President Donald Trump left the country hoping to put the Russia scandal behind him for a few days, but his actions there — and explosive new revelations here at home about possible collusion with Moscow — meant he returned to an even bigger political firestorm.
There were two eye-opening developments. The first was news that Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son and a campaign surrogate, met with a Russian lawyer with connections to the Kremlin during the campaign in hopes of receiving damaging information about Hillary Clinton. The second came at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, where Trump agreed to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop election hacking. Seriously.
And just this morning, Trump tweeted a baseless accusation that James Comey — the former FBI director whom the president fired because of his role in the Russia investigation — broke the law by leaking classified information to the press. As should probably go without saying at this point, Trump made the charge after seeing an equally baseless report on Fox & Friends.
So it’s safe to say the scandal-ridden administration is now more even more scandal-ridden. And if you missed any of it because you wanted to enjoy a politics-free weekend, no worries. We’ve got you covered.
Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian in hopes of harming Hillary Clinton
This was a bad weekend for the president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr.
The New York Times reports that on June 9, 2016 — two weeks after Donald Trump clinched the GOP nomination — Natalia Veselnitskaya sat down with Trump Jr., then-campaign chair Paul Manafort, and the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is now a top White House aide. (The president, a spokesperson told the Times, did not know about this meeting.)
It turns out the conversation was a dud. Veselnitskaya didn’t have the information she claimed to have. Once that became known, she switched gears and began discussing other issues: the adoption of Russian children and the Magnitsky Act, a US law that aims to curb human rights violations in Russia by prohibiting access to the United States and its banking system for individuals who commit those kinds of crimes.
“It became clear to me that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting,” Trump Jr. told the Times.
That wasn’t the smartest thing for him to admit. He’s stating that the reason he had a chat with the Russian lawyer was because she promised to have dirt on Clinton.
Recall that there is currently an FBI investigation into whether or not members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russians to win the election. This revelation will certainly pique the interest of those investigators.
It also doesn’t help Trump Jr.’s case that he has changed his story in 24 hours, as the Washington Post reports.
“We primarily discussed 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, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up,” he said this past Saturday. Compare that with what he said on Sunday, where he admitted the sit-down only happened because of how it might have helped the campaign.
Trump, Jr. doesn’t think he’s been inconsistent in his statements about the meeting. He took to Twitter this morning to firmly make that case.
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
No inconsistency in statements, meeting ended up being primarily about adoptions. In response to further Q's I simply provided more details. https://t.co/FdT1D4hfhz— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) July 10, 2017
He’s not the only one on the defensive. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on Monday said the meeting provides no evidence of collusion, stating "no information was received that was meaningful or helpful and no action was taken." Back in December, she had flatly denied that there was any contact with Russians trying to meddle in the election.
By the way, it is completely possible that this lawyer was not directed by the Kremlin to push Putin’s agenda in this meeting, even if it appears sketchy. It’s up to the investigators to determine just how sketchy it really was.
Still, the fact that a Trump family member didn’t mind getting helpful information on Clinton from a Russian only underscores the administration’s general willingness to work with Moscow.
To that end...
Trump agreed to work with Russia to fight election hacking
Yes, you read that right. The president of the United States thought it was a good idea to work with Russia — the country that US intelligence agencies assess purposely meddled in the election to help him — to set up a new “Cyber Security Unit” to prevent campaign meddling.
Trump tweeted that the goal was to put a halt to all election hacking and also guard against “many other negative things.” The Best Analogy Award for this development goes to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL):
Partnering with Putin on a "Cyber Security Unit" is akin to partnering with Assad on a "Chemical Weapons Unit". 2/3— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) July 9, 2017
Rubio wasn’t the only critic from Trump’s party. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said the agreement was “pretty close” to the “dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” My Vox colleague Yochi Dreazen noted that Graham also blasted Trump for his continued refusal to acknowledge the Russian hacking campaign.
“He is literally the only person I know of who doesn’t believe Russia attacked our election in 2016,” Graham said on NBC’s Meet the Press.
Trump is not taking the criticism well. Last night, he tried to distance himself from the news:
The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn't mean I think it can happen. It can't-but a ceasefire can,& did!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 10, 2017
Even so, this was an accord the two leaders discussed during their high-profile G20 meeting. Issues aren’t negotiated at that level unless aides helping with meeting prep thought it was worth bringing up.
It goes to show the level of Russia trust in the administration — even on an issue where Russia has proven itself untrustworthy.
Trump claims Comey leaked classified intelligence
Set your “Days Without Comey News” counter back to zero.
In yet another tweet, Trump said the former FBI director “leaked CLASSIFIED INFORMATION to the media,” asserting that it was “so illegal.” That’s a very serious charge, which appears to be based on misleading — bordering on fake — news.
Here’s what happened. Fox & Friends aired a segment based on a piece in the Hill. “More than half of the memos former FBI Director James Comey wrote as personal recollections of his conversations with President Trump about the Russia investigation have been determined to contain classified information,” Hill reporter John Solomon writes, based on his conversations with unnamed officials who claim to have knowledge of the documents.
The right-leaning news channel then aired a segment based on that report, claiming that classified information was in the memo Comey asked a friend to read to the press.
Report accuses material James Comey leaked to a friend contained top secret information pic.twitter.com/Hkg4cAb6o9— FOX & friends (@foxandfriends) July 10, 2017
The problem, as the Washington Post details, is that the specific memo was one of seven — and it did not have classified information in it. Per Comey, four of the memos did have sensitive stuff in them, but they were not handed over to the press in any way.
The TV report does work in Trump’s favor, though, which is surely why the president wanted to highlight it. After all, Comey’s June testimony in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee was well-regarded, making him seem more credible in the public eye than Trump, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll. But Comey’s reputation would take a hit if it emerged that he’d leaked classified information.
So far, there’s no evidence Comey did such a thing, but that didn’t stop the president. After all, Fox & Friends misread the Hill report, and Trump took what he saw on TV at face value. It’s yet another example of a president who criticizes is own intelligence agencies but doesn’t critically watch news segments that are helpful to him.
Worse than that, it shows Trump is still willing to wade publicly into an open Russia investigation. Perhaps the president isn’t busy enough to stay off Twitter — but his PR cleanup crew will need to be in the days to come.