The Truth Behind Donald Trump, Jr.,’s Meeting with a Russian Lawyer

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Don’t get ahead of the reporting. That’s one of the first lessons you’re
supposed to learn as a novitiate in the church of journalism. Don’t
assert what is not yet established by the facts. The consequences can be
dire. In the rare case when Woodward and Bernstein stumbled during their
Watergate reporting, it was because at one point they got a little ahead
of their carefully established web of facts when it came to who was
running the conspiracy. In the end, they were right, but the stumble
allowed the Nixon Administration to charge, in modern parlance,
#fakenews. “Shabby journalism” is what Ron Ziegler, the Sean Spicer of
the Nixon era, called it.

The Trump Administration should not win any moral or political plaudits
even if it turns out, in the end, that there was no collusion between
the President’s campaign and the Russian government. Its countless sins
of lying, conflict of interest, shady business transactions, character
assassination, and so much else assures it a place in history as a
uniquely grimy Administration. And we are not yet a half year into its

So, unless we are grading on a curve that even the most forgiving god
would discount, innocence in the matter of collusion does not bring the
Trump Administration nearer to the gates of heaven. But the issue is
hardly the closed matter that Trump would propose it to be. Thanks to
new reporting from the Times,
we are starting to see evidence that fits the theory. Within two days of the
President’s dispiritingly weak and erratic performance in Hamburg––his
winsome meeting with Vladimir Putin, the disheartening spectacle of the
Europeans treating the United States with suspicion on issues ranging
from global security to the fate of the global environment––we learn that
Trump associates, including the President’s son, met during the 2016
campaign with one Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Kremlin-connected lawyer, on
the promise that she could provide them information damaging to Hillary
Clinton’s campaign.

The meeting took place on June 9, 2016, at Trump Tower. Trump’s
emissaries included Donald Trump, Jr., who now helps to run the family
businesses; Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who now helps to run the
country; and his then campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who has a long
history of business ties to Russia and pro-Russia Ukrainians, as well as
a variety of political kleptocrats including Jonas Savimbi, Mobuto Sese
Seko, and Ferdinand Marcos. The Trump team said there was nothing
untoward about the meeting.

“After pleasantries were exchanged,” Trump, Jr., told the Times, “the
woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to
Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms.
Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No
details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It
quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.” Trump,
Jr., went on to claim that the discussion was largely about the Russian
ban on foreign adoptions. Reince Priebus, the President’s chief of
staff, described the meeting on “Fox News Sunday” as a “big nothing
burger.” For her part, Veselnitskaya said that the meeting did not
concern the campaign at all and that Manafort and Kushner left the room
after ten minutes.

This follows the Wall Street Journal’s story last week that investigators have reviewed reports from intelligence
agencies on Russian hackers discussing how to hack Clinton’s e-mails and
get the material to Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser, via an
intermediary, and that Peter Smith, a longtime Republican operative, had
undertaken an effort to obtain the Clinton e-mails and suggested to
those around him that he was working with Flynn. The excuse the Trump
Administration had for that one was that Smith “didn’t work for the
campaign” and that if Flynn was working with him “in any way, it would
have been in his capacity as a private individual.”

There has also been a great deal of solid journalism committed by Adam
of The New Yorker, Timothy O’Brien, of Bloomberg, and others on
Trump’s business history and his links to disreputables in Russia and
the former Soviet Union. All this begins to add up to an unlovely
portrait of the President and his associates. In addition, the F.B.I.
and congressional investigators are sorting through what, if any,
relationship there might have been between the hundreds of Internet
trolls who pumped out false, undermining stories about Clinton, Russian
sponsors, and the Trump campaign. It is unlikely that the full story of
the role of WikiLeaks in this saga has been told yet, either.

On his European trip, Trump has kept up his antic strategy of deflection
and diversion, and, at the same time, he insists on demeaning his own
intelligence services––on foreign soil, no less. To the embarrassment of
an ungrateful nation, he tweeted that “everyone here is talking about
why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA.
Disgraceful!” Where to begin? No one in Europe was talking about John
Podesta, who did not have control of the D.N.C. server and who has
coöperated fully with investigators.

Trump went on to say from one lectern at the summit, “I remember when I
was sitting back listening about Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, how
everybody was a hundred per cent certain that Iraq has weapons of mass
destruction. Guess what? That led to one big mess. They were wrong, and
it led to a mess.”

This is true up to a point, but is it applicable? What happened in 2003
is that the Bush Administration, led by Dick Cheney, pressured
intelligence officials to provide the answer that it desired on weapons of
mass destruction in order to invade Iraq; analysts themselves were
hardly unanimous on the question of W.M.D. In this case, the
intelligence agencies have repeatedly declared their confidence that
Russian hackers tried to undermine the American election and that they
did so at the direction of Vladimir Putin––the same person Trump
declared in Hamburg he was “honored” to meet. We should see more of
their evidence, where possible, but the analogy to the case of the Iraq
deception is a thin reed.

So, yes, it is wrong to get ahead of the reporting. But the myriad
implications of a hacked Presidential election, while too much to bear
for the President—his ego seems to implode at any suggestion that his
victory was possibly more complicated than the unambiguous “landslide”
he imagines it to be—demands the answers that journalists, law
enforcement, and Congress are pursuing. Part of that process is
admitting error, as CNN did, quickly and responsibly recently after an
errant story. Part of that process is having the patience to see what
the truth, as it emerges over time, turns out to be. For now, we live in
a moment when the President of the United States is, without shame,
trying to intimidate the people whose business it is to come to an
honest reckoning. He tries to intimidate the press. He has fired an
F.B.I. director and considered going further. It’s reasonable to wonder
why. Without assuming too much, too soon.

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