The administration has resorted to slippery statements and obfuscations, but the truth is closing in around it.
- By Max BootMax Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”
Donald Trump is not noted for his sense of humor — he is witless in every sense of the word — but he got off an unintentionally hilarious line the other day when he praised his son Donald Trump Jr. for being “open, transparent and innocent.” In truth, getting Trump Jr. to come clean about what happened in his infamous June 9, 2016, meeting with Russian representatives — also attended by Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner — has been as hard as getting his father to pay his contractors.
For a year, all of the Trumps have denied any Russian contacts — vociferously and duplicitously. On July 24, 2016, only weeks after his meeting with the Russians, Trump Jr. looked into an ABC TV camera and feigned outrage that anyone would even dare suggest such a thing. “These lies and the perpetuating of that kind of nonsense to gain some political capital is just outrageous,” he said. In keeping with this cover story, Jared Kushner failed to note any meetings with Russians on his initial SF-86 form to receive a security clearance; even when he filed an amended form in May, there was reportedly no mention of the June 9 meeting. (It’s a felony to file an intentionally misleading or incomplete SF-86.)
When the New York Times found out about the meeting and started asking questions, Trump Jr. issued on July 8 a mendacious statement, approved personally by the president, which admitted that, yes, the meeting had occurred but claimed that it was about Russia’s adoption policy and that he had no idea beforehand whom he would be seeing. When the Times found out that Trump Jr. was, in fact, “promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton before agreeing to meet with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer,” Trump Jr. grudgingly acknowledged that this was true but sought to minimize its significance by insisting that Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer, “had no meaningful information” to offer.
Only when the Times got its hands on the emails that preceded the meeting did Trump Jr. post them himself on July 11. Thus we found out that, when he was promised incriminating information on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government, Trump Jr.’s reaction was not to call the FBI but to take the meeting. “I love it,” he infamously wrote. That’s bad enough — it’s a felony for a campaign to accept or solicit anything of value from a foreign national or government — but we still haven’t gotten the full story of what happened.
After a week of further digging by multiple news organizations, we learned that the June 9 meeting included not only Veselnitskaya, a lawyer-lobbyist closely connected to the Kremlin, but also Rinat Akhmetshin, a former Russian counterintelligence officer who has lobbied alongside her to lift the Magnitsky Act imposing U.S. sanctions on Russia. According to the Times, “Mr. Akhmetshin has acquired a reputation for obtaining email records, information from spyware and other data that appeared to be drawn from Russian hackers.” (He has denied any wrongdoing.)
So the high command of the Trump campaign was meeting with a suspected Russian intelligence operative and hacker just six days before the Russians began releasing hacked Democratic National Committee emails. That’s another blockbuster revelation — and one that the supposedly transparent Trump Jr. did his utmost to hide.
Now the question becomes: What did the president know about the meeting, and when did he know it?
Four days after the Times’s initial revelation, Trump claimed to have found out about the June 9 gathering only “two or three days ago.” In fact, Jared Kushner’s legal team had informed Trump’s lawyers about the emails three weeks earlier, at which time the Trump team hired a lawyer for Trump Jr. But the odds are that Trump knew at the time about the meeting, which occurred on a day when he was in his New York Trump Tower office. Would his entire campaign high command meet with Russian representatives who promised devastating dirt on his opponent without informing him?
The timeline is incriminating to the president: On June 7, 2016, Trump promised a major speech (never delivered) to reveal damaging information about Clinton. That promise came before the meeting with the Russian representatives but after the meeting was scheduled and after Trump Jr. had apparently spoken on the phone to Emin Agalarov, the pop star son of Russian tycoon and Trump business partner Aras Agalarov, who brokered the meeting. Now, President Trump concedes, perhaps he did know about the meeting at the time: “In fact, maybe it was mentioned at some point,” he told reporters on Air Force One.
Just as we still don’t know exactly when the president learned of the meeting, we also don’t know exactly what transpired therein. But, given all of the lies from the Trump camp, it is hard to credit their breezy assurances that the meeting was a one-off affair of no consequence. It is striking and suspicious that — on June 3, 2016, when the meeting was first broached — Trump Jr. expressed no surprise to learn of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” It sure sounds as if this was not news to him — or to Kushner and Manafort.
In fact, as the Wall Street Journal has just reported, U.S. intelligence agencies detected conversations all the way back to the spring of 2015 in which Russian officials were talking “about meetings held outside the U.S. involving Russian government officials and Trump business associates or advisers.” Similar stories have previously appeared in the New York Times and other publications. Reuters, for one, has reported that “Michael Flynn and other advisers to Donald Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race.” We now know about one such contact. Can you imagine what was discussed on the other 17-plus occasions?
The McClatchy news service has reported one possible subject of conversation: All of the fake news stories claiming that Clinton was dying, that she was running a pedophile ring, and the like that Russian bots were pumping out across Facebook and other social media in support of Trump.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, says the Russians appear to have targeted women and African-Americans in Wisconsin and Michigan, two of the three decisive states that “the Democrats were too brain-dead to realize … were even in play.” Granted, the Russians are good at spreading disinformation, but they would be hard-pressed to know how to manipulate the American electorate in such an expert way without help from someone inside the Trump campaign. And who was in charge of the Trump campaign’s digital operations? That would be the president’s aide and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is said to be to be under investigation by the FBI.
We now have proof of the Trump campaign colluding with Russia at the very highest levels, but the June 9 meeting is, in all likelihood, only the very small tip of a very large iceberg that could wind up sinking the USS Trump. Judging from the Trumps’ eagerness to deny, dissemble, and deflect, they have a good deal to hide — which may explain why the president fired FBI Director James Comey and may yet try to dismiss special counsel Robert Mueller.
In other words, this is not, as some commentators once naively assumed, a “cover-up without a crime.” For once, the crime may actually be worse than the cover-up. If the president knowingly colluded with the Russians to win the election, he was betraying his country — and leaving himself vulnerable to blackmail by the Kremlin.
Photo credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images