There is something I was thinking about yesterday that went beyond the specific confines and parameters of the Don Jr story and his meeting with that “Russian government lawyer.” It is a point illustrated quite nicely in today’s column by Ross Douthat. Don Jr’s actions, as significant as they are in themselves, have a significance far beyond them in perceptions and conclusions about the Russia probe.
Over the last seven or eight months we’ve been inundated with evidence of motive, opportunity, deception, lots of actions, meetings that are hard to make sense of absent some nefarious motive and plan. It is almost as though every link in the chain has been assembled except the clear and specific evidence of collusive behavior. Of course, that’s not some minor technicality. That’s the biggest deal in the world. At trial you’ve got to prove the case, not line everything up except the proof.
But beyond the proof, there’s something else that I think has shaped many people’s view of the story, even myself to a significant degree. For all the ‘him scratching their back while they’re scratching his’, for all the common motive and demonstrable recklessness, it’s just very hard to imagine that any significant player in the Trump campaign would literally or figuratively sit down with a representative of the Russian government and say, “We hate Hillary. You hate Hillary. We’re on the same team. Let’s work together and make this happen.”
I’ve often told colleagues that for whatever reputation I may have for aggressive reporting and commentary, I’ve always been aware that I’m … well, chronically a bit naive. It’s a bit hard to get my head around the idea that people consciously, knowingly, cynically commit bad acts. In many ways, this turns out to be a perverse advantage since you don’t assume things you don’t know.
In this particular case though, I don’t think I’m alone. The idea of Americans working with a hostile foreign government to turn an election is way outside our national experience. Way outside. It’s just hard to believe, even with people you know are selfish, corrupt and untrustworthy. That resistance has, I think, played a powerful role protecting the President.
And yet here we have it. The campaign gets an offer that might as well be word for word what I described above. And the response is enthusiastic. “I Love It!” Enthusiastic, unrestrained, untroubled.
Now, my personal view is that we don’t remotely know yet what actually happened in that meeting. I’m pretty sure the current story is not true. I base this not on specific evidence or reporting, just my common sense and the axioms that have served me well making sense of the Trump family. But let’s say it did go down as Don Jr describes. He thought it might be awesome. But it was a dud. Still, it really changes everything.
Now with every other piece of evidence that looks awfully damning and you say to yourself, “Okay, but would X really work with the Russian intelligence services to win the election for Trump?” Well, yes! Clearly they would. Whether or not that particular meeting panned out, Don Jr was eager to do it. He thought it was great. He even – though this is reading between the lines – did not find it surprising at all. It seemed natural to him, even expected. That’s a whole other matter we’ll get to in another post. But again, could he really do it? Yes! We’ve seen the exchange in an email. He 100% would do it. He tried to do it.
Now, that’s only Don Jr, one of the President’s doofus sons. But Jared Kushner was on the email chain and at the meeting too. So was Paul Manafort. So you don’t simply have to extrapolate out from the damaged sample of Don Jr. You’re talking three, maybe the three players in the campaign. They do not seem to have thought anything was wrong. They didn’t send out an alert within the campaign. There’s no paper trail showing they brought in the campaign lawyers. They didn’t go to the FBI. Taken together, it’s just immensely damning.
Now, in a hypothetical alternative universe, maybe this was the only engagement, the only contact. Maybe they were eager to do wrong. But they got lucky in spite of themselves and didn’t get a chance. But of course it’s not the only time. We know of numerous meetings and activities, endless suspicious behavior. All those look different when you add in that each of what I think are arguably the top three people in the campaign at the time weren’t just willing but eager to play ball.
Of course, this doesn’t change what actually happened. The key things either happened or they didn’t. But there is a massive benefit of the doubt which I think many, even among the direst critics of the President, have afforded Trump basically in spite of themselves. It was like a membrane affording the President and his cronies an immense protection. And this story just destroyed that. They won’t get it back.