In June 2016, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort had a private meeting with, among others, a Kremlin-liked Russian attorney and a former Soviet counterintelligence officer. The controversy surrounding the meeting has taken the president’s Russia scandal to a new level, and Donald Trump Sr. has done his best to downplay the significance of the campaign discussion.
This morning, for example, the president argued via Twitter:
“Most politicians would have gone to a meeting like the one Don jr attended in order to get info on an opponent. That’s politics!”
At a certain level, this is a continuation of the argument the president started pushing last week, insisting that opposition research is a routine part of any national political campaign, so there’s no need to make a fuss about the June 2016 meeting. If you have an opportunity to quietly obtain damaging information about your opponent, the argument goes, you take advantage of it.
According to actual “oppo” professionals, this argument is completely wrong, at least in the context of the Russia scandal. It’s one thing for campaign officials to pursue a possible lead; it’s something else entirely to meet with representatives of a foreign adversary that’s launched an espionage operation against the United States.
What’s more, the “anyone would have done the same thing” line is belied by recent history: in 2000, some leaked the Bush campaign’s debate-prep materials to the Gore campaign. Gore’s aides promptly called the FBI – which is what Trump’s inner circle should’ve done, but didn’t.
But what stands out as especially notable about Trump’s latest pitch is the degree to which it contradicts the old pitches.
Let’s not forget the written statement Trump Jr. issued last week, when the New York Times first reported on the Trump Tower discussion: “It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up. I was asked to attend the meeting by an acquaintance, but was not told the name of the person I would be meeting with beforehand.”
This statement, which conveniently omitted any reference to the Russian government trying to help Team Trump by providing dirt on Hillary Clinton, was reportedly crafted by White House aides and personally approved by the president. In other words, confronted with a damaging story, Trump World got together and decided to cover up key details, misleading reporters and the public.
Now, however, the president is effectively admitting that the original story he approved wasn’t true. We’ve gone from denials of contacts to denials of collusion to a bogus narrative about adoption policy to an argument that colluding with foreign nationals to win an election is just “politics.”
When politicians argue, more than once, that we should disregard their previous claims and only focus on their new claims, there’s a problem.
Postscript: If you haven’t already seen it, I’d recommend this Washington Post piece from Friday from Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA counterintelligence officer, in which he makes the case that the June 2016 meeting “bears all the hallmarks of a professionally planned, carefully orchestrated intelligence soft pitch designed to gauge receptivity, while leaving room for plausible deniability in case the approach is rejected.”