If your father was running for president, would you take a meeting with a Russian attorney with ties to the Kremlin in order to gather opposition research on dad's opponent? It's easy to scoff and say, "Of course not." After all, the optics of such a meeting are glaringly terrible. Taking the meeting is foolish — the work of a political amateur.
But that doesn't make it criminal. And it certainly doesn't provide hard evidence of collusion with Russia.
Yes, here we are, back with the latest chapter in the Trump-Russia scandal, which took a fresh turn on Saturday evening when The New York Times reported that three top members of Donald Trump's presidential campaign met in June 2016 with an attorney who had ties to the Kremlin. Trump's eldest son, Donald Jr., spearheaded the effort, and he was joined by Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and his then-campaign chair Paul Manafort — who later resigned amid questions about his connections to Ukraine's Party of Regions and their pro-Russia policy. (Manafort and his firm registered last month as foreign agents retroactive to before his work on the campaign.) The attorney, Natalia Veselnitskaya, had promised the campaign damaging information about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, including supposed Russian funding of the DNC.
This meeting produced the first solid public evidence of some kind of connection — but again, not collusion — between the Trump campaign and Russian interests after nearly a year of investigations. None of the three men had disclosed the meeting prior to the Times' scoop, and Trump's eldest son provided shifting explanations when challenged, at first claiming it was a discussion about Russian adoptions — which turned out to be partly true — before admitting he had taken the meeting on the promise of oppo research.
As it turns out, the meeting was a dud. Veselnitskaya didn't have any "meaningful" information on Clinton or the DNC, Trump Jr. has said, and he shut down the summit when it became clear that she actually intended to lobby against the Magnitsky Act of 2012, which imposed sanctions against Russia for human-rights abusers.
These are hardly the facts of a hair-raising scandal. Nothing in the Times story suggests that any quid pro quo occurred; the Trump campaign never did accuse the DNC of receiving Russian funding, and the White House has made no moves to rescind the Magnitsky Act. The White House has also not rolled back any of the existing sanctions on Russia, though a new sanctions package that easily passed the Senate last month has yet to receive Trump's signature. Still, Trump's attorneys insist that the president did not know about the meeting until a few days ago, and while you might suspect that his son and son-in-law might have mentioned the meeting to dad, there is no actual evidence of this.
The real conclusion, then, is not the existence of ham-fisted collusion. It is the considerable risks of amateurs running high-profile political operations. Even if the meeting turns out to be a "nothing burger," as the White House has said, one has to wonder how Veselnitskaya got access to three members of Trump's inner circle in the first place. The Washington Post notes that Veselnitskaya's client list includes several with links to the Kremlin, and she has been active in pursuing Russian interests in the U.S. Among seasoned politicos, that would have immediately raised red flags.
Even more to the point, no experienced campaign would allow senior members to meet with a source without ensuring it would be productive first. As an example, recall that the Democrats worked with a foreign government to dig for dirt on Trump, too. Politico's Kenneth Vogel and David Stern reported in early January that the DNC contacted officials from the Ukrainian government for their own oppo research efforts. These contacts did not involve cut-outs, as Veselnitskaya may or may not have been, but did directly assist in searching for damaging information that could be used in the election.
But where Trump's own flesh and blood was involved in clandestine meetings, the DNC was careful to keep Clinton and her family at arm's length, handling the connections to Ukrainian officials through operative Alexandra Chalupa. Chalupa, whose work included engaging with expatriate Democratic voters, suspected Manafort was using his Russian connections to boost Trump. According to Politico, she began coordinating with officials at Ukraine's Washington embassy to expedite her research, in the hopes of provoking Congress into holding a hearing before the election about Russian contact with the Trump campaign.
Nothing came of Chalupa's work, either, but at least the Clinton campaign was smart enough to stick to domestic contacts for those tasks. Bill Clinton didn't take those kinds of meetings during the campaign, and neither did Chelsea Clinton. If nothing else, the Clinton machine understood the need for firewalls between negative-research efforts and the candidate.
When the meetings involve the son and the son-in-law, it makes it more difficult to credibly deny any import or influence resulted from the meeting.
Thus far, though, the Russia collusion story still lacks any proven quid pro quo exchange. Finding out that presidential campaigns dig up dirt on opponents isn't a major scoop either. But what we do have is evidence of a lack of judgment and experience that does not reflect well on the White House.
With Russia as a major geopolitical adversary, that kind of naïveté can get very, very dangerous.