THE MORNING PLUM:
Bloomberg Politics has just published a remarkable interview with the Russian lawyer who famously met with President Trump’s son, son-in-law and campaign chairman at Trump Tower in June 2016. There are a number of lingering questions about the account, and healthy skepticism about the messenger and her message is certainly warranted.
However, this is a notable moment, because it would appear to constitute a direct allegation that Donald Trump Jr. actively requested Russian assistance in harming Hillary Clinton, as opposed to having been merely receptive to such assistance.
The Bloomberg reporters interviewed the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, in Moscow for 2½ hours. She claims that Donald Trump Jr. — who attended the meeting with Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort — said that if Trump won, he’d be open to pushing for changes to a U.S. law that targets Russian officials. That is interesting, because it alleges that Donald Trump Jr. offered to be more friendly with Russia in exchange for potential assistance with the campaign. But there’s also this:
Veselnitskaya also said Trump Jr. requested financial documents showing that money that allegedly evaded U.S. taxes had gone to Clinton’s campaign. She didn’t have any and described the 20-minute meeting as a failure.
Donald Trump Jr.’s lawyer did not deny the claims, instead declining to comment. Now, Veselnitskaya is not a particularly trustworthy character, and it should be stressed that by her account, she did not furnish any such documents. But in the email chain that leaked in July, Donald Trump Jr. was offered “official documents and information that would incriminate” Hillary Clinton and would be “very useful to your father,” as part of the Russian “government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Donald Trump Jr. expressed an eagerness to access this information. It’s not clear why the information was promised but then did not materialize, and this, too, is grounds for caution about her account. But it is at least potentially significant that Veselnitskaya is now claiming that at this meeting, Donald Trump Jr. actively requested the information.
It should also be noted that Veselnitskaya has claimed she was not acting in concert with the Russian government. But the New York Times has reported that she appeared to be operating off a set of talking points very similar to those of a senior Russian official, undercutting the idea that she was operating independently.
Let’s also put this new interview in its larger context. As part of his plea agreement with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos has said that he was informed in April 2016 that the Russians had collected “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” and tried to set up a meeting between Russian officials and Trump campaign higher-ups. It is not yet known whether Papadopoulos explicitly told his superiors about the existence of this Russian “dirt.” But he is cooperating with investigators, so he may be in a position to shed more light on just how much they knew about it.
We know now as a matter of fact, however, that the June 2016 meeting was held for the explicit purpose of getting a dump-truck’s worth of Russian “dirt” on Clinton — Donald Trump Jr.’s email chain confirms it. And let’s not forget, as The Post has reported, that Trump himself helped dictate an initial statement from Donald Trump Jr. that misleadingly claimed the meeting was “primarily” about Russian adoptions. This was later proven false, which means Trump himself has been directly implicated in an effort to mislead the country about his own top campaign officials’ eagerness to benefit from help from the Russian government. Whatever legal conclusions Mueller ends up reaching, we now know that Trump’s top campaign officials were eager to collude with Russia to help him win the election and that Trump himself helped to cover that up.
Mueller is also reportedly looking hard at the process leading up to the issuing of that misleading statement, though it’s also unclear what legal relevance that might end up having. Veselnitskaya told Bloomberg she’s prepared to meet with Mueller, which will presumably happen. Again, we should approach anything Veselnitskaya says with caution. But any light shed on that meeting may help explain why the president and his son initially wanted to cover up what happened at it.
* POLLS SHOW DEMOCRAT LEADING IN VIRGINIA: A new Wason Center poll puts Democrat Ralph Northam ahead of Republican Ed Gillespie, 51-45, in the Virginia gubernatorial race. A new Quinnipiac poll puts Northam up by 51-42.
But a new Emerson poll puts Northam up by only 49-46. And a new Upshot/Siena poll finds Northam up by only 43-40. This poll is weighted to avoid under-sampling working-class whites, which bedeviled 2016 polling, and if Northam is ahead anyway, that’s encouraging.
* GILLESPIE IS RUNNING ON THE ‘TRUMP AGENDA’: The New York Times reports that Gillespie is using Trump’s race-baiting to galvanize the base while avoiding Trump himself, a test of a new template for the Trump era. Note this:
“He’s closed an enthusiasm gap by rallying around the Trump agenda,” said Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s former strategist. “And I think the big lesson for Tuesday is that, in Gillespie’s case, Trumpism without Trump can show the way forward. If that’s the case, Democrats better be very, very worried.”
It’s good to have Trump’s former chief strategist confirming that Gillespie is running on the “Trump agenda.” But would Gillespie publicly admit to that?
* WHY REPUBLICANS ARE CLOSELY WATCHING VIRGINIA: The Washington Examiner talks to Republicans about the race and sums up their thinking:
If committed Trump supporters turn out for Gillespie, and he maintains the support of Northern Virginia centrists and his establishment base, it could suggest a blueprint Republicans running for Congress can use to mitigate the president’s low national approval ratings and disappointment with the party has accomplished in Washington. It could also signal Trump’s culture war isn’t the loser for the Republicans that many inside and outside the party think, at least in the near term.
If Gillespie loses but keeps it pretty close, one imagines that Republicans will figure out a way to reach that same conclusion.
* WHY THE STAKES ARE SO HIGH IN VIRGINIA: E.J. Dionne Jr. gets this exactly right:
A Northam victory would send a signal to the country that President Trump is a severe drag on the GOP, especially if it were combined with Democratic pickups in the legislature. This would bolster the forces trying to contain Trump’s abuses and give heart to those doing the organizing work against him at the grass roots. It would tell Republicans in Congress that coddling and imitating Trump carry a high cost while strengthening Democratic efforts to recruit strong candidates for the 2018 midterms.
Hey, Virginia Democrats — get out and vote!
* MUELLER EXAMINES TRUMP’S BUSINESS DEALINGS: The Post reports this intriguing nugget:
Mueller’s interest in Russian contacts may extend to Trump’s business, as well, with the special counsel’s office recently asking for records related to a failed 2015 proposal for a Moscow Trump Tower, according to a person familiar with the request.
This will deeply anger Trump, who has said he would view any effort by Mueller to examine his finances as a “violation.”
* HOW TEXAS SHOOTER GOT HIS GUN: Devin Patrick Kelley, identified by police as the gunman who killed 26 people in a Texas church yesterday, was court-martialed from the Air Force over domestic assault. CNN also reports:
Kelley purchased the Ruger AR-556 rifle in April 2016 from an Academy Sports & Outdoors store in San Antonio, a law enforcement official told CNN. When Kelley filled out the background check paperwork at the store, he checked the box to indicate he didn’t have disqualifying criminal history, the official said.
It’s still unclear whether Kelley was actually disqualified from owning a gun, but regardless, Trump has already pronounced this a “mental health” problem, and not a “guns situation.”
* DEMOCRATS HOLD WIDE LEAD IN GENERIC BALLOT MATCH-UP: A new Post-ABC News poll finds Democrats leading Republicans, 51-40, in the generic ballot match-up, the largest lead since October 2006. But:
Democrats’ antipathy toward Trump has not translated to greater motivation to vote, with an identical 63 percent of Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning registered voters saying they are absolutely certain to vote next year. The poll shows Democrats’ 11-point vote advantage shrinking to two points among people who voted in the 2014 midterm elections.
You’d think Democrats would be energized enough by Trump to make major gains next year, but if Republicans are also energized, that — plus structural disadvantages — could limit them.