The New York Times recently reported that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin who claimed to have information that could harm Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The intermediary told Trump Jr. that the information came from high up in the Russian government — the prosecutor general of Russia, in fact, who is an appointee of Russian President Vladimir Putin (but, then again, aren’t they all).
At first, Trump Jr. claimed it was all a bunch of fake news. Once The New York Times contacted him regarding the emails corroborating its story, he took the initiative of releasing the four-page chain and feigned transparency. Despite Don Jr.’s posing, nothing in the email is exculpatory. In many ways, the full context is worse than the Times’ story. While I’m sure many campaigns — including the Clintons’ — have dabbled in this kind of sordid effort, it’s still unethical.
No, it doesn’t matter whether Rob Goldstone, the, um, colorful go-between, was lying about the source of the information, because the fact is three trusted members of Donald Trump’s campaign — his son; son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort — were willing to take a meeting with a foreign agent to see oppo research they assumed was passed on from another government. Aside from all other things, that is inconceivably stupid.
It doesn’t matter whether Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer, relayed any useful information to Trump’s campaign regarding Hillary Clinton (we already knew she was doing business with Russia for personal gain) because we can plainly see that Don Jr. wanted it to be true. “If it’s what you say I love it,” he wrote. It doesn’t matter whether the meeting was a dud. He was ready to use “sensitive information” that “is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” I’m not sure why this would be illegal, but it’s certainly shady.
Nor does it matter whether the biased mainstream media has gotten dozens of stories wrong about Trump and Russia (it has), or whether it is out to get Trump (it is) because the facts on this story have panned out. If it were no big deal, Trump Jr. would not have lied about it.
The GOP should condemn Don Jr.’s actions because they’re sleazy and dumb. But there is a long way to go before any responsible person starts making incendiary claims about treason.
That said, the Democrats, of course, immediately began offering the most severe condemnation, which will only make a legitimate concern another partisan clown show. Sen. Tim Kaine, for example, claimed that the Russia investigation is “now beyond obstruction of justice … This is moving into perjury, false statements and even into potentially treason.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, who has always helped make a partisan mockery of the Russia meddling investigation, claims that the meeting is now being used against the Trump team as kompromat, or Russian-style political blackmail. I’m not sure why it’s so difficult to comprehend that some politicians voluntarily take a conciliatory position with our adversaries. It’s not as if the Iranians needed to blackmail President Barack Obama for him to appease them.
This situation doesn’t even rise “collusion,” although, clearly, it’s worth investigating further. Meeting with someone, even a foreign someone, is not a crime. Nor is hearing something from a foreign person. Yet lots of people are getting excited about a line in the statute that governs foreign contributions to American campaigns. It says, “A foreign national shall not, directly or indirectly, make a contribution or a donation of money or other thing of value, or expressly or impliedly promise to make a contribution or a donation, in connection with any Federal, State, or local election.”
As law professor Orin Kerr has noted, simply relaying information to a campaign is not illegal. Foreigners can even work on campaigns. The phrase “contribution or donation,” Kerr points out, is referring to “an economic transaction: Funding the campaign.”
So, I’m not exactly sure what people want from Republicans at this point. Do Democrats want Republicans to call for a second independent counsel? Do they want Republicans to start up a third investigation in Congress? Or do they really just want Republicans to be paralyzed? The Senate already voted 97-2 last month (and those two no votes were from senators who can hardly be categorized as pro-Trump) to effectively check Trump on Russia sanctions. This is an unprecedented rebuke of the foreign policy power of a ruling party’s president. Not everything dishonest is “treason” or an impeachable offense.
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