How They Justify Collusion

The excuses for the Don Jr. meeting are even more damning than the meeting itself.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders makes excuses for the Don Jr. meeting at a press briefing on Wednesday in Washington.

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Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been caught colluding with Russia. A chain of emails shows that in June 2016, Donald Trump Jr. accepted a friend’s offer to meet secretly with a Russian government emissary to help his father become president of the United States. The friend, a Trump family business associate named Rob Goldstone, told Don Jr. that a “Russian government attorney” would bring “sensitive information [as] part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” The attorney, Natalia Veselnitskaya, accompanied by Goldstone and a Russian American lobbyist who used to work in counterintelligence for the KGB, met with Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort in Trump Tower.

The meeting remained secret until this week, when its details and the emails were leaked to the New York Times. In response, Trump, his aides, and their allies in the right-wing media have presented a flurry of excuses. The excuses are even more damning than the emails. They expose the nihilism of the Trump family and its allies. Here’s the list.

1. Nothing happened. This is Trump Sr.’s primary defense. “Nothing came of the meeting,” he says. Don Jr., White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, and Trump attorney Jay Sekulow make the same case.

Why did nothing come of the meeting? Because, as Don Jr. and the others explain, Veselnitskaya had “no helpful or meaningful information.” If she had offered something useful, the campaign would have used it. This isn’t just speculation. Corey Lewandowski, who was Trump’s campaign manager at the time, essentially confirms it: “If this was a meeting that had any information that would have been relevant to the campaign or could have potentially impacted the outcome of the election, I would have been made aware of it. President Trump would have been made aware of it. … In the middle of the campaign, you’re looking for an edge.” Lewandowski offers this statement as proof of the meeting’s unimportance. Instead, what he reveals is that the Trump campaign had no compunction about colluding.

2. Russia wasn’t a big story at the time. Trump says the meeting “was before Russia fever.” Don Jr. and other surrogates float the same excuse. But a conscientious American citizen doesn’t need headlines or polls to warn him that it’s wrong to meet with a “Russian government attorney” bringing “sensitive information [as] part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” When Trump and his allies say Russian interference wasn’t a big story back then, what they’re really conveying is that they lack an internal sense of fidelity to the United States. They saw Hillary Clinton, not Vladimir Putin, as their adversary.

3. Trump’s aides didn’t notice what was written or said. Goldstone’s emails explicitly described Veselnitskaya’s links to the Russian government. They were forwarded to Kushner and Manafort with the header: “Russia – Clinton – private and confidential.” But according to Laura Ingraham, who regularly appears on Fox News to audition as Trump’s next press secretary, Don Jr., Kushner, and Manafort probably didn’t read the emails, even though they showed up at the meeting time specified therein. “These guys are getting thousands of emails,” Ingraham argues. “I don’t know how much they read.”

Trump claims that Kushner “left after a few minutes” and that Manafort “was not really focused on the meeting,” since he “was playing with his iPhone.” Jason Chaffetz, who stepped down last month as the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, concurs. It’s laughable, in retrospect, that Trump, Chaffetz, and other Republicans spent two years accusing Hillary Clinton of carelessness about emails.

4. Veselnitskaya didn’t work for Putin. Contrary to investigative reports and the plain warning in Goldstone’s emails, Trump’s defenders insist Veselnitskaya was “just a lobbyist” and a private attorney. Trump says she was “not a government lawyer.” Sean Hannity says her denial that she worked for the Kremlin is conclusive. Sekulow and Lewandowski go further, implying that anyone who questions a “meeting with a person who’s of Russian descent” is a bigot.

Meanwhile, Chaffetz, Tucker Carlson, and other Trump backers laugh off Goldstone as a harmless “music publicist.” Ingraham says it was natural for Don Jr. to accept his meeting pitch, since Goldstone “was a friend of his who had business in Russia and had business with the Trump Corporation.” The Trump camp seems obtuse or indifferent to what U.S. intelligence officials have emphasized for the past year: Such business connections are exactly how Russia recruits foreign collaborators.

5. Russia isn’t a threat. According to Trump’s fans, collusion with Putin is no big deal, because Russia isn’t a serious adversary. Nothing the campaign did can be treason, says Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett, since we aren’t at war. Carlson adds that other countries are far more dangerous: “The idea that Russia is in the top five is absurd.” The vigilance of John McCain and Mitt Romney has given way to the cult of Trump.

6. Opposition research is normal. Trump, Sanders, Lewandowski, and others harp on this point. It’s true, but they use it to blur the distinction between soliciting campaign dirt, which is normal, and soliciting dirt from a hostile regime, which isn’t. Sekulow argues that “in the heat of the campaign,” it’s natural to welcome such information, regardless of the source. In Trumpworld, national loyalty is an afterthought.

