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Opinion How Trump may have helped Donald Jr. lie about his explosive Russia meeting

The Post’s Ruth Marcus explains why in Donald Trump Jr. is in legal jeopardy. Hint: stupidity is not a legal defense. (Video: Adriana Usero, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)


President Trump’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, just made the rounds on the morning shows, armed with a clear message: The president was only made aware of the email chain incriminating his son in the last few days, and only saw it when the imminent publication of the email chain compelled Donald Trump Jr. to release it himself.

But this claim comes even as new reporting in the New York Times indicates that President Trump signed off on a statement from Trump Jr. a few days ago that flatly misrepresented what happened in his June 2016 meeting with the Russian lawyer. And this raises a question: How far did the president himself go to mislead the public about his own campaign’s willingness to collude with Russia to tip the election?

The email chain, of course, revealed that the meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya came after Trump Jr. had been informed that he would be provided with information about Hillary Clinton that came from the Russian government, which was trying to swing the election to his father. Trump Jr. eagerly accepted.

Sekulow told NBC News today that the president “only saw” the email chain “yesterday as it was released,” but said he was “made aware” of it “days ago.” Sekulow also told ABC News that Trump saw the emails “yesterday when they were released” and had been made aware of them by his lawyers “very very recently.”

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But the New York Times reports that Trump personally signed off on a statement that Trump Jr. released over the weekend, as reports of the meeting first surfaced, that told a very misleading story about what happened at it:

As Air Force One jetted back from Europe on Saturday … participants on the plane and back in the United States debated how transparent to be in the statement, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Ultimately, the people said, the president signed off on a statement from Donald Trump Jr. for The Times that was so incomplete that it required day after day of follow-up statements, each more revealing than the last.

The statement from Trump Jr. that the president signed off on only said that the meeting was primarily about “a program about the adoption of Russian children.” This was before the Times disclosed that according to sources who had seen the email chain, it revealed that the meeting was really about sharing material about Hillary Clinton that came from the Russian government. That forced another statement from Trump Jr., in which he conceded that he had been offered information about Clinton but suggested he had no idea what the source of the information was. That last suggestion, of course, was blown up by the emails themselves.

The point here, though, is that, if the president signed off on Trump Jr.’s original statement, he had to have known as he did so that the real purpose of the meeting was to get this information from (as Trump Jr. had been told) the Russian government. This has basically now been confirmed by Trump’s own lawyer. Sekulow says the president was told of the emails days ago. It is extremely likely that this means the president was told about them as his inner circle debated its initial response to the breaking story. It’s hard to imagine the president’s lawyers not telling him of the existence of these emails at that point.

“It is highly likely that he would have been told about the emails before signing off on Trump Jr.’s statement, if either Trump or his lawyers were minimally competent,” Richard Painter, the chief ethics czar under George W. Bush, told me this morning.

It is of course possible that Trump knew of the meeting at the time it happened (something his team denies), which would take this into dramatic new territory, and this will be fleshed out in due course. And in the larger scheme of nonstop lies coming from Trump and the White House — including about the Russia probe — signing off on this statement might seem like a routine lie, at least relatively speaking.

But it’s significant. Whatever the legal relevance of this email chain turns out to be, this is the first time we have concrete confirmation of the Trump campaign’s willingness, or even eagerness, to collude with Russia’s efforts to tip the election, one that involved his son, son-in-law (Jared Kushner), and then-campaign chair (Paul Manafort). If the Times’ reporting is accurate, Trump is now directly implicated in an active effort to mislead the country about concrete, known facts that illustrate beyond doubt his campaign’s eagerness to conspire with Russia’s efforts to sabotage our democracy.

This is the case, at a minimum. And it is plausible that lots more will be coming out about these collusion efforts. But the president’s and White House’s handling of this chapter suggests they are hoping to lie their way through it all, one day at a time, one lie at a time, and don’t have any real way to cope with just how serious it is likely to become.

