the meeting being “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump”? In context, Goldstone appeared to believe that Trump Jr. was well aware of some larger effort of which this meeting was just one part. And Trump Jr. did not ask any follow-up questions, seeming to confirm that he knew exactly what Goldstone was talking about. And neither Manafort nor Kushner had any questions about it when they were forwarded to the chain.
- What’s up with the apparent phone call between Trump Jr. and Emin Agalarov that seems to have been set up during the email exchange? Despite his professions of transparency, Trump Jr. hasn’t explained what was said during this phone call.
- What was the follow-up from the meeting? The three Americans present were all busy men with important jobs. If the meeting was a bust and a total waste of time, surely they must have complained about it or sent angry emails.
It’s certainly possible that with the provision of much more detailed context and documentation you could convince me the meeting was entirely innocent. But on its face, what certainly seems to be happening is that the meeting wasn’t innocent at all, and that’s why Trump Jr. keeps lying about it, and keeps shifting his story incrementally rather than coming clean all at once.
The larger timeline is very suspicious
The emails between Goldstone and Trump Jr. played out between June 2 and 7, 2016. By about a quarter past 5 on June 7, a meeting was set up for Thursday, June 9. A victory speech given by Trump Sr. that same day has taken on new meaning now that we know about that meeting.
“I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week [June 13],” he said, “and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.”
The official story is that the June 7 announcement of forthcoming dirt on Clinton had nothing to do with the June 7 email exchange setting up a meeting to obtain dirt on Clinton. And when June 13 rolled around, Trump punted and instead spoke largely about national security. Then on June 15, out came the first release of Democratic Party documents stolen by Russian hackers.
There are a lot of different possible interpretations of this timeline.
But the one put forward by Trumpworld — that the June 7 announcement had nothing to do with the June 7 setup of the meeting, that nothing came of the meeting, and that the meeting was then denied publicly during a months-long furor over Russian hacking — does not seem even close to being the most plausible one.
A less ridiculous theory would be that during the June 9 sit-down, it was agreed that passing hacked documents directly to the Trump campaign would be dumb. Instead, perhaps they agreed to channel them through WikiLeaks, which would frame them as the fruits of left-wing anti-establishment muckraking. This theory might have sounded ridiculous if not for the fact that Trump Jr. has already lied many times about the meeting.
Of course, without more documents — and more efforts to offer clear, detailed answers about what was happening — it’s impossible to say for sure what happened.
But as the old saying says, fool me twice, shame on me. Trump Jr. has already tried to fool us four or five times about this meeting, and there’s absolutely no reason we should trust him. Fox News, tellingly, has in part already moved on to justifying collusion, showing little faith from Trumpworld that the denials of collusion will hold up over the long run. Those of us who aren’t in the tank ought to muster at least the same level of skepticism.