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Opinion Here’s the big problem with the Trump camp’s latest spin about Donald Trump Jr.

Here's what we know so far about Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer during his father's presidential campaign in June 2016. (Video: Elyse Samuels, Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)


The Trump camp’s spin in response to the latest revelations about Donald Trump Jr. is roughly as follows: Yes, Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort did meet with a Kremlin-connected lawyer in the expectation that the lawyer would provide them with information that would damage Hillary Clinton. But this is okay, because they didn’t know the identity of the lawyer beforehand, and at any rate, the promise of damaging info went nowhere, so no “collusion” happened.

The problem with the claim that they didn’t know whom they were meeting with is not simply that it strains credulity in the extreme, though it certainly does. Rather, it’s that this assertion will now be subjected to very intense investigative scrutiny, as Bob Bauer, a top campaign lawyer with Perkins Coie, explained to me in an interview this morning.

The big revelation of the moment, reported late yesterday by the New York Times, is that Trump Jr. met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya to discuss information she was supposed to have that would be damaging to Clinton. Veselnitskaya represents business executives close to the Russian government and is a leading opponent of sanctions imposed because of Russian human rights abuses — sanctions that are also opposed by Vladimir Putin. Also at the meeting were Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and Manafort, then Trump’s campaign chairman. The Post reported that the meeting was arranged by a music publicist friendly with Trump Jr., who said he had done this at the request of a Russian client.

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On Monday morning, senior Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway sparred extensively with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos about the revelations. Her spin echoed key elements of a careful statement from Trump Jr. that was issued as the Times story was coming together. That statement allowed that Trump Jr. and the others had met with “an individual who I was told might have information helpful to the campaign” but that he “was not told her name prior to the meeting.” Trump Jr. added that it “quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information” and that she changed the subject to other topics.

Conway, pressed on the fact that Trump Jr. had held this meeting with the express purpose of getting damaging information about Clinton, admitted that “he was told that there would be information that may be helpful to the campaign,” but added that “he didn’t even know her name.” The careful focus on the fact that he didn’t know her name — both Trump Jr. and Conway put it that way — is notable.

But beyond this, the broader question of whether Trump Jr., Kushner and Manfort understood the general identity of the person they were meeting with in order to receive damaging information about Clinton will likely now be subject to intense scrutiny.

The question of what Trump Jr. really knew about her is “an investigable issue,” Bauer, who was also White House counsel under Barack Obama, told me. “It’s very difficult to believe that the son of a presidential candidate and the senior members of his campaign would go into a meeting with someone whose identity is unknown to them. Investigators will certainly not take that at face value.”

Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has already said the committee’s probe will seek to interview all attendees at the meeting, presumably in part to establish what was known about Veselnitskaya before Trump Jr. and the others met with her. Bauer told me that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation will likely try to establish the same. “It’s going to be an uphill battle for them to say they routinely took meetings with people who suggested they had useful information without checking their identities,” Bauer said.

The legal relevance of this will turn on several questions, Bauer noted. There is the precise nature of what was known about Veselnitskaya before the meeting. And there is also the precise nature of Veselnitskaya’s ties to the Russian government.

“It does not help their case that you have a very specific operational instance where the campaign decided it was prepared to welcome assistance from a Russian source,” said Bauer, who has previously argued in a series of posts that the law prohibits cooperation with foreign nationals to influence a U.S. election. “You are not permitted to solicit or accept anything of value from a foreign national to influence an election. You cannot enter into a conspiracy with a foreign national to influence an election.”

“What was precisely her connection to the Russian government?” Bauer said. “Investigators are going to try to dig as deeply as possible here.” But Bauer added that it might not even have to be established that she did “report back to Moscow” for this to rise to the level of accepting help from a foreign national in influencing an election. Bauer concluded: “This should draw an awful lot of investigative energy.”

Update: Bauer has just posted his own piece on the significance of these events right here.

* NEW ADS BLAST REPUBLICANS ON HEALTH CARE: The advocacy group Save My Care is launching a new, seven-figure ad buy that pressures moderate GOP senators to oppose the GOP repeal bill. Each version shows footage of a particular senator — one targets Dean Heller in Nevada; another hits Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia — previously pledging not to throw huge numbers of their constituents off of health coverage.

