The Truth Behind Donald Trump, Jr.,’s Meeting With A Russian Lawyer
The New Yorker
Don’t get ahead of the reporting. That’s one of the first lessons you’re supposed to learn as a novitiate in the church of journalism. Don’t assert what is not yet established by the facts. The consequences can be dire. In the rare case when Woodward and Bernstein stumbled during their Watergate reporting, it was because at one point they got a little ahead of their carefully established web of facts when it came to who was running the conspiracy. In the end, they were right, but the stumble allowed the Nixon Administration to charge, in modern parlance, #fakenews. “Shabby journalism” is what Ron Ziegler, the Sean Spicer on the Nixon era, called it.
The Trump Administration should not win any moral or political plaudits even if it turns out, in the end, that there was no collusion between the President’s campaign and the Russian government. Its countless sins of lying, conflict of interest, shady business transactions, character assassination, and so much else assures it a place in history as a uniquely grimy Administration. And we are not yet a half year into its reign.
So, unless we are grading on a curve that even the most forgiving god would discount, innocence in the matter of collusion does not bring the Trump Administration nearer to the gates of heaven. But the matter is hardly the closed matter that Trump would propose it to be. Thanks to new reporting from the Times, we are starting to see evidence that fits the theory. Within two days of the President’s dispiritingly weak and erratic performance in Hamburg––his winsome meeting with Vladimir Putin, the disheartening spectacle of the Europeans treating the United States with suspicion on issues ranging from global security to the fate of the global ecology––we learn that Trump associates, including the President’s son, met during the 2016 campaign with one Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Kremlin-connected lawyer, on the promise that she could provide them information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
The meeting took place on June 9, 2016, at Trump Tower. Trump’s emissaries included Donald Trump, Jr., who now helps to run the family businesses; Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who now helps to run the country; and his then campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who has a long history of business ties to Russia and pro-Russia Ukrainians, as well as a variety of political kleptocrats including Jonas Savimbi, Mobuto Sese Seko, and Ferdinand Marcos. The Trump team said there was nothing untoward about the meeting
“After pleasantries were exchanged,” Trump, Jr., told the Times, “the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.” Trump, Jr., went on to claim that the discussion was largely about the Russian ban on foreign adoptions. Reince Priebus, the President’s chief of staff, described the meeting on “Fox News Sunday” as a “big nothing burger.” For her part, Veselnitsyaka said that the meeting did not concern the campaign at all and that Manafort and Kushner left the room after ten minutes.
This follows the Wall Street Journal’s story last week that investigators have reviewed reports from intelligence agencies on Russian hackers discussing how to hack Clinton’s e-mails and get the material to Michael Flynn, the former N.S.A. chief, via an intermediary, and that Peter Smith, a longtime Republican operative, had undertaken an effort to obtain the Clinton e-mails and suggested to those around him that he was working with Flynn. The excuse the Trump Administration had for that one was that Smith “didn’t work for the campaign” and that if Flynn was working with him “in any way, it would have been in his capacity as a private individual.”
There has also been a great deal of solid journalism committed by Adam Davidson, of The New Yorker, Timothy O’Brien, of Bloomberg, and others on Trump’s business history and his links to disreputables in Russia and the former Soviet Union. All this begins to add up to an unlovely portrait of the President and his associates. In addition, the F.B.I. and congressional investigators are sorting through what, if any, relationship there might have been between the hundreds of Internet trolls who pumped out false, undermining stories of Clinton, Russian sponsors, and the Trump campaign. It is unlikely that the full story of the role of WikiLeaks in this saga has been told yet, either.
On his European trip, Trump has kept up his antic strategy of deflection and diversion, and, at the same time, he insists on demeaning his own intelligence services––on foreign soil, no less. To the embarrassment of an ungrateful nation, he tweeted that “everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA. Disgraceful!” Where to begin? No one in Europe was talking about John Podesta, who did not have control of the D.N.C. server and who has coöperated fully with investigators.
Trump went on to say from one lectern at the summit, “I remember when I was sitting back listening about Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, how everybody was a hundred per cent certain that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. Guess what? That led to one big mess. They were wrong, and it led to a mess.”
This is true up to a point, but is it applicable? What happened in 2003 is that the Bush Administration, led by Dick Cheney, pressured intelligence officials to provide the answer they desired on weapons of mass destruction in order to invade Iraq; analysts themselves were hardly unanimous on the question of W.M.D. In this case, the intelligence agencies have repeatedly declared their confidence that Russian hackers tried to undermine the American election and that they did so at the direction of Vladimir Putin––the same person Trump declared in Hamburg he was “honored” to meet. We should see more of their evidence, where possible, but the analogy to the case of the Iraq deception is a thin reed.
So, yes, it is wrong to get ahead of the reporting. But the myriad implications of a hacked Presidential election, while too much to bear for the President—his ego seems to implode at any suggestion that his victory was possibly more complicated than the unambiguous “landslide” he imagines it to be—demands the answers that journalists, law enforcement, and Congress are pursuing. Part of that process is admitting error, as CNN did, quickly and responsibly recently after an errant story. Part of that process is having the patience to see what the truth, as it emerges over time, turns out to be. For now, we live in a moment when the President of the United States is, without shame, trying to intimidate the people whose business it is to come to an honest reckoning. He tries to intimidate the press. He has fired an F.B.I. director and considered going further. It’s reasonable to wonder why. Without assuming too much, too soon.