From now on, ignore the conventional wisdom about how the Russia scandal is not “resonating” with President Donald Trump’s still-loyal base. The question at this point is what strikes a chord with special counsel Robert Mueller — and what kind of legal jeopardy Trump’s closest associates, including his eldest son and son-in-law, might eventually face.
Trump spent Monday morning live-tweeting fawning segments from his favorite cable news show, “Fox & Friends.” Within the cozy confines of that alternate universe, the story “everyone is still talking about” was said to be video of the president, before boarding his helicopter at Andrews Air Force Base , scrambling to retrieve a Marine’s wind-blown hat.
In Mueller’s office suite, though, I’m confident there was much more talk about Donald Trump Jr.’s stunning admission over the weekend: In June of last year, he summoned Trump then-campaign Chairman Paul Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to a meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer — described as having close connections with the Kremlin — in hopes of receiving derogatory information about Hillary Clinton.
The meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya was first reported Saturday by The New York Times. Initially, Trump Jr. told the newspaper that the “short” meeting was to discuss “a program about the adoption of Russian children.” On Sunday, however, he acknowledged that he agreed to the meeting because he was told that Veselnitskaya “might have information helpful to the campaign.” The lawyer’s dirt about Clinton was “vague, ambiguous and made no sense,” however, and Trump Jr. ended the meeting after “20 to 30 minutes.”
The meeting came amid what U.S. officials describe as a Russian campaign of hacks, leaks and disinformation designed to help Trump win the election. After months of categorical denials, we now have an admission of attempted collusion, at least, involving three top-ranking figures in the Trump campaign.
Despite what Trump apologists may say, it is not normal practice for a campaign to welcome information undermining an opponent regardless of the source. In 2000, for example, the Al Gore campaign was anonymously sent briefing books and a video that George W. Bush had used to prepare for an upcoming debate. Gore campaign officials immediately turned the material over to the FBI — which opened a criminal investigation.
Veselnitskaya is best known as a tireless crusader for repeal of the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law blacklisting Russian officials believed responsible for the death of a well-known human rights activist. When President Obama signed the law, Russian President Vladimir Putin was so vexed that he halted U.S. adoptions of Russian children in retaliation. It is safe to assume that if Veselnitskaya raised the subject of adoptions, as Trump Jr. says, it was part of an argument against the Magnitsky law.
Is this all too complicated for voters to follow? Would Americans beyond the Beltway rather hear about jobs or health care? Perhaps so. But the questions that should be concentrating the minds of the president’s inner circle are legal, not political — and Mueller’s high-powered team of lawyers is experienced at connecting dots.
The Veselnitskaya meeting is just one of several encounters with Russians that apparently slipped Kushner’s mind when he filled out disclosure forms required for his White House post. It came to light only after he amended those forms – and someone familiar with their contents dropped a dime to the Times. Trump Jr. claimed in March that he had had no meetings with Russians “that were set up … and certainly none that I was representing the campaign in any way, shape or form.” Do you find it remotely believable that he somehow forgot a meeting that he set up, between a party-line Russian lawyer and the campaign? Neither do I.
Trump Jr. said in a statement Sunday that he was asked by an acquaintance to arrange the meeting; he claimed not even to have known Veselnitskaya’s name beforehand, let alone anything about her. He said he did not tell Manafort or Kushner of the meeting’s purpose in advance, and said President Trump had no idea the meeting was taking place.
At the time, Manafort was running a presidential campaign — roughly like being at the vortex of a tornado — and Kushner was one of the campaign’s chief advisers. The idea that they could spare even five minutes to meet an unknown person about an unknown subject is absurd. But that’s Trump Jr.’s story and he’s sticking to it.
Manafort and Kushner have already retained high-powered lawyers. If he hasn’t yet, Trump Jr. would be wise to do the same.
Reach Eugene Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.