As the White House churns through staff, and jilted senior advisers start heading for the exits, it’s going to be harder and harder for the West Wing to wage President Trump’s war on leaks. A prime example came Monday evening with the Washington Post’s report that the president of the United States personally dictated Donald Trump Jr.’s initial misleading statement in response to the breaking story that Trump Jr. met with a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer in June 2016, six weeks before the Republican convention. The July 8th New York Times story was a bombshell explicitly linking the Trump campaign to Russia for the first time. Only a portion of the larger picture was known to the Times at the time, but the fast-moving story elicited this wave of the hand, dodge of a response from Trump Jr.:
“It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up,” Trump Jr. said in a statement to the Times. “I was asked to attend the meeting by an acquaintance, but was not told the name of the person I would be meeting with beforehand.”
Trump Jr.’s response, of course, turned out to be untruthful. In the following days, emails emerged that showed not only did Trump’s eldest son know the purpose of the meeting was to pass along supposedly damaging information about Hillary Clinton, but that the info was “part of a Russian government effort to aid his father’s candidacy.” “If it’s what you say I love it,” Trump Jr. responded to the email.
According to the Post’s reporting, Trump Jr.’s misleading response, was the work of the president himself. The problem of the Trump Tower meeting was known to Trump’s inner circle after lawyers for Jared Kushner uncovered it during a security clearance review and it was debated back and forth among Trump senior staff about how best to handle the meeting. Advisers depict the Trump team as consumed by the coming story while at the G-20 meeting in Germany, huddling on the sidelines, and continuing to work on a response during the flight home aboard Air Force One.
From the Post:
During breaks away from the summit, Kushner and Ivanka Trump gathered with [Hope] Hicks and [White House spokesman Josh] Raffel to discuss Kushner’s response to the inquiry, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. Kushner’s legal team joined at times by phone. Hicks also spoke by phone with Trump Jr. Again, say people familiar with the conversations, Kushner’s team concluded that the best strategy would be to err on the side of transparency, because they believed the complete story would eventually emerge. The discussions among President Trump’s advisers consumed much of the day, and continued as they prepared to board Air Force One that evening for the flight home.
But before everyone boarded the plane, Trump had overruled the consensus, according to people with knowledge of the events.
The president directed that Trump Jr.’s statement to the Times describe the meeting as unimportant. He wanted the statement to say that the meeting had been initiated by the Russian lawyer and primarily was about her pet issue—the adoption of Russian children. Air Force One took off from Germany shortly after 6 p.m., about noon in Washington. In a forward cabin, Trump was busy working on his son’s statement, according to people with knowledge of events. The president dictated the statement to Hicks, who served as a go-between with Trump Jr., who was not on the plane, sharing edits between the two men, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.
This latest report, while far from a silver bullet for the Trump presidency, is a sneakily dangerous one for Trump himself. It is, of course, not against the law to lie to the press, and this White House does it routinely, but the deep involvement by the president in crafting an untruthful message on his son’s Russia meeting has all the makings of a cover-up and, used in conjunction with other evidence, could imperil the president not just politically, but legally.