Imagine that you are Donald Trump Jr. Your father has just clinched the Republican nomination for president. An acquaintance, someone you know from the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, calls asking to set up a meeting with a Russian who, he says, has information helpful to the campaign — i.e., dirt on Hillary Clinton. Do you:
a) Worry that this doesn’t sound completely kosher and ask for a bit more information — for example, who is this person?
b) Worry that this doesn’t sound completely kosher and call the campaign lawyer to figure out how to proceed?
c) Invite the unknown Russian to come to Trump Tower and ask campaign chairman Paul Manafort and your brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, to sit in?
The right answers, for anyone who has been around politics and political campaigns, are a) or b). Trump Jr.’s answer, we now know — after his first, incredible-on-its-face explanation that in the midst of a presidential campaign the top brass paused for a meeting “primarily” about adoption of Russian children — was c): Come on down!
Why is this the wrong answer? As a practical matter, because you always want to be careful about dealing with political dirt: It can rub off on you. Recall that in the 1988 presidential campaign, two top aides to Michael Dukakis resigned over the leaking of a videotape that helped bring down rival Joe Biden over a cribbed stump speech.
As a practical matter, because you always want to be careful about mixing foreigners and political campaigns. This was, granted, before the WikiLeaked documents surfaced and, along with them, increasingly alarming (that is, increasingly alarming if your last name isn’t Trump) reports of Russian involvement in the election.
But still, warning bells should have been ringing. Recall the front-page headlines and months of investigations over money from Chinese nationals that ended up in the coffers of the Democratic National Committee. Granted, Trump Jr.’s second statement does not specifically state that he knew in advance that the mystery guest at the meeting — Natalia Veselnitskaya, a lawyer with close ties to the Kremlin — would be Russian. But that seems a fair presumption given that Trump Jr.’s relationship with the intermediary stemmed from their dealings in Russia.
And here’s why that’s not just a political problem but a potential legal one. As Democratic election law expert and former Obama White House counsel Bob Bauer has noted, federal election law prohibits soliciting or accepting “anything of value … in connection with” an election from a foreign national. Bauer raised this issue in connection with Donald Trump’s public solicitation of and cheering for Russian assistance on WikiLeaks and Clinton’s emails.
The admission of direct contact on a campaign issue takes that analysis a significant step further. Would damaging information about Clinton be something of value to the Trump campaign? Sounds like it to me.
Trump Jr.’s false and misleading statements on his involvement with Russians add to the argument that this is a man behaving as if he had something to hide. Asked by the New York Times in March whether he had ever discussed “government policies related to Russia,” Trump Jr. replied, “a hundred percent no.” Then, confronted by the Times about the Veselnitskaya meeting, he first said the participants “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children,” before acknowledging, the next day, that in fact it concerned opposition research on Clinton.
Trump Jr. asserted in a tweet Monday that there was “no inconsistency in statements, meeting ended up being primarily about adoptions. In response to further Q’s I simply provided more details.” Right, he was just being helpful in omitting that pesky and barely relevant Clinton part. Happy to clarify.
This is a serious and, for the president and those around him, potentially perilous development.