“Senator, keep your promise — vote No on health care repeal,” each spot concludes. This shows it will be very hard politically for moderates who have expressed concerns about the bill to now find a way to support it, without revealing those concerns as phony.

* GOP LEADERSHIP TO PRESSURE HOLDOUTS: Politico reports that the Senate GOP repeal bill is in trouble, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is set to intensify pressure on the holdouts on both sides:

This week, McConnell is expected to receive critical guidance from the Congressional Budget Office on whether a flurry of tweaks made in June will improve on initial estimates that the bill would result in 22 million fewer people with insurance … Republican senators will be pressured to choose between protecting Obamacare or supporting McConnell’s effort.

The CBO is likely to find that the “tweaks” may at best result in several million fewer without coverage, so that “pressure” is going to have to be very intense.

* GOP SENATOR: TRUMP MUST GET SERIOUS ABOUT RUSSIA: Over the weekend Trump tweeted that it’s time to move on from the debate over Russian election meddling. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) responded on “Meet the Press”:

“I worry about what they’re going to do in Germany in September and what they’ll do in 2018 … I want a clear message to Russia that, ‘You’ll pay a price for undercutting democracy.’ And if President Trump doesn’t embrace this, I think he will be empowering the Russians and betraying democracy … this whole idea about moving forward without punishing Russia is undercutting his entire presidency.”

As Graham says, this should intensify scrutiny around the question of what the Trump administration is doing to prepare for Russian meddling in upcoming elections.

* STATE OFFICIALS FRUSTRATED ABOUT ELECTION SECURITY: The Associated Press reports on what happened at a meeting of Republican and Democratic secretaries of state over the weekend:

State election officials voiced doubt Saturday that adequate security measures can be adopted before 2018 elections to safeguard against the possibility of a foreign government interfering in U.S. elections … both Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State, who are responsible for carrying out elections in many states, said they have been frustrated in recent months by a lack of information from federal intelligence officials on allegations of Russian meddling with the vote.

Again, maybe it’s time for more scrutiny of the Trump administration’s preparations for 2018.

* YES, OBAMACARE IS WORKING: With Republicans excitedly pointing to places in the country where there is only one insurer or no insurers as “evidence” that the Affordable Care Act is failing, Paul Krugman reminds us:

Where states have in fact cooperated, expanding Medicaid, operating their own insurance exchanges, and promoting both enrollment and competition among insurers, it has worked pretty darn well…  consider the problem of counties with only one (or no) insurer, meaning no competition. As one recent study points out, this is almost entirely a red-state problem. In states with G.O.P. governors, 21 percent of the population lives in such counties; in Democratic-governor states, less than 2 percent.

As always, Republicans are deliberately trying to make the law fail in ways that harm their own constituents.

* TRUMP’S WORLDVIEW SHOULD UNITE LEFT AND RIGHT: E.J. Dionne Jr. notes that in his speech in Europe, Trump fundamentally sided with right-wing nationalism against democratic pluralism and enlightenment values, and adds:

This dire view should remind the democratic left and the democratic right that while they have disagreed on many aspects of American foreign policy over the past two decades, they share some deep allegiances. These include a largely positive assessment of what the modern world has achieved; a hopeful vision of what could lie before us; a commitment to democratic norms as the basis of our thinking about the kind of world we seek; and a belief that ethnic pluralism and religious pluralism are to be celebrated, not feared.

The Trump era is teaching us a lot about what the “democratic right” really stands for.

* AND GOP DIVISIONS THREATEN MORE CHAOS: The Associated Press offers this pithy summary of the perils the GOP Congress faces in the weeks and months ahead:

The GOP campaign to repeal Democrat Barack Obama’s health care law is bogged down in the Senate and flirting with collapse. Efforts to pass a budget are stuck, there’s no tax code overhaul package, spending bills are in limbo and it’s unclear how leaders will find the votes to avert a federal default.  The difficulties flow from Republican divisions. Collectively, the problems are threatening to sink top GOP priorities and undermine the party’s ability to show it can govern effectively.

This morning, Trump tweeted that Congress must not leave town without passing a “beautiful new HealthCare bill.” Perhaps Trump’s mighty Twitter feed can avert default over the debt ceiling, too.