Donald Trump Jr. is the embodiment of all of his father’s weaknesses — and now he may well bring down his father’s administration.
The New York Times reported on Monday night that Donald Trump Jr. went to a meeting with a Russian attorney in June 2016 with the express purpose of getting information that the Russian government had acquired on Hillary Clinton. On Tuesday, seemingly to preempt another Times story, he posted the full email exchange in which he arranged the meeting — and the actual emails themselves are the first concrete evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
British publicist Rob Goldstone offered to set up a meeting “as part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr.’s response was “if it’s what you say I love it” — an explicit, written record of the Trump campaign’s willingness to work directly with the Russian government.
This, according to legal experts, is also devastating for Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, now a top White House aide, and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, both of whom were copied on the emails and may thus also face potential criminal prosecution. And now, on Thursday, we’ve learned that Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassely is going to ask Donald Trump Jr. to testify before the committee — and may even force him to with a subpoena if he refuses.
This all raises the question that brought down President Nixon during Watergate: What did the president know, and when did he know it? If Trump knew that his son and top advisers were trying to acquire information about Clinton from the Russians, and explicitly directed them to use that to help him win the White House, the political pressure to impeach him could become irresistible even for his fellow Republicans.
Donald Trump Jr. has thus created an existential threat for the Trump administration. In a way, this is perfectly appropriate: Junior is the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the Trump administration.
Shady ties to Russia? Check. Troubling affinity for the alt-right and white nationalism? Check. A walking conflict of interest between Trump’s business empire and political career? Check. Family members being elevated to positions they clearly don’t deserve, leading to staggeringly incompetent decisions? Check, check, and check.
Trump Jr.’s flaws are not just his own. They are his father’s, too — and in some cases his missteps directly stem from his father’s choices. And now Trump Sr. may pay the price.
Trump Jr.’s Russian follies came directly from his father’s
Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow - if so, will he become my new best friend?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 19, 2013
The actual story of the June 2016 meeting begins three years earlier, in November 2013. Back then, Trump Sr. was a merely a reality TV star and real estate magnate, one who happened to own the Miss Universe beauty pageant. That year, the pageant was scheduled to be held in Moscow.
To do that, Trump entered into a partnership with a wealthy Russian-Azeri family, the Agalarovs. Aras Agalarov, the family patriarch, was a real estate magnate in Russia who paid Trump roughly $20 million to license and stage Miss Universe.
Trump agreed to this deal despite, or perhaps because of, Agalarov’s ties to the Kremlin: Agalarov had once received the Order of Honor, a pretty high-level award, from Putin’s government. During the pageant, he delivered a personal note and gift box from the Russian president to Trump Sr. congratulating him on the event, per the New York Times.
Agalarov’s son Emin worked for his father much as did Donald Trump Jr. did with Trump Sr. (Emin is also, oddly enough, a Russian pop star.) By Trump Jr.’s own account, he came into contact with Emin ”from 2013 Ms. Universe Pageant.”
This relationship led directly to the June 2016 meeting. Goldstone, the British publicist who arranged the event, worked for Emin and explicitly said the meeting was arranged on his behalf. Trump Jr. himself said, in a statement on Tuesday, that he saw the email to be “relating a request from Emin.”
Trump Jr. wouldn’t have had this opportunity if he hadn’t met Emin in 2013. And he wouldn’t have met Emin in the first place if it weren’t for his father’s willingness to get in bed with shady, Kremlin-connected figures.
Trump Sr. paved the road to disaster. Trump Jr. just drove on it.
Trump Jr. is a prime example of his father’s nepotism
Donald Trump Jr. has never been elected to political office or served in government. He has no professional experience of note beyond his job at the Trump Organization, aside from a brief stint doing odd jobs in Colorado after college. There is no meritocratic reason he should have played a senior role in any major party presidential campaign at all.
Yet he did. Trump Jr. was known to be a close adviser to his father during the campaign, even giving a high-profile speech at the Republican National Convention. After his father’s victory, Trump Jr. was appointed to the presidential transition team despite not having any demonstrable knowledge of how the executive branch works.
He wasn’t the only Trump child given that kind of power, of course: His siblings Eric and Ivanka Trump, also political novices, played similar roles during the campaign. Ivanka now has an office in the West Wing, and even sat in for her father during the G20 summit, a meeting of a number of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful countries.
It now makes sense why Trump Jr. would have the influence to pull campaign heavyweights like campaign chair Manafort and Kushner (who, of course, also had no qualifications other than being Ivanka’s husband) into a meeting. It’s clear that Trump’s kids were empowered in the campaign because their father granted them an extraordinary degree of influence.
It’s not hard to see where this comes from. Trump has spent his life running a family business; he inherited a real estate fortune from his father and went on to build a personal company, branded in his own name, that employed most of his adult children. The president has never seen anything wrong with nepotism, and so he saw no reason not to port the practice over from his business career to his politics one.
But the federal government is not supposed to be run like a family business. That’s what happens in corrupt dictatorships where family members loot government coffers for profit, not advanced democracies — which are at least in theory supposed to be staffed by qualified people.
