The Trump White House is facing its greatest test yet, as the Russia scandal deepens and the president’s own son has provided direct and incontrovertible evidence that at the very least the Trump campaign attempted to collude with the Russian government in order to destroy Hillary Clinton. Handling this scandal would be an extraordinary challenge for even the smartest and most competent collection of government professionals and political operatives.
But this White House is a confederacy of dingbats. That’s what got them into this pickle in the first place and that’s what will keep them from getting out of it.
Most obviously, we have Donald Trump Jr., who received an email from an acquaintance asking explicitly whether he’d be interested in the Russian government’s help in the campaign, and instead of responding, “Please don’t contact me again” and informing the FBI, he said, “If it’s what you say I love it” and forwarded the email on to his father’s closest adviser (also his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner) and the campaign’s chairman, who apparently both had the same response.
And let’s not forget why we’ve learned about this in the first place. As the New York Times reports:
The emails were discovered in recent weeks by Mr. Kushner’s legal team as it reviewed documents, and the team amended his clearance forms to disclose it.
Kushner forgot to list the meeting when he filled out those forms, just as he forgot to list other meetings he had with influential Russian figures — oops! I suppose he thought no one would notice. But they did, and the result is this explosion.
Not that it should be shocking to learn that Kushner screwed up. By many accounts, he’s a walking caricature of the entitled white guy who thinks the silver spoon he was born with was actually bestowed upon him as a reward for his uncommon brilliance (read here about how his father likely bought Jared’s admission to Harvard University with a well-timed $2.5 million donation). Like the Trump boys, Kushner never had to make it on his own — he was given every privilege a rich kid’s son can have, then went to work in the family business. Yet his father-in-law believes Kushner is such an extraordinary talent that he can reinvent government, reform the criminal justice system, solve the opioid epidemic and achieve peace in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, The Post reports today:
Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser; Jared Kushner, her husband and another senior adviser; and first lady Melania Trump have been privately pressing the president to shake up his team — most specifically by replacing Reince Priebus as the White House chief of staff.
Yeah, that’s the problem — get rid of Priebus and this whole thing will go away. We’ve also learned that the first misleading statement that Don Jr. made about the meeting with the Russian attorney — that it was about nothing more than adoptions of Russian orphans — was crafted on Air Force One by a core group of Trump’s advisers, and the president approved it. Who would have guessed that with a paper trail proving it to be false and an active investigation into all this that the story wouldn’t hold up for more than a few hours?
When a scandal breaks in Washington, what we often discover is not a finely constructed conspiracy with multiple moving parts and a sinister genius pulling the strings, but stunning overconfidence and outright buffoonery. The question that often comes up is “How the hell were they dumb enough to think they could get away with that?” That happens even when you’re talking about very smart people (Richard Nixon, after all, was extremely smart).
But in this case, we aren’t talking about smart people, particularly the guy in charge. He’s the one, after all, who thought he could put the squeeze on the FBI director to make the scandal disappear, then fire the director when he wouldn’t pledge his loyalty, then go on national television and brag that he fired the director because he wanted the Russia scandal to go away. It doesn’t get much dumber than that.
And at the moment of its greatest peril (so far anyway), Trump’s White House descends into disarray, backstabbing and outright terror as staffers start to lawyer up and wonder how they’re going to escape their current employment without being publicly disgraced (at a minimum). As The Post reports:
The White House has been thrust into chaos after days of ever-worsening revelations about a meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a lawyer characterized as representing the Russian government, as the president fumes against his enemies and senior aides circle one another with suspicion, according to top White House officials and outside advisers.
The president, according to multiple reports, is enraged at the media for paying attention to all this. The response to that rage will inevitably be a focus among his aides on improving news coverage, both by enlisting the (eager) support of conservative media outlets and by working to construct persuasive arguments for the White House’s position. Now in certain circumstances, dealing with scandal can in fact be primarily a matter of crafting and disseminating arguments, i.e., spinning. For instance, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it eventually became clear that despite his denials, President Bill Clinton did indeed have an affair with the young woman; the argument then became about whether his behavior was personal in nature or merited impeachment. The entire country debated it for months, and Democrats won the argument.
But more often, handling a scandal is a complex practical task, involving a legal strategy, a management strategy and a communication strategy. Who thinks that Donald Trump and the people who work for him are up to it?
In the end, what matters most will be the facts. Much as the White House might try, you can’t spin away such remarkably clear and explicit evidence of eagerness to collude, especially when for months you’ve been saying that the idea that there might have been collusion is ludicrous. That’s why Don Jr.’s emails were such a blockbuster story. And there’s doubtless more to come.