Donald J. Trump Jr. tied an implicating email chain around his throat this morning and jumped off the deep end of the pier. He’s not dead yet. Nor has a suicide note been found. But his demise is certain.
Junior’s leap came after several failed attempts to deceive the New York Times about the nature of his meeting with Kremlin-associated attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya in Trump Tower on June 9, 2016. First, Junior said the session’s topic was primarily Russian adoption. Then, he allowed that Veselnitskaya had dangled political information about Russian funding of the Democratic National Committee. Finally, on Tuesday, when he learned that the New York Times was about to publish the emails that organized the meeting, Junior preempted the paper by publishing them on Twitter “in order to be totally transparent,” as he put it.
The purpose of the meeting, as stated in emails to Junior by go-between Rob Goldstone, was to discuss “some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia.” A “Russian government attorney,” wrote Goldstone, would fly in from Moscow for the session. This correspondence makes an absolute mockery of the Trump campaign’s insistence it never cooperated with Russia during the 2016 campaign and taints everybody who attended the meeting or knew about it.
As young Trump descends to his final reward, who will follow him to his watery resting place? Will it be former Trump campaign chairman Paul J. Manafort? Or will it be brother-in-law, Jared Kushner? Both were invited via email—and attended—the meeting with Veselnitskaya.
As long as we’re getting aquatic, what did paterfamilias Donald Trump know about the meeting, and when did he know it? Thanks to the email chain, we know that Goldstone offered to share the “ultra sensitive” information to Trump Senior through his aide Rhona Graff. “The Rhona Graff stuff could open the Trump Org’s whole Rolodex and appointment calendar to prosecutors,” Trump biographer Timothy L. O’Brien tells me. Armed with subpoenas, prosecutors could solve the puzzle of what the president knew about the meeting—and determine who else inside Trump Tower knew about it.
By Tuesday afternoon, the president had inserted himself directly into the controversy with an exoneration-free defense of Junior. Read generously, Trump hinted that he’d sacrifice the boy if forced. “My son is a high quality person and I applaud his transparency,” he said through his deputy press secretary. If I were Junior, I’d hire several more attorneys.
The Veselnitskaya encounter perplexes on every level. Junior had to have considered the meeting a secret thing, a thing he could deny having attended. Why? Because he repeatedly lied about having ever cooperated with the Russians, calling the accusations “disgusting” and “so phony.”
But at the same time, Junior didn’t consider the meeting so secret he demanded a solo liaison with the Russian. Instead, he invited Manafort and Kushner to the session, looping them in on his deceit. Nor did he regard the meeting so secret that he took much of an effort to guard his communications. He set it up on email, with invitations to Manafort and Kushner, which left an electronic trail discernible to anybody on the chain or with access to it, or to eventual legal discovery. (According to a Saturday report in the Times, Manafort “disclosed the meeting, and Donald J. Trump Jr.’s role in organizing it, to congressional investigators who had questions about his foreign contacts.”) Was this sloppy campaign tradecraft on Junior’s part or stupidity? Or both?
Junior has hired a lawyer, but is he taking his advice? Earlier this week, he brushed off Times coverage with lame tweets: “The Times ‘exposé’ on Donald Trump Jr. is a big yawn” and “Obviously I’m the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent.” Next, he released the emails, essentially retracting those tweets. Tonight, he’s slotted to appear on the sympathetic forum that is Hannity to plead his case. By arguing his case so publicly, O’Brien writes today, the son has pinched the father’s act, rushing into the media fire rather than retreating for cover.
Can the technique work for the son the way it has for the father? It’s doubtful. Plausible lies flow out of the old man’s mouth like snow-melt off a glacier. When he walks into the media fire he brings a lifetime of hoodwinkery with him. He excels at changing the subject, at interrupting himself, at filling the air with unexplained contradictions, and at taking strategic umbrage to bamboozle his interlocutors. He has a political base that would continue to support him if he was caught in flagrante delicto with a goat. Junior can boast none of that. And based on the recent evidence, whenever he attempts damage control, he only does more damage to his case.
The best way to place the brakes on a political scandal is to find a fall guy or two. The way events are breaking, Donald J. Trump Jr. could be the president’s best hope, with son-in-law Jared his second-best hope, and Manafort no hope at all. As a son, Junior is likely to remain loyal to his father, protect and defend him to the end, and absorb as much of the legal pummeling as possible as his sinks into the abyss.
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