Littwin: If the Trump Jr.-Russia story is not quite a smoking gun, it’s still smoking
July 16, 2017
This may be, as the kids say, when everything got real, even as the Trump-Russia story grows increasingly unreal.
On three consecutive days this past week, The New York Times broke bombshell stories on Donald Trump Jr.'s June 9 meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer who was said to be offering damaging information about Hillary Clinton. And each day, the stories got more and more explosive.
And each day, as the stories exposed people in the Trump campaign either lying about the meeting or being evasive about the meeting or having failed to report the meeting, the central question in the Russia investigation becomes increasingly daunting: If there's nothing there, as Trump so often insists, why do so many Trump-related people keep lying about, well, nothing?
The Times says it learned from three sources that before Trump Jr. arranged the meeting, he was told in an email from attorney Rob Goldstone, the Trump-Russian go-between, that the material being offered was part of a Russian government effort to help his father's campaign against Clinton. Yes, another story about emails.
And so, if the story is right, Trump Jr. then arranged the meeting at Trump Tower with Natalia Veselnitskaya. He invited Jared Kushner and then-campaign-manager Paul Manafort to attend. And they went, by Trump's admission (although it may not have been until the third rendering of his admission), seeking out Clinton dirt, although he hasn't admitted — yet — that he knew of any Russian government involvement. You do have to wonder, though, how Trump Jr. thought a Kremlin-connected lawyer might have gotten her hands on compromising Clinton material. I know certain Trumps aren't big on reading, but hasn't Don Jr. ever watched "The Americans"?
In any case, this story, involving the top people in Trump's campaign, seems to be about more than nothing. Ask anyone who has run a campaign what he or she would do if approached with oppo research from the Russians, and the answer is pretty much unanimous. You don't take a meeting. You call the FBI. Even if James Comey is head of the FBI.
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When Al Gore was mailed a copy of George W. Bush's campaign playbook, the Gore campaign, um, called the FBI. On MSNBC, Bush ethics lawyer Richard Painter, who said Trump's meeting with the Russian lawyer "borders on treason," put it this way:
"Let's cut through the baloney here. … I don't care if you're a Republican, as I am, or a Democrat. You call the FBI. The last thing you do is to go meet with the Russians to try and get the derogatory information."
Trump the Younger, who may not be familiar with campaign etiquette, didn't cut through the baloney. He didn't call the FBI. He did take a meeting, with Kushner and Manafort by his side. Was it simple naiveté? Was it a matter of not knowing anything about how a normal campaign should act as indicated by Trump's Sunday tweet: "Obviously I'm the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent. … Went nowhere but had to listen."
I've seen it suggested that the meeting may have been bait, with Trump Jr. the more-than-obvious Trump to attempt to entrap, to see if Trumpworlders were willing to play ball with the Russians. By accepting the meeting, it seemed as if Trump Jr. showed he was ready to deal.
You could see how signals might have gotten crossed in a spy story — which I could see someday as a musical — that includes pop stars and Miss Universe contests and Russian oligarchs and the eldest son of the man who would be president.
The meeting was set up at the behest of Emin Agalarov, the pop star whose wealthy father, Aras Agalarov, is close to Vladimir Putin and who also helped sponsor, as you've probably guessed, the Miss Universe contest in 2013. You might remember Trump owned the contest back then. But hold on, because it gets stranger. The Agalarovs, through their Miss Universe connection, had worked out a deal with Trump to build a Trumpian tower in Moscow before Trump's election meant the building had to be delayed.
That's a lot of strange connections for one go-nowhere meeting. And then there's this: When Trump Jr. was first contacted by The Times about the meeting, he said the meeting was about adoption — an issue, by the way, which is more than about Russian adoptions, but rather about U.S. sanctions against Russia and the Russian adoption ban that followed. Trump Jr. didn't say anything about Clinton. Or oppo research. Or Rob Goldstone. Or emails. A day later, when asked specifically about the Clinton connection, he admitted that he did go to the meeting looking for dirt on Clinton, but that nothing came of it. And when asked another day later about the email, the answer came not from Trump Jr., but from his new lawyer. And so it goes.
These are strange connections that Robert Mueller, for one, will certainly want to consider. Apparently some congressional committees also have expressed interest. And one thing that could make the Trump involvement more interesting still is that the Russian-hacked Democratic National Committee emails were leaked only days later.
That may be pure coincidence. We don't know. It may have been a move to pressure the Trumps after a failed contact with Trump Jr. We don't know. It may be — and I don't want to get too far ahead of Sarah Sanders here — about nothing. We really don't know.
What we do know is that the investigations will continue and, with this latest revelation that takes the story directly inside the Trump family, will almost certainly heat up. And whatever else happens, however much Trump tweets in protest, the not-altogether-fake news media will be back with more.
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.
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