Call it Trumpsparency
This was the offer in Donald Trump Jr.’s inbox from publicist Rob Goldstone on behalf of Moscow oligarch Aras Agalarov, an ally of Vladimir Putin: “Official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia ... part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
This was the reply: “If it’s what you say I love it.”
Within a week, Trump Jr. — bringing along brother-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign chairman Paul Manafort — met at Trump Tower with Natalia Veselnitskaya, who Goldstone had advertised as a “Russian government attorney.”
The June 9, 2016, meeting and the emails are now part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. A statement from the president Tuesday, after days of silence, said only: “My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency.”
It’s transparency you can see through.
The ever-changing story
Trump Jr.’s account of the meeting has changed four times in four days, The Washington Post reports.
Back in July 2016 — a month after the meeting — the president’s eldest son told CNN the idea of the Russians helping his father was crazy. “It’s disgusting. It’s so phony,” he said.
In an interview with Trump booster Sean Hannity on Fox News aired Tuesday night, Trump Jr. called the meeting “opposition research” — adding that “in retrospect” he “probably would have done things a little differently.” He also said he didn’t tell his father about the meeting because “there was nothing to tell” — Veselnitskaya didn’t have the goods.
If so, what was the point of the meeting? Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) of the House Intelligence Committee has a theory: it was “a testing of the waters” by the Russians to see if the campaign would be receptive to their engagement and involvement.”
Wednesday's chide is full of woe
The president wailed on Twitter early Wednesday: "My son Donald did a good job last night. He was open, transparent and innocent. This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political history. Sad!"
Clearly eager to change the subject, and answering no questions on Russia, Trump also tried with the usual lack of elaboration to tie his actions to successes.
"ISIS is on the run & will soon be wiped out of Syria & Iraq, illegal border crossings are way down (75%) & MS 13 gangs are being removed," he tweeted -- all of which has been widely reported in news media, which he complained about in another tweet.
The take-away: New fed in town
What an interesting moment it must be for Christopher Asher Wray to face confirmation as Trump’s nominee for FBI director, writes Newsday’s Dan Janison. Trump has said he was thinking of “this Russia thing” when he decided to fire James Comey.
Wray is scheduled to appear Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee and is certain to face questions about his loyalties and independence. Comey testified under oath that Trump in private told him “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
Criminal or just stupid?
The emails are strong evidence of collusion, legal experts told The Washington Post — “as close as you can get to a smoking gun” — but collusion itself is not defined as a crime.
What would be a crime, they said, is conspiring with a foreign adversary to influence or undermine an election.
“It’s a shocking admission of a criminal conspiracy,” said Jens David Ohlin, associate dean of Cornell Law School. “The conversation will now turn to whether President Trump was personally involved or not.” Trump’s legal team said the president was unaware of the June 2016 meeting until a few days ago.
CNN legal analyst Paul Callan cautioned about concluding that “this is criminal as opposed to political stupidity.”
Circular perspiring squad
Insiders discussing the Donald Jr. problem on the president's airplane back from Europe "debated how transparent to be" in his statement, the Times reports.
Strains seem to be emerging between lawyer Marc Kasowtiz and the Trump camp. Also, the Washington Post describes "advisers privately speculating about who inside the Trump orbit may be leaking damaging information about the president’s son."
Democrats smell blood
Democrats in Congress say Trump Jr. has some explaining to do.
“It’s a dead bang case that ought to be in front of the Judiciary Committee right now and Mr. Trump Jr. be required to testify,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the emails shoot down the Trump defense “that there is absolutely no evidence of intent to coordinate or collude.” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) — Clinton’s 2016 running mate — said Trump Jr.’s behavior was possibly “treason.”
Reaction from top Republicans was measured. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said, “I don’t think we have enough information to reach a conclusion but he certainly made himself a witness.”
A unique take came from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who called the scandal “overblown” and gushed over how Trump’s children “loved him” after “he divorced their mothers.”
Want fries with nothing-burger?
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) has been a reliable defender of Trump. On CNN Tuesday morning, Zeldin said Monday night’s Times story — that Trump Jr. was told the Russian government wanted to help the campaign — is “maybe some condiment on this nothing-burger.”
That was before the emails came out. Zeldin chewed on it some more. He tweeted Tuesday afternoon:
“New emails from @DonaldJTrumpJr contradict a lot of prior story from yesterday and before. This is not the same thing,” Zeldin said. “I voted for @POTUS last Nov. & want him & USA to succeed, but that meeting, given that email chain just released, is a big no-no.”
Pence: Dunno, wasn’t there
Vice President Mike Pence has been burned before on the Russia story, as when he publicly repeated denials about National Security Adviser’s meetings with Moscow’s ambassador that turned out to be false.
Pence also said “of course not” in January when asked if anyone in the campaign had contact with Russians trying to meddle in the election.
In a statement from Tuesday, Pence distanced himself more.
“He was not aware of the Trump Jr. meeting. He is also not focused on stories about the campaign — especially those pertaining to the time before he joined the campaign,” Pence’s spokesman said.
Lately, Pence has launched his own political action committee, fueling chatter on whether he’s hedging bets on Trump’s future.
What else is happening:
- The Trumps and Russian oligarch Aras Agalarov scrapped plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow because Western sanctions after the Ukraine intervention tanked the Russian economy. That’s according to an account told to Yahoo News in March by Goldstone, who brokered the Trump Jr. meeting.
- Agalarov’s pop star son, Emin, made Trump a hospitality offer that was refused during the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. He offered to send prostitutes to Trump’s hotel room, but Keith Schiller, Trump’s longtime bodyguard, told him no, The Associated Press reported.
- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced he is postponing the August recess for two weeks to try to pass a health care bill and confirm stalled Trump nominees.
- Three weeks into summer, Russia still hasn’t gotten back its swimming pool-equipped Upper Brookville mansion, seized along with a Maryland estate by the Obama administration as punishment for election meddling. It’s “outrageous,” said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, threatening retaliation.
- A First Amendment advocacy group sued in Manhattan federal court on behalf of seven Twitter users blocked by Trump, calling it an unconstitutional effort to suppress dissent in his account, which has become a “public forum,” reports Newsday’s John Riley.
- Trump advisers asked military contractors, including Blackwater founder Erik Prince, to come up with alternatives to sending more troops to Afghanistan, The New York Times reported. They proposed relying more on contractors. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listened but declined to endorse the idea.
- A Trump visit to Britain has been put off until next year. “It’s just a scheduling issue,” a senior administration official told Reuters.