THE MORNING PLUM:
After media scrutiny forced Donald Trump Jr. to reveal the email chain that showed President Trump’s top advisers met with a Russian lawyer to gain information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government, the Trump camp adopted the retroactive spin that Trump Jr. had actually shown admirable transparency about this meeting. Trump Jr. went on Sean Hannity’s show to do damage control, leading the president to exult: “He was open, transparent and innocent.”
But this new scoop from NBC News will make that posture a lot harder to sustain:
The Russian lawyer who met with the Trump team after a promise of compromising material on Hillary Clinton was accompanied by a Russian-American lobbyist — a former Soviet counter intelligence officer who is suspected by some U.S. officials of having ongoing ties to Russian intelligence, NBC News has learned.
The lobbyist, who denies any current ties to Russian spy agencies, accompanied the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, to the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower attended by Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort. The Russian-born American lobbyist served in the Soviet military and emigrated to the U.S., where he holds dual citizenship.
The Associated Press has identified the lobbyist as Rinat Akhmetshin. It is not yet clear what the significance of this is, in terms of what it says about what exactly transpired at the meeting. Trump Jr. has dismissed the meeting as insignificant, because no “meaningful information” came of it, but this news invites more scrutiny of that claim. As NBC News notes, such matters will be of great interest to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and congressional investigators.
But right now, here’s what we can say: This news once again underscores that we are seeing a pattern of what we might call obfuscation by omission. This new detail should lead us to look anew at two key facts: First, that the president reportedly signed off on the initial statement from Trump Jr. that covered up the real reason for the meeting. And second, that top White House advisers are now reportedly reluctant to defend this meeting, because they could be opening themselves up to legal vulnerability. Here’s the pattern so far:
- After the news broke that Trump Jr. had met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, Trump Jr. put out a statement that only said the meeting was primarily about “a program about the adoption of Russian children.” Sources told the Times that the president signed off on that statement. Given that he did so on Air Force One, as the Trump team debated how to handle the developing story, it’s likely that he had been briefed on the contents of the full email chain at that point. Yet he reportedly assented to that false statement anyway.
- Additionally, CNN reports that sources are now leaking that Trump’s lawyer claims he was not part of the process of signing off on that statement. The Trump camp claims the president didn’t actually sign off on it. But there is no reason to doubt the Times’s reporting — it’s hard to imagine the president wouldn’t have been involved in those discussions. And as CNN notes, if that happened and Trump’s lawyer was not part of it, the president “may have opened himself up to new legal issues not covered by attorney-client privilege.” Remember, Trump may have participated in crafting a statement covering up the real reason for the meeting.
- That initial effort at obfuscation was then demolished when it was disclosed that according to sources who had seen the email chain, the meeting was really about sharing material about Clinton that came from the Russian government. That compelled Trump Jr. to issue another statement conceding that such information had been offered to him. But that statement carefully noted that Trump Jr. did not know the “name” of the lawyer, in effect suggesting he had no idea what the source of the information was.
- That effort at obfuscation, too, was blown up when the emails themselves came to light. Trump Jr. issued them only under duress, as the Times was preparing to publish them. It is after all of this happened that the president hailed Trump Jr.’s transparency.
- Yet that claim of transparency, too, has now been blown apart, now that NBC News has reported on the previously undisclosed presence of a former Soviet counter-intelligence officer who is suspected by U.S. officials of current ties to Russian intelligence.
Now note this Politico report, which claims that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner (who was also at the meeting, along with then-campaign chair Paul Manafort) wants a more aggressive press response to this story, but other top White House advisers are demurring:
But some of the communications aides, including press secretary Sean Spicer, and other senior staffers have expressed reservations. They say it’s best to leave it to outside counsel to handle the furor around Trump Jr., and fear inviting further legal jeopardy if Trump aides and allies more forcefully defend a meeting that they don’t fully know the details of, according to the sources.
Gee, ya think? Today’s NBC News report should only intensify these fears of defending the unknown. Here’s the bottom line: While we don’t yet know how significant this meeting will prove, legally or otherwise, every additional revelation about it — and about the Russia scandal more generally — has only come to the light through the pressure of aggressive press scrutiny. Trump seems to have participated in an active effort to mislead the country about this meeting, which is the first concrete evidence that his top campaign officials were eager to collude with Russia’s efforts to sabotage our democratic process. And Trump’s deception efforts should themselves now receive more intense scrutiny.