7. Other countries meddle, too. Self-styled conservative intellectuals don’t like to shill openly for Putin. Rather than discount Russian interference, they deflect the question, arguing that other governments also interfere in our elections. Michelle Malkin says we should focus on “other countries that have been meddling in our affairs, that pose much greater threats. I mean, where are the rest of the media to talk about how Mexico has interfered in our elections?” Yes, she really said that.

8. Russia is no worse than Ukraine. Nothing Trump did with Russia is as bad as the Democrats’ alleged collaboration with Ukraine, according to Sanders, Conway, Sekulow, and others. The Ukraine story, reported by Politico several months ago, is that in March 2016, an “operative who was consulting for the Democratic National Committee met with top officials in the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington in an effort to expose ties between Trump, top campaign aide Paul Manafort and Russia.” The Trump team has wildly distorted the story. But their use of it tells you a lot about their indifference to the distinction between aggressors, such as Russia, and countries that seek help in defending themselves, such as Ukraine. Trump’s surrogates say that treating Russian influence as worse than Ukrainian is a double standard. Newt Gingrich says it’s like cops ignoring “a bank robbery to grab one of us for jaywalking.”

In fact, Trump’s aides are attacking Ukraine precisely because Ukraine exposed the Trump campaign’s financial ties to Russia. At a White House briefing on Wednesday, Sanders charged, “Information passed to the DNC from the Ukrainian government directly targeted members of the Trump campaign.” Conway followed up, alleging that the Ukrainians “hurt people on the Trump campaign.” That’s true: The Ukrainians helped to expose Manafort, who had taken money from Putin’s allies to help Russia control Ukraine. When Hannity and other Trump apologists accuse Ukraine of a “foreign plot,” they’re complaining that Manafort’s cover was blown.

9. America is no better than Russia. According to Gingrich, Sekulow, and Hannity, Democrats have no right to complain about Russian interference, since Israeli peace groups funded by President Obama’s State Department later worked against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Sekulow fumes: “Talk about engaging in electioneering in a foreign country!” For decades, Republicans accused liberals of apologizing for America. Now, in Trump’s defense, they’re doing exactly what they say the left has done: complaining that we have no business criticizing other countries for the same things we do, even in cases where our way of intervening—for example, funding political organizations rather than hacking or peddling opposition research—differs from theirs..

10. Foreign influence isn’t an American concern. Conway complains that “people in the media” are talking “more about Russia than America.” She says Americans want to “move on” and talk about domestic issues. By this logic, infiltration isn’t worth discussing, precisely because it comes from abroad.

11. The Trump–Russia meeting was an Obama setup. Trump says former Attorney General Loretta Lynch let Veselnitskaya into the United States, enabling her to meet with Don Jr. Attorneys for Trump note that Veselnitskaya once hired Fusion GPS, a research firm “retained by Democratic operatives.” The claim about Lynch is false, and the chain of links from Veselnitskaya to Democrats is circuitous. But that hasn’t stopped Hannity and others from suggesting that Obama orchestrated the meeting to frame Don Jr. These people will believe any conspiracy, as long as it’s about Obama and not Putin.

12. Don Jr. came clean. Trump praises his son’s “transparency” in releasing the emails. Sanders says they were “voluntarily disclosed.” Conway, Sekulow, Lewandowski, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee exalt Don Jr. for his “refreshing” candor. This is all bullshit. Don Jr. released the emails on Twitter because a reporter told him that the Times was about to publish them. He asked the Times to wait for his comment, and he used that pause to sandbag them. Transparency is just another lie.

13. The bluntness of the collusion proves it wasn’t collusion. Legal commentator Geraldo Rivera, a longtime Trump pal, says Don Jr.’s explicit email message—replying “I love it” to Goldstein’s offer on behalf of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump”—is too crude to be devious. “Sometimes when what you do is so overt,” Rivera argues, it’s “exculpatory. It shows your innocence of mind.” With this maneuver, the Trump camp covers both scenarios: The collusion was either too vague to be incriminating or too obvious to be believable.

14. It’s not illegal. Trump’s advocates are full of creative arguments. Conway says there are no “damages” to adjudicate. Hannity says the Federal Election Campaign Act, even if Don Jr. violated it, is “not criminal.” Jarrett argues that “there is no collusion statute, except in antitrust,” and that “foreign nationals can provide personal services” under federal law. On Friday morning, before we learned that a former KGB man had attended the meeting with Trump’s campaign brass, Rivera added: “Even if there was a KGB killer in that room, there’s nothing criminal about what Donald Trump Jr. did in taking that meeting.” In the moral calculus of Trump and his allies, there’s no higher standard than escaping prosecution.

15. The meeting was a one-off. For months, Conway said there was no evidence of collusion. Now that the meeting with Veselnitskaya has been exposed, she says there’s no “hard evidence of systemic, sustained, furtive collusion.” Given the Trump team’s trail of lies, there’s no reason to trust that the collusion stopped with this meeting. But Conway and others are proving that there’s one thing we can count on: As we discover more, they’ll keep moving the goalposts.