I wrote a piece yesterday about the recent reports that Donald Trump Jr., heir to the Trump empire, had met with a Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin to discuss potentially damaging information the lawyer claimed to have had regarding Hillary Clinton. In the piece, I noted that “barring a breathtaking display of stupidity on the part of Don Jr. (and I wouldn’t put it past him), the story seems destined to be just the latest in a series of fruitless wish-fulfillment exercises.”
I would like to take a moment to pat myself on the back for my foresight, because if you’ve been on Twitter at all in the past four hours, you’ve likely seen that Don Jr. somehow managed to take a bad situation and make it even worse.
If you click that link, you’ll be brought to one of the emails in question regarding the proposed meeting between Don Jr. and the Russian lawyer. In the email, Don Jr.’s lawyer specifically points out that “[t]his is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump […].” One more time, for the people in the back: “This […] is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
And who was the source of this evidence, evidence which completely contradicts Trump Jr.’s first claim that the meeting was primarily about adoptions, as well as his second claim that the meeting was about both adoptions and damaging information on Hillary Clinton? Was it a biased news outlet out for blood like CNN? A liberal rag like the New York Times or the Washington Post?
Nope. It was Donald Trump Jr.
In a frankly bizarre twist, Don Jr. released the emails that prove he went into that meeting knowing that it was related to the Russian government’s support of his father in the 2016 election. Now, you may be thinking “So what? He wanted to do whatever it took to win the election; what does it matter where the assistance comes from?”
But here’s the problem with that line of thinking: it matters where the assistance comes from. In fact, it matters a lot, according to Title 11, Section 110.20, of the Code of Federal Regulations regarding Federal Elections, which states, in part, that “No person shall knowingly solicit, accept, or receive from a foreign national any contribution or donation prohibited by paragraphs (b) through (d) of this section.” Contributions are defined in subsection (b) as “money or other thing of value”; like, for example, damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
Donald Trump Jr. effectively just admitted to — if not actively soliciting — attempting to accept the aid of a foreign national in regards to an American federal election. The only logical reason I can think of that explains his actions is that Trump Jr. knew the New York Times had acquired the emails in question (Trump Jr. released the emails about 30 minutes before the Times was set to publish them) and wanted to get out in front of the story.
This is speculation, but I would imagine Trump Jr. believed that by releasing the emails of his own volition, he would look more forthright and honest in the public eye. Based on the reactions I’ve seen thus far, that gambit doesn’t seem to be paying dividends. In fact, it probably would have been a smarter move just not to say anything; if he hadn’t commented on the initial Times report (and subsequently changed his story), he could have just waited for the whole thing to blow over. And if the Times had published these emails, Trump Jr. could have remained quiet; more than likely, a lot of Trump supporters would have done the dirty work for Trump Jr. and taken the position that the emails were faked by a biased, liberal media source.
By publishing these emails himself, Trump Jr. has severely limited his own options from here. Short of admitting he lied — in the first Times story, in the second Times story, and on his federal disclosure forms regarding contact with foreign nationals — and throwing himself on the mercy of Congress, there’s no way to spin this as anything other than three close associates and/or chief architects of the Trump campaign (Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort were also copied on the email) knowingly seeking the aid of a foreign government to help them win an American presidential election. And not just any foreign government, either — one of America’s chief adversaries.
You might still be thinking “Well, that’s politics — it’s a dirty game, and sometimes you gotta play dirty to win it.” In that case, let’s go back to the year 2000. That year, Democratic candidate Al Gore’s campaign received a package from an anonymous sender, the contents of which were the debate prep materials belonging to Gore’s challenger, Republican candidate George W. Bush. By the above logic, it would seem obvious that Gore did what any politician would do: take the materials and use them to demolish Bush in the forthcoming debates. Right?
Not quite. The Gore campaign returned the materials and called in the FBI to investigate.
Campaign meddling is not nearly as prevalent or cloak-and-dagger as some have been led to believe, especially on the federal level. Yes, candidates want to win and will do almost anything to achieve it, but they’ll usually stop short of crossing the line into sensitive or private information. The legal risks of participating in this kind of underhandedness are legion; aside from that, the potential blowback from voters can doom a campaign entirely. It’s a high-risk, low-reward proposition, which is why most politicians don’t even bother.
Make no mistake, what Donald Trump Jr. did is not only a very serious flouting of campaign norms and ethics, but is also a potential violation of a handful of federal laws. Time will tell if anything comes of it, but it’s going to be pretty hard for anybody to dismiss this latest development as “fake news.”