The legitimacy crisis that has been percolating ever since Donald Trump won the White House despite losing the popular vote is now finally boiling over. In a string of increasingly explosive stories, The New York Times uncovered the first hard evidence that some of the most senior members of Trump's presidential campaign knew the Russian government was trying to help Trump get elected and were eager to accept the Kremlin's assistance.
At the center of these latest revelations is the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., who met with a Russian lawyer in June 2016 after he was promised damaging information about his father's general election opponent Hillary Clinton. The Times turned up a series of emails between Trump Jr. and a British music publicist who arranged the meeting, and the details of that conversation are so absurdly incriminating that it's almost difficult to believe that they actually exist.
"This is obviously very high level and sensitive information," Trump Jr.'s contact wrote him about the Clinton dirt that was allegedly on offer, "but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump." What did the president's son do upon reading that the government of Russia was conspiring to help tilt the election in his father's favor? He signed on enthusiastically. "If it's what you say I love it," he wrote back. The subject line of the email chain is, hilariously, "Russia – Clinton – private and confidential." Trump Jr. forwarded the exchange to his brother-in-law Jared Kushner and Trump's then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, both of whom attended the meeting that materialized from these contacts.
This is a turning point in the Russia scandal.
Up until now, everyone involved with the Trump campaign — from the president on down — confronted allegations of Russian collusion with haughty derision, chanting "fake news" while mocking the desperation of their political opponents. The truth is that top Trump campaign officials welcomed Russian interference, sought to benefit from it, and made every effort to hide their interactions with Russian officials.
These revelations are particularly damaging for Kushner, who failed to disclose the meeting while applying for the security clearance that comes with his high-powered job in the West Wing. Trump's son, meanwhile, might have violated federal election laws.
We also have to assume that Donald Trump himself likely knew about the meeting and has been lying about it for over a year. It beggars belief to think that Trump's son, son-in-law, and campaign chairman freelanced a Trump Tower get-together with a Russian source promising damaging Clinton information while keeping the candidate completely in the dark. In the email exchange, Trump Jr.'s British contact wrote that he "can also send this info to your father via Rhona [Trump's personal assistant] but it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first," which suggests that Trump could have been privy to these arrangements as they were being made.
The Trump Jr. emails also add another dimension to the White House's attempts to derail the Justice Department investigation into Russian election interference. When Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey, the going assumption was that he did it to resolve the political problems the Russia investigation was causing — an assumption that was confirmed by statements Trump made to NBC News and Russian diplomats in the Oval Office. Now we know that members of Trump's immediate family — his oldest son and his son-in-law — are implicated in Russian attempts to influence the election and may have been put in legal jeopardy by the investigation the president tried to disrupt.
And that leads to the question of what will happen now. Speculation has been swirling for weeks as to whether Trump would try to fire the man who succeeded Comey as the leader of the Russia investigation, special prosecutor Robert Mueller. Firing Mueller would have been a political disaster for Trump even before evidence emerged that his closest campaign advisers sought to collude with Russia. Doing it now would set off a firestorm, given reports that Mueller is digging into Trump Jr.'s emails and the June 2016 meeting.
But Trump still might go down that route to protect himself and his family. Trump's instinctual response is always to escalate and to act without regard for the consequences. He has learned from experience that Republicans in Congress will excuse his flagrant abuses of power because they need his signature to enact their agenda. And if there's anything this scandal has taught us, it's that Donald Trump and his family are as reckless as they are power hungry.