“I love it.”
With those three words, Donald Trump Jr. has brought the Justice Department’s investigation of Russian meddling into the 2016 election deep into the immediate Trump family, setting up a possible confrontation with the FBI and perhaps altering the future course of President Trump’s administration.
“I love it.”
Mr. Trump Jr. wrote this in June 2016, in response to the prospect of receiving Russian-government produced derogatory information on then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. An intermediary was offering a meeting with someone described as a Kremlin-linked lawyer, who allegedly possessed such dirt. It was part of the Russian government’s support for presidential candidate Donald Trump, according to the friend.
“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” wrote the Trump son in an email on the subject. Trump Jr. released the entire chain of emails Tuesday in advance of a New York Times story on their contents.
The president’s son did not apparently get any negative information about Mrs. Clinton from meeting with the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, in Trump Tower. But at the least, the meeting contradicts months of vehement White House denials that Donald Trump or his associates ever contacted individuals thought to be associated with the Russian government, or tried to collude with them to damage Clinton’s candidacy. Indeed, the email chain released by Trump Jr. shows someone almost eager to collude with Russia to elect Trump, if collusion were offered.
Revelations about the meeting may make it difficult for President Trump to continue to insist that there is no evidence of collusion between Russia and his campaign, and that the whole thing is “fake news” and a “witch hunt.” At a time when the Group of 20 meetings showed a United States increasingly isolated on the world stage, Trump senior now faces the prospect of further isolation in Washington, as Democrats attack and Republicans edge away from a chief executive who appears to have little interest in the details of GOP policies and constantly pressures them to hurry up and provide him with legislative wins.
“We may well look back and say, ‘yes, this was a turning point,’ ” says Chris Edelson, an assistant professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University. “We may look back and say there were a couple of turning points. It’s hard to know how history will turn out.”
Why is the Trump Jr. stuff such a big deal? After all, opposition research is a normal aspect of US political campaigns. Everybody collects it. Of course Trump’s son would love the prospect of information about Hillary Clinton that would make a good negative ad.
Yes – but it’s illegal to get help for elections from foreigners. This includes cash and material aid. It’s also illegal for a US campaign to solicit such a donation, whether it receives it or not.
There is also the implication that the meeting in question was just one part of a larger effort. “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” wrote the trusted intermediary who set up the meeting with the Russian lawyer, according to the email chain.
That sentence raises a number of difficult questions. What “government support?” Was there a quid pro quo, such as a relaxation of sanctions or a return of Russian diplomatic property blocked in retaliation for Moscow’s hacking? Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a current White House advisor, was in the meeting. What was his role?
“I think [Trump Jr.] potentially could be in considerable legal trouble ... potentially involving treason,” says University of Richmond Law School professor Carl Tobias in an email interview.
President Trump could escalate the situation if he chooses. He could fire special counsel Robert Mueller in an attempt to curtail the investigation. He could preemptively pardon his son of any crimes he may have committed. Either action might set up a crisis situation in Washington.
How Republicans in Congress respond will be crucial. To this point many in the GOP have gone along with Trump, despite the difficulties of dealing with the Tweeter-in-Chief. Trump remains popular with Republican voters, after all. He doesn’t really push his own policies on Speaker Paul Ryan or majority leader Mitch McConnell. He seems content to allow congressional leaders to proceed with their own agenda, with himself acting as chief cheerleader.
Yet there are dangers in such congressional acquiescence, say critics. It’s not enough to depend on the FBI. Congress should ramp up its own investigations of Trump and Russia, perhaps with more public hearings, says Dr. Edelson of American University. Otherwise, it may appear Congress is normalizing collusion with a foreign power.
“Don Jr. did what he did secretly. If there are no consequences why not do it openly?” says Edelson.