It’s been two days since Donald Trump Jr. tweeted out screenshots of an e-mail exchange between himself and promoter Rob Goldstone so that the New York Times couldn’t beat him to the punch. In the exchange, pictured below, Mr Trump Jr. set up a meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, with the express purpose of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government, which was, and I quote Mr Goldstone here, “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump”. Read the full exchange below.
Here is page 4 (which did not post due to space constraints). pic.twitter.com/z1Xi4nr2gq
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) July 11, 2017
Here’s my statement and the full email chain pic.twitter.com/x050r5n5LQ
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) July 11, 2017
Donald Trump Jr. has attempted to mitigate his circumstances by saying that Ms Veselnitskaya had none of the information that was promised but, as nearly everyone with internet access has pointed out, that is like saying you weren’t trying to rob a bank because the vault was empty when you get there. It just doesn’t work, and it’s the intent that matters, not the outcome. It now seems obvious that there was at least an attempt at collusion by the Trump campaign with the Russians to influence the 2016 election, we just don’t know how much yet, nor how successful it was.
And once again, we are left with more questions than answers on the matter.
What We Still Need To Know
How much did President Trump himself know about the meeting?
He has claimed to have only become aware of it very recently, at the same time as the rest of the nation, which is either a flat out falsehood or a sign of incompetence. We know from repeated statements from various members of the Trump family that they are very close. As such one is entitled to ask how likely it is that a meeting in Trump Tower with Trump’s son, his son-in-law, and his campaign manager, ostensibly about dirt on Hillary Clinton was never mentioned over the course of the following year. This is exacerbated by the fact that candidate Trump promised he would give a speech the week after the meeting was scheduled saying he would be “discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons”.
And on the off chance it is true that he didn’t know, why is he only just finding out about it now? He absolutely should have known about this meeting, unless they were trying to shield him from it.
What happened to the phone call between Emin Agalarov and Donald Trump Jr?
Mr Goldstone’s original stated purpose was to set up a phone call between Russian pop star Emin Agalarov about information his father had received with regard to Hillary Clinton. Trump Jr. said in his statement that this did not end up taking place, but there appears to be a gap in the e-mails where the conversation moves on with no obvious clue as to why. See the following exchange from June 6th, before the phone call was supposed to take place:
Rob Goldstone (12:40pm): Hi Don. Let me know when you are free to talk with Emin by phone about this Hillary info – you had mentioned early this week so wanted to try to schedule a time and day.
Donald Trump Jr. (3:03pm): rob could we speak now?
Rob Goldstone (3:37pm): Let me track him down in Moscow What number he could call?
Donald Trump Jr. (3:38pm): My cell thanks
Goldstone (3:43pm): Ok he’s on stage in Moscow but should be off within twenty minutes so I am sure can call
Donald Trump Jr. (4:38pm): Rob, thanks for the help. d
That gap of a little under an hour followed by a thank you from Trump Jr. certainly makes it seem as if a conversation may have taken place, a conversation which the Trump denied happened in his official statement on Twitter that accompanied the release of the emails. This, accompanied by the following e-mail on June 7th (the next day) from Mr Goldstone, implies that the conversation did continue, either by phone or some other medium away from this e-mail chain.
Goldstone (4:20pm): Don Hope all is well Emin asked that I schedule a meeting with you and The Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow this Thursday. I believe you are aware of the meeting – and so wondered if 3pm or later on Thursday works for you?
So, in the space of a little less than 24 hours, a meeting has been set up between “The Russian Government Attorney” [Natalia Veselnitskaya] and the Trump campaign, which both parties are aware of, and it all happened away from the e-mails that we know about.
So we would have to conclude that either there was a phone call that took place, or there are more e-mails with a third party where this meeting was arranged, or, much less likely, this meeting had been arranged for some time and just happened to coincide with the above conversation. We don’t know, but it’s certainly something that was overlooked in the furore over the ‘Russian government support’ line, and is probably worth looking at further.
What happened in the meeting?
Both Trump Jr. and Veselnitskaya have said nothing Clinton related was actually discussed in the meeting, and they actually talked about adoptions and the Magnitsky Act, which is essentially code for talking about sanctions.
According to Trump Jr, he became frustrated when no Clinton information was forthcoming, and the meeting was a relatively short and fruitless one on that front. But it would be interesting to know the detail of what they did talk about, as it is not insignificant. General Mike Flynn was forced to resign from his position as National Security Advisor for not being completely honest about a conversation about sanctions he had with the Russians, remember. This couldn’t happen to Trump Jr of course, as he has no title, but it may affect the fate of Kushner, who was also in the meeting and has an official position in the White House and still has security clearance.
What happens now?
We’ve moved very quickly in the news cycle this week. Mr Trump’s associates have gone from denying the meeting took place in the first place, to saying it was a meeting that came to nothing so it doesn’t matter, to saying it was merely opposition research and everybody does that. It’s farcical, frankly.
There has also been some debate among legal scholars as to whether what has happened is actually illegal, and there is no clear answer yet, though to me the question is more a political than a legal one.
Donald Trump is not going to be held to account by a lawyer. If anyone is going to hold the President to account it is the politicians that sit in the House and the Senate, who are supposed to be there partly for that very purpose.
They now have evidence from the President’s own son’s hands that he actively attempted to collude with a foreign adversary in order to influence the outcome of one of their fabled free and fair elections, and so far the response from the Republican Party has been pitiful. The bar has been lowered so much through the repeated stooping to excuse the bending, breaking, and snapping of norms that I fear the system of checks and balances is no longer relevant. After all, there’s no point checking and balancing something if you claim there is nothing wrong with it in the first place.
So if the current GOP is willing to turn aside while knowingly allowing an international rival to interfere in their beloved country’s elections, all to give a tax cut to the rich that would probably have more chance of succeeding under a President Mike Pence anyway, then good luck to them. And may history judge them cowards and hacks forevermore.
I despair, but can take comfort in the fact that this can only be the beginning. Remember, so far all we have to go on is what is publicly available. It is almost impossible to imagine everything that special prosecutor Bob Mueller has at his fingertips. The questions are only just beginning, and things could get a lot worse for Donald Trump Jr before they get better.
Benedict’s Brainworks is a series of op-ed columns written for kevinandbenedict.com You can read the rest of Benedict’s pieces here.