If the Russia scandal is nothing but a witch hunt, as President Trump so often says, it’s awfully strange that he’s going to so much trouble to cover it up.
Last night, Ashley Parker, Carol D. Leonnig, Philip Rucker and Tom Hamburger broke the latest blockbuster story in this scandal, in which the president dictated a misleading statement about the nature of the fateful meeting his son Donald Trump Jr., his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort had with a group of Russians during the campaign:
On the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany last month, President Trump’s advisers discussed how to respond to a new revelation that Trump’s oldest son had met with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign — a disclosure the advisers knew carried political and potentially legal peril.
The strategy, the advisers agreed, should be for Donald Trump Jr. to release a statement to get ahead of the story. They wanted to be truthful, so their account couldn’t be repudiated later if the full details emerged.
But within hours, at the president’s direction, the plan changed.
Flying home from Germany on July 8 aboard Air Force One, Trump personally dictated a statement in which Trump Jr. said that he and the Russian lawyer had “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children” when they met in June 2016, according to multiple people with knowledge of the deliberations. The statement, issued to the New York Times as it prepared an article, emphasized that the subject of the meeting was “not a campaign issue at the time.”
The claims were later shown to be misleading.
In case you haven’t been following, the meeting occurred because Trump Jr. was promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton that was presented to him as coming from the Russian government. He summoned Kushner and Manafort, forwarding them the email in which that offer was made. They joined him at the meeting, which was attended by a lawyer with close ties to the Kremlin, a former Russian intelligence officer and a gentleman who was once the subject of a congressional inquiry into an enormous Russian money-laundering operation. According to Trump Jr. and Kushner’s version of events, the damaging information didn’t materialize, and the Russians were more interested in discussing the potential repeal of the Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned certain Russian individuals accused of corruption and human rights abuses. So the line from the Trump team is essentially that they were trying to collude with the Russian government to help their campaign, but the attempt was unsuccessful.
This latest story is clearly one of the most significant developments in this scandal to date, for two reasons. First, it describes an organized effort to mislead the public — not to spin, or minimize the story, or distract from it, or throw out wild accusations about someone else, but to intentionally fool everyone into believing something false. Second, it implicates the president himself. Indeed, the most extraordinary part of the picture this story paints is that while other people involved were recommending some measure of transparency on the assumption that the truth would come out eventually, they were overruled by the president, who personally dictated the misleading statement.
And it gets worse. Once the story broke, Trump’s own lawyer went to the media and denied that the president was involved in the drafting of the misleading statement. In two televised interviews, Jay Sekulow said “the president was not involved in the drafting of the statement,” “The president didn’t sign off on anything,” and “The president wasn’t involved in that.” While it’s theoretically possible that Sekulow would make emphatic statements of fact like those about what his client did or didn’t do without actually asking Trump, that seems almost impossible to believe. Sekulow is a prominent attorney who knows exactly what kind of trouble that could bring, both to himself and his client. So the only reasonable conclusion is that he was repeating what Trump told him.
So, to put this together: The president of the United States personally wrote a statement about this meeting with the Russians, a statement that everyone involved knew to be false. Going further, he then either lied to his own lawyer about his involvement so that the lawyer would repeat that lie publicly (highly likely) or was candid with his lawyer and persuaded him to lie to the media on his behalf (much less likely).
We all know what the official White House line about this story is going to be: The real problem isn’t what Trump did; it’s the fact that it was leaked! I’m reminded of something the sadly departed Anthony Scaramucci said during his brief tenure as White House communication director: “There are people inside the administration who think it is their job to save America from this president.” He was right — or at the very least, they’re trying to save him from himself.
It has been entertaining to watch the ongoing soap opera of this White House — the infighting, the backstabbing, the firings, the general air of chaos — but it’s important to remember that the biggest problem it has is the man who sits in the Oval Office. The fact that Trump assumed that he could engineer this mini-coverup and the truth would never get out, both about the meeting itself and about his role in misleading the public about it, shows just how deluded he is about how his own White House works.
Let’s return to that scene on Air Force One. A damaging story is breaking, and Trump’s advisers are facing the dilemma many administrations have faced before: How do we deal with it? How much information should we voluntarily reveal? Is there a way to make the story go away that won’t set us up for even more trouble down the road? While they were debating those questions, the one person to whom no one could say no told them how it was going to be: They were going to lie. And as is so often the case with Trump, the lie was quickly revealed for what it was.
I promise you, the substantial number of people involved in that discussion were profoundly uncomfortable with Trump’s instructions. For a political flack, nothing inspires more dread than putting out a story that you know is bogus and that you don’t think will hold up.
Their fears were inevitably realized, and now the Russia scandal has reached all the way to the president himself. Something tells me there’s more to come.