Trump Jr. was the campaign’s emissary to the alt-right
The meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer isn’t the first time Trump Jr. has told a changing story about a controversial meeting with a group offering support to his father’s campaign. Nor is it the only way in which his personal associations appeared to have revealed facets of his father that the Trump team would rather have kept less visible.
In March 2016, Trump Jr. gave an interview to The Political Cesspool, a radio show hosted by James Edwards, a conservative with white nationalist views. When he was confronted about it, his defense sounded awfully familiar, given what he’s said in the past few days about his meeting with the Russians.
At first, as recounted by the Huffington Post in March, the campaign denied the interview had happened at all. They later said that Trump Jr. hadn’t scheduled the meeting — a publicist had. And, they said, Trump Jr. didn’t know anything about Edwards’s beliefs. (Looking up the background of an obscure radio host is, in fairness, exactly the kind of campaign nicety the Trump campaign never bothered with; still, Edwards himself said that nearly all Republican candidates refused to appear on his show.)
This was part of Trump Jr.’s main role during the campaign. All three adult children were key advisers to Trump during his run for the White House. While Ivanka Trump reached leftward, promising action on equal pay and child care, Donald Trump Jr. stoked the base — including the racists and anti-Semites that most candidates would scorn but that Trump Sr. was seemingly happy to court.
At first, this work flew under the radar, and Trump Jr. seemed like a perfect ambassador for the more traditional Republican base. He was an avid hunter who spent a year in Colorado after college, followed gun rights groups on Twitter, and could speak on the right to bear arms with authenticity. His RNC speech mixed Republican orthodoxy — less regulation, more school choice — with sharp jabs at Hillary Clinton. From his speech, Politico gushed that “a political star may have been born.”
But it soon became clear that Trump Jr. was also a sort of emissary to less politically acceptable supporters. A series of social media posts and odd public statements were interpreted as nods to the meme-slinging anti-Semites and white supremacists who wanted to help Donald Trump troll his way to the White House.
Trump Jr. tweeted a meme featuring Pepe the Frog among a collection of Trump-supporting “deplorables” and a Breitbart article about a European “rape epidemic.” He compared Syrian refugees to Skittles. He retweeted a retired psychology professor whose hobbyhorse is the idea that Jews are destroying America, and made an odd reference to the media “warming up the gas chambers” if Trump matched Hillary Clinton’s alleged misdeeds.
The campaign claimed each of these was either an innocent mistake or misinterpreted by the media — they claimed Trump Jr. didn’t know who Pepe the Frog was and that the “gas chambers” comment was meant to refer to corporal punishment. But to accidentally tweet one racist meme might be regarded as misfortune; three or more, and it starts to seem like a strategy — one with a veneer of plausible deniability for the Trump campaign.
Once again, Trump Jr. created headaches because his father’s strategy put him in a position to do it. If his father hadn’t adopted slogans with an anti-Semitic history, like “America First,” or hadn’t proposed far-right policies, like the “Muslim ban,” Trump Jr.’s tweets wouldn’t have been such a problem. But they felt like a huge problem — not only because Trump Jr. was a major surrogate, but because they seemed to reveal the bigoted subtext behind the entire Trump campaign.
Trump Jr. embodies his dad’s conflict of interest problems
A prime fear about the Trump presidency has long been that Trump would use the presidency to enrich himself by favoring his business interests. His strategy for defusing the obvious conflicts of interest was to put Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump in charge of his business empire and to not give them official roles in government.
This, ethics experts agreed, was no solution at all. Trump Sr.’s name remained on his businesses, and if he wanted to know how things were going, all he had to do was ask his children. Like other ethically conflicted situations where Trump Jr. got involved, it gave the president, at most, a veneer of plausible deniability.
But, as in the other controversies, that veneer quickly began to slip.
Despite the fact that Trump Jr. was supposed to eschew politics, he’s been active on Twitter defending his father and excoriating his political enemies. And despite the promise that the Trump Organization would eschew foreign deals while Trump was in office, Trump Jr. flew to Dubai to meet with business partners.
Trump Jr. was serving, in short, as a kind of pathway of influence between the White House and Trump Tower. He was a living, breathing instantiation of the president’s myriad conflicts of interest — ones that Trump Sr. has barely even attempted to address.
By allowing his unqualified son to do all of this, Trump Sr. disregarded some basic norms of democratic society — and now it’s coming back to haunt him. Our colleague Dylan Matthews described Trump Jr. as a “staggeringly incompetent” political operative and conspirator, and it’s hard to argue with his case.
“If Trump Jr. had wanted to get the materials being offered but cover himself, he would’ve emailed back to say he was appalled at the suggestion, but then used a more secure means of communication to contact Rob Goldstone, who was offering the files, and set up a meeting,” Matthews writes. “Trump Jr. didn’t do that. He just conducted business over email. Easily hackable, subpoena-able email, during a campaign that centered on his father’s opponent’s poor email management skills.”
Keeping notes on a criminal conspiracy is exactly the kind of mistake you would have expected from someone who had no experience with either election law or political strategy. It’s no surprise that a neophyte like Donald Trump Jr. made them. But he never would have had the opportunity to screw up so massively if his father hadn’t empowered him to do it.