Donald Trump Jr. just took a nebulous scandal and made it much clearer
Now we're getting somewhere
Now we're getting somewhere.
Let's be honest: Up until now, there's been a kind of cloudy uncertainty surrounding the Russia scandal that can make it a little hard to wrap your head around. The behavior of Donald Trump and his associates through the 2016 campaign and into the beginning of his presidency has at times seemed bizarre and inexplicable. It hasn't all come into focus yet, but we finally seem to be on the right track, thanks to Donald Trump Jr.
As you have no doubt heard by now, Trump the younger himself released a series of emails he received last June from one Rob Goldstone, a British music promoter whose clients included a Russian pop star and son of a zillionaire oligarch friendly with Trump the elder. Goldstone wanted to set up a meeting with a Russian attorney who "offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father," he wrote (Goldstone also described her as a "Russian government attorney," though she does not in fact work for the government). "This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump — helped along by Aras [the oligarch] and Emin [the pop star]."
An experienced campaign professional would at this point contact the FBI, but not Trump Jr. Instead, he replied, "I love it" and forwarded the email to his brother-in-law Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, the campaign's chairman (who was in fact an experienced professional). The three would later meet with the attorney to learn of the "very high level and sensitive information" that was "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump," but were disappointed when she didn't have much to offer but was instead interested in seeking their help in eliminating sanctions the U.S. had placed on Russian officials accused of human rights abuses.
Before we proceed, keep in mind that the chances this will be the last shocking revelation about Trump and the Russians are approximately zero. But this certainly looks a lot like the "collusion" President Trump and everyone around him has insisted never ever happened. Or at a minimum, three of the people closest to Trump were attempting to collude with the Russian government but didn't quite manage it, at least not in this case. Which, we should note, may still be a crime, since soliciting something of value (and dirt on your opponent is definitely something of value) from a foreign entity for a campaign is against the law.
Why do I say that this begins to bring things into focus? It's not because it lays bare a well-oiled conspiracy; instead, it portrays a situation in which the nincompoops around Donald Trump bumbled their way through a campaign, ignoring not only established norms but perhaps the law as well. Many of them were hip-deep in connections to shady Russian figures, and once Russia was well into its project to destroy Hillary Clinton, perhaps it was inevitable that the tendrils of that project would reach into Trump's inner circle.
That may not be quite as titillating as the suggestion that Vladimir Putin has a compromising videotape of Trump with Russian prostitutes, but it's more plausible. That sex tape story, however, certainly had a narrative appeal. It provided a clear explanation for Trump's behavior: He's being blackmailed and therefore is doing Putin's bidding, praising him publicly, undermining NATO, and preparing to enact a series of pro-Russia policies. The trouble was that it just wasn't all that believable.
So this isn't that, at least not yet. But whenever we confront a scandal, the parties end up in a contest to answer the question, "What is this really about?" For instance, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Republicans desperately tried to convince the public that they weren't impeaching the president because he had an affair, they were impeaching him because he covered up that affair, lying under oath in the process. It was about truth, and the dignity of the office, and the rule of law! Democrats responded that no, it was about the president having an affair and being burned at the stake for it by a bunch of puritanical, hypocritical Republicans. As Sen. Dale Bumpers said in a dramatic speech defending Clinton during the impeachment trial, "H.L. Mencken said one time, 'When you hear somebody say, "This is not about money," it's about money.' And when you hear somebody say, 'This is not about sex,' it's about sex." The public agreed.
So what is the Russia scandal about? Is it just collusion, or something broader? Is it about obstruction of justice meant to cover something up, or is there an original crime (or bunch of crimes) being covered up? At times it has been hard to tell, and you may have found yourself saying "What the hell are they thinking?" over and over. Why do they keep lying about what may well have been innocuous meetings with Russian officials? Why did Trump go to such extraordinary lengths to protect Michael Flynn? Why were Russian oligarchs so interested in investing in Trump properties?
Trump Jr.'s emails don't provide answers to those questions. They do tell us that the most senior members of the Trump family and campaign were only too eager to sign up with the Russian government's effort to destroy Hillary Clinton and put Donald Trump in the White House. And there's so much more to learn — this is just getting started.