The story of Russia's interference in the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump and the Republican Party continues to become more tragic and more farcical. On Friday, it was revealed that the meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and top Trump campaign operatives Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner was also attended by Rinat Akhmetshin, an American citizen and accused spy who is connected to the Kremlin. Then, on Sunday, the Secret Service denied having vetted the meeting, a claim made earlier in the day by President Trump's legal team.
As more details of the meeting continue to emerge, and the lies by Trump Jr. and the Trump team keep piling up, it's looking more and more likely that there was significant collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian state, and it is now beyond dispute that the Trump campaign wanted to collude with the Russians. This alone is already a huge political scandal, and things are likely to keep looking worse for Trump than better.
One thing that's remarkable about this is that the focus on "collusion" is in large measure the result of goalpost-moving by the Trump administration and its apologists. It was never necessary for collusion to be proven for this to be a major scandal. There is overwhelming evidence that Russia used illegal, privacy-invading hacks to help skew the election in the favor of Trump and congressional Republicans — which, particularly in a presidential election decided by fewer than 100,000 votes in three states, is a huge deal. And we also know that Trump and other campaign associates openly invited and cheered the hacks and their release by WikiLeaks, and we also know that Trump isn't interested in punishing the Russians for their interference in the election. All of this is really bad. Talking about collusion was a way of changing the subject that was valuable for Trump in part because collusion would apparently be much harder to prove.
The problem is that Trump's associates are so corrupt and incompetent that the tactic has backfired. Earlier this year, Trump Jr. denied that the meeting Akhmetshin attended even took place. Last week, his lies kept unravelling as he admitted to what had been proven, while making further claims which would immediately be disproven. In short order, Trump Jr. admitted that the meeting with a Russian official took place but said it was about adoptions, and then admitted that actually, the Trump campaign was seeking dirt on Clinton from the Russians, but only after leaked emails gave him no choice. Revealing that Akhmetshin was at the meeting constitutes a lie by omission at best.
At the very least, this settles the question of whether there was any level of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. We know now that the Trump campaign welcomed the illegal assistance of representatives of the Russian state, and not only did they fail to call out the Russian interference into the election, Trump cited the hacked emails WikiLeaks put on the internet constantly — more than 150 times in the last month of the campaign alone.
Friday's story, and Sunday's bungled Secret Service blame game, just puts the Trump campaign in deeper. According to The Associated Press, Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya brought with her to the meeting "a plastic folder with printed-out documents that detailed what she believed was the flow of illicit funds to the Democrats," undermining Trump Jr.'s claim that the meeting was a bust that produced no meaningful information.
Even if nothing more emerges, what we know now is highly damning. And as Matthew Yglesias of Vox observes, you would have to be gullible in the extreme to think that Trump Jr. is telling the truth and the whole truth. His serial lying means that his statements cannot be given any credit. People generally don't keep lying about an event for which there is an innocent explanation. It is likely that more damaging information about the Trump campaign's relationship with Russian representatives will emerge. This is not the end of the story.
It's telling, as Yglesias points out, that the Fox News party line is shifting. Instead of pushing the idea that claims that Trump colluded are false, the network is saying that if Trump did indeed collude with the Russians to help rig the election, it's no big deal. In other words, even Fox News is unable to deny that there's more to this than just a political witch hunt.
What we already know about Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 election is bad. Given that this is the Trump administration we're dealing with, we should assume that it will only get worse.