* TRUMP’S ‘POPULIST’ AGENDA IS NOT ACTUALLY POPULIST: The Post notes the big picture: Economic growth is more stagnant than Trump predicted; the Trump budget and health plan mirror Paul Ryan’s vision of shredding the safety net; and Trump’s trade agenda is stalled:
Trump’s combination of setbacks and delays on key policy initiatives highlight how the president is struggling to advance a populist vision of governing in a Republican Party that historically has not been receptive to such an approach. With his budget and health care, Trump is falling in line with some of his party’s most conservative voices, even if the policies threaten to harm many of the working-class voters who elected him.
Basically all that’s left of Trump’s “populist nationalism” is the stepped-up deportations, the travel ban (which is partially in effect) and the hostility to international cooperation on climate change.
* GOP SENATORS THINK McCONNELL WILL SHAFT THEM: The Washington Examiner reports that some GOP senators are reluctant to vote to move the health-care bill to debate because they don’t believe Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) will allow a real amendment process before a final vote. As the Examiner notes: “They fear that the bill is cooked and that McConnell and his leadership team will block any attempt at substantial change.”
If correct, the game here would be to entice the moderates to support the “motion to proceed” on the understanding that they can “soften” the bill through amendments, but McConnell would effectively block any real changes, banking on enormous pressure forcing them to support it in the final vote.
* KEEP AN EYE ON BRIAN SANDOVAL: Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) tells CNN that the threshold test for the new GOP health-care bill is how it treats more than 200,000 poor Nevadans:
“I’m greatly concerned and very protective of the expansion population. They are living healthier and happier lives as a result of their receiving coverage, and for them to lose that at this point would be very hurtful for them. And it’s about people — this is about people. And 210,000 people in my state,” the Nevada Republican told CNN … He said he has not yet reviewed the bill, but “generally, my understanding is the bill isn’t that much different than its previous iteration.”
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) is a key undecided vote, but he had previously joined Sandoval in expressing the same concerns. The new bill still has the huge Medicaid cuts, so why vote yes?
* OPPOSITION TO GOP HEALTH-CARE BILL RISES: A new Kaiser Family Foundation poll finds that 61 percent of Americans now oppose the GOP bill, up from 55 percent last month. Meanwhile, support has dropped a couple of points, to 28 percent. And note this:
When told about the reduction in federal funding for Medicaid, the majority of the public oppose (65 percent) major reductions to Medicaid as part of a plan to repeal and replace the ACA, while three in ten (28 percent) support such reductions.
Even 41 percent of Trump supporters oppose the Medicaid cuts, though more (51 percent) support them. A lot of Trump voters will be hit by the cuts.
* HOW REPUBLICANS WILL SELL THE MEDICAID CUTS: The Post reports that Seema Verma, the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is telling GOP senators who are worried about Medicaid cuts that the bill’s $182 billion stabilization fund can soften the blow:
Nearly 15 million Americans would lose their Medicaid coverage by 2026 under the Senate bill, according to the CBO. Verma sought to minimize that outlook, saying states could use the stabilization funding to heavily subsidize private coverage for these Americans — even though the size of the fund does not come close to the bill’s $772 billion in cuts to the program over the next decade.
That would do little. The bottom line is that any moderate GOP senator who supports this bill will be revealing any previously expressed concerns about the massive Medicaid cuts to be insincere.
* THE SCAM AT THE CORE OF THE NEW GOP BILL: Paul Krugman notes that the Ted Cruz amendment, under which states could allow skimpy coverage alongside Obamacare-compliant plans, would split the risk pool, leading to soaring costs for the sick:
This bill would send insurance markets into a classic death spiral. Republicans have been predicting such a spiral for years, but keep being wrong: All indications are that Obamacare, despite having some real problems, is stabilizing … And let’s be clear: Many of the victims of this sabotage would be members of the white working class, people who voted for Donald Trump in the belief that he really meant it when he promised that there would be no cuts to Medicaid and that everyone would get better, cheaper insurance.
It is strange that Republicans are pushing a plan that would actually cause the implosion of markets that they have pretended is currently underway due to the law itself.
* AND TRUMP BLASTS GOP SENATORS FOR FAILURE: Good morning, Mr. President. You are up very early, aren’t you?
Republicans Senators are working hard to get their failed ObamaCare replacement approved. I will be at my desk, pen in hand!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 14, 2017
Interesting approach: Hey, GOP, you and your health-care bill both stink, and if it goes down, I’ll blame you for it. But hurry up and pass it — regardless of what’s in it or how it impacts you — so I can have a win already!