* IT MAY NOT MATTER IF TRUMP JR. GOT INFO: Trump Jr. has argued that the meeting with the Russian lawyer produced nothing. But legal experts tell NBC News the law says “knowingly” accepting info might be unlawful. Trump Jr.’s email signaled eagerness. As one puts it:

“Let’s imagine the Russian lawyer is an undercover FBI agent. That agent was never really going to give him anything of value. But the issue, ultimately, is what he did in response to that email. And that comes very close to solicitation.”

Still, as NBC notes, this will very likely be left to the special counsel to sort out. Which he surely will do.

* TRUMP’S INNER CIRCLE IS AT WAR: Under intensifying strain from the mushrooming Russia scandal, the New York Times reports that tensions between Trump’s lead lawyer Marc Kasowitz and son-in-law Jared Kushner are soaring:

Mr. Trump, who often vents about advisers in times of trouble, has grown disillusioned by Mr. Kasowitz’s strategy, the people said … Mr. Kasowitz and his colleagues have been deeply frustrated by the president. And they have complained that Mr. Kushner has been whispering in the president’s ear about the Russia investigations and stories while keeping the lawyers out of the loop, according to another person familiar with the legal team … the lawyers have told colleagues that they cannot keep operating that way, raising the prospect that Mr. Kasowitz may resign.

And given that the special counsel’s probe is just getting underway, this probably isn’t going to get better anytime soon.

* TRUMP’S INNER CIRCLE IS AT WAR, PART II: The Associated Press adds more reporting on the infighting consuming Trump and his advisers:

The controversy has sparked a new round of recriminations among the president’s team … The president, in conversations with confidants, has questioned the quality of advice he has received from senior staff, including chief of staff Reince Priebus …  There has also been a difference of opinion within the West Wing has to how to handle the crisis, with some aides favoring more transparency than others.

Does Trump himself ever take responsibility for anything? Ever?

* GOP HEALTH BILL IS STILL IN TROUBLE: Axios reports on the latest version of the GOP health-care bill, which is still in flux but is set to be voted on tomorrow:

The Medicaid spending limits, in particular, are likely to be unchanged — a blow to moderate Republicans who thought the bill would squeeze the program too hard. One change that might appeal to the moderates: The bill will drop plans to repeal two ACA taxes on high earners … That might be used to beef up the “stability fund” to help states reduce premium costs … but that’s still not going to matter to the moderates as much as the Medicaid spending limits.

Given that multiple moderate senators have said the bill’s enormous Medicaid cuts are unconscionable, getting to Yes under these circumstances would require epic dishonesty.

* EVEN TRUMP VOTERS ARE SPLIT ON REPEAL: A new Kaiser Family Foundation poll finds that Americans say by 71 percent to 23 percent that congressional Republicans should work with Democrats to improve the Affordable Care Act, rather than repeal and replace it.

Even Trump voters are divided on this, by 46-47. Yet we keep hearing that Trump voters will erupt in fury if the GOP bill fails.

* SENATE REPUBLICANS TALK ABOUT COMPROMISE: Bloomberg reports that more than half a dozen Senate Republicans and Democrats are privately discussing a compromise to shore up the ACA’s individual markets, should repeal fail:

The main ideas involve creating a reinsurance fund and authorizing cost-sharing payments for insurers so they don’t have to raise prices for covering a sicker pool of customers. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said … he’ll release an outline of an alternative health-care plan this week. He said he’s seeking support from governors and senators of both parties. Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine … has been talking with about a half-dozen Democrats who want a compromise with Republicans.

Good news if true, but don’t forget that this completely demolishes the GOP lie that the ACA is irredeemably collapsing under its own weight, and confirms GOP sabotage is playing a big role.

* PODCAST ALERT: I had a great time chatting with the always-excellent Brian Beutler on his Primary Concerns podcast about the Russia scandal and GOP complicity in Trump’s ongoing assault on our democracy. Hope you enjoy!

* AND REPUBLICANS THINK MEDIA IS TOO TOUGH ON TRUMP: A new Gallup poll finds that a large majority of Americans  (62 percent) say the media coverage of Trump has either been about right (28) or not tough enough (34). Only 35 percent think it has been “too tough.”

Still, a whopping 77 percent of Republicans say it has been too tough, so the whiny tweeting about “Fake News” will continue.