Chris Stewart, a Republican congressman from Utah, told CNN that Donald Trump Jr. deserves “credit” for releasing - on Twitter, of course - a fascinating batch of compromising emails about how he helped his father’s campaign during last year’s election.
That’s one way to look at it.
Another way is that the president’s eldest son just stepped in something stinky. And, given that he’s a chip off the old block, he may not have the wit or the awareness to realize that he may have caused himself more problems than he’s solved.
The younger Trump has been rattled by media scrutiny following days of reporting from The New York Times and others that he met with a Russian lawyer last June who claimed to have damaging information on Hillary Clinton.
Trump told the Times on Saturday that he had met with the lawyer to discuss a Russian adoption program. Trump was forced to acknowledge Sunday, after the Times presented him with new information, that the meeting took place because he was promised dirt on Clinton, his father’s opponent in the presidential race. On Monday evening, the Times reported that Trump was told via email that the Clinton information was “part of a Russian government effort to aid in his father’s candidacy.”
Trump seems to have grown weary of this barrage of coverage, which has tainted both his credibility and the Trump campaign’s repeated denials that they knew anything about the Kremlin’s efforts to help their man win the 2016 election. So Donald Jr. did what Donald Sr. does: He took his case to Twitter.
In some extraordinary tweets, Donald Jr. told the world that “in order to be totally transparent” he had decided to release emails he shared with the friend and publicist who arranged the meeting, Rob Goldstone.
Trump also noted in one tweet that the meeting occurred “before the Russian fever was in vogue” (an apparent reference to media coverage and a federal investigation that his father describes as a “witch hunt”). He and Goldstone both decided, Trump noted, that the information they received at the meeting - and it’s still not clear what that information was - was “the most inane nonsense.”
Still, Trump was excited about the meeting, according to his email. Goldstone said that they would be meeting with a “Russian government attorney” who had “documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia” - all of which “is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
That made young Trump happy. “If it’s what you say I love it,” he responded. In fact, he loved it so much that he invited his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his father’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, to the meeting, too.
Here’s the Goldstone kicker, in an email he sent to Donald Jr.: “I can also send this info to your father via Rhona, but it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first.”
“Rhona” refers to Rhona Graff. She has been the elder Trump’s aide-de-camp and gatekeeper at the Trump Organization for about 25 years. She screened calls, visitors and meetings and continued playing that role for a while even after Trump moved into the White House.
So was President Trump aware of the meeting his son arranged? The White House said that he wasn’t, so perhaps not. But it’s worth noting that the Trump children have never operated very freely within the family business or hierarchy. A former business partner of the Trumps, Jody Kriss, recently put it this way in an interview with me: “Donald was always in charge. Donald had to agree to every term of every deal and had to sign off on everything. Nothing happened unless he said it was OK to do it. Even if Donald Jr. shook your hand on a deal, he came back downstairs to renegotiate if his father told him to.”
Let’s be generous. Running for president is hard work, so maybe the father was too busy to supervise his son closely during the campaign. But Donald Jr.’s email release has given the Justice Department new material to work with as it continues to investigate whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin to tip the 2016 election.
Donald Jr.’s email release also presents more direct problems for the president’s son. His supporters, like CNN pundit Jeffrey Lord, have said that he was merely collecting opposition research, a normal part of any campaign. But if an American citizen cooperates with a foreign entity that’s spending money to influence a U.S. election, it can be considered a crime. The emails that Donald Jr., released made it plain that he believed he might be getting Kremlin-sourced information about Clinton. Whether that opens the door for prosecution will be for the Justice Department to decide.
“My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency,” President Trump said in a statement the White House released Tuesday. “Beyond that I’m going to have to refer everything beyond this matter to Don Jr.’s counsel and outside counsel.”
Because Donald Jr. obviously has access to legal counsel, that raises another interesting question about his Twitter extravaganza: Did he seek the advice of his lawyers before posting his documents in response to yet another set of questions from the Times?
I don’t know, but I’d hazard a guess that he didn’t. His father, always a solo pilot, has never been one to seek advice - legal or otherwise - prior to speaking up or taking actions he thinks are sound. His father has always been fond of media battles, even if engaging in them means brushing aside the careful consideration of business or legal tactics. Exhibit A for the latter has been the president’s willingness to attack judges and federal investigators on Twitter, even if it raises the prospect of deepening his legal troubles.
So one explanation for Donald Jr.’s Twitter foray is that his father trained him well. Maybe too well.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”