The Damage Done

Old movies are a comfort. In 1954 there was Billy Wilder’s Sabrina – with Audrey Hepburn as the original manic-pixie-dream-girl. She’s the honest and authentic wide-eyed waif that blows away the cobwebs. Late in the film she tells Humphrey Bogart – as the stuffy cutthroat businessman Linus Larrabee – that “Paris is always a good idea.” His heart melts, or he gets in touch with his inner child, or he discovers his true self that was hidden all along, or something. The two of them head for Paris. Fade to black – and in 1942 it was Casablanca where Humphrey Bogart comforts a distraught Ingrid Bergman, telling her “We’ll always have Paris.” She gets it. Whatever happens next, for a brief time, things were perfect for them both, in that perfect city. That happened. No one can take that away from her – and they part, but not really. Fade to black.

Paris is always a good idea. President Trump is about to head for Paris. Emmanuel Macron invited him for the Bastille Day celebrations – the big military parade down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées – fireworks and a big state dinner – dancing in the streets. Melania – the former fashion model – can do some shopping on Rue Saint-Honoré. That’s her milieu – to use the French word. Sure, Macron mocked Donald Trump at the NATO summit with that absurdly manly long and aggressive handshake. Trump was puzzled. He was supposed to be the manly one. He didn’t get the joke. And sure, after Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, Macron released a video addressing the American people directly, in English. Come join us here in France. We can “make the planet great again” – which wasn’t very nice. Macron also dressed down Vladimir Putin, face to face at Versailles, telling Putin to cut the crap – don’t deny you messed around in the French election. Putin was stunned. Trump would never do such a thing. Macron showed Trump how it’s done.

All of that might mean that Paris isn’t always a good idea, but a day or two with the whip-smart dynamic incredibly young rising star on the other side of things – not an authoritarian blood-and-soil nationalist at all – an internationalist free-trade and fix-the-planet guy – has to be better than hanging around muggy Washington in the middle of July.

Things fell apart in Washington. The talk of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians wasn’t fake news. It wasn’t a hoax invented by the Democrats to shift the blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss away from her. All the investigations aren’t witch-hunts. No one’s hunting witches. Something quite real seems to be going on. Maybe there was no proof of anything. Donald Trump kept saying that – a sensible but narrow defense – but suddenly there was proof:

The June 3, 2016, email sent to Donald Trump Jr. could hardly have been more explicit: One of his father’s former Russian business partners had been contacted by a senior Russian government official and was offering to provide the Trump campaign with dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The documents “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father,” read the email, written by a trusted intermediary, who added, “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

If the future president’s eldest son was surprised or disturbed by the provenance of the promised material – or the notion that it was part of a continuing effort by the Russian government to aid his father’s campaign – he gave no indication.

He replied within minutes: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

And that led to this:

Four days later, after a flurry of emails, the intermediary wrote back, proposing a meeting in New York on Thursday with a “Russian government attorney.”

Donald Trump Jr. agreed, adding that he would most likely bring along “Paul Manafort (campaign boss)” and “my brother-in-law,” Jared Kushner, now one of the president’s closest White House advisers.

On June 9, the Russian lawyer was sitting in the younger Mr. Trump’s office on the 25th floor of Trump Tower, just one level below the office of the future president.

The News York Times had done it again. They had the emails, so there wasn’t much that could be done now:

After being told that The Times was about to publish the content of the emails, instead of responding to a request for comment, Donald Trump Jr. posted images of them on Tuesday on Twitter.

“To everyone, in order to be totally transparent, I am releasing the entire email chain of my emails” about the June 9 meeting, he wrote. “I first wanted to just have a phone call but when that didn’t work out, they said the woman would be in New York and asked if I would meet.”

He added that nothing came of it. But in an interview on Tuesday with Fox News’s Sean Hannity, he said that “in retrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently.”

At a White House briefing earlier Tuesday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy press secretary, referred questions about the meeting to Donald Trump Jr.’s counsel, but read a statement from the president in which he called his son “a high-quality person.”

That’s it? The White House is still working on a response. There must be a way to blame Hillary Clinton for this, or Barack Obama. Wait for it.

Jonathan Chait sees no need to wait:

Not long ago, it was fashionable for pundits to assert there was no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. That line was shaky at the time, and has been quickly blown to smithereens. We have gone from evidence of collusion to proof, with emails establishing the campaign’s clear interest in accepting Moscow’s help to win the election.

This isn’t rocket-science:

This is a very simple test of the common English understanding of the term “collusion.” Your campaign is told that Russia wants to help you win the election. (“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”) If you refuse to take the meeting, or perhaps take it only to angrily tell your interlocutor you want no part of the project, then it isn’t collusion. If you take the meeting on the proposed terms, you are colluding. If somehow the information on offer turned out to have no value, and the contacts went no farther, then the meeting was ineffectual collusion. But Donald Trump Jr.’s response clearly indicates that he accepted the meeting in order to collude. (“If it’s what you say I love it.”)

This is the scope of the unresolved question now. How much collusion happened?

Chait suggests this much:

There is The Wall Street Journal reporting from June, which shows both a Republican staffer identifying himself as working for Michael Flynn trying to acquire stolen Democratic emails from Russia, and Russians working to get stolen emails to Flynn. There is also the Washington Post report from May revealing that Jared Kushner tried to establish a secret communications channel with Russia during the transition.

The revelatory emails suggest other possible channels of collusion. One email from Goldstone states, “I can send this info to your father via Rhona” – presumably Rhona Graff, Donald Trump’s personal assistant – thereby implying that President Trump may have received the information himself, and not merely through his aides. (Also, Rhona should probably hire a lawyer, if she hasn’t already.) It’s also noteworthy that Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner attended the meeting with a lawyer Trump Jr. identified as a “Russian government attorney” that was specifically dedicated to collusion.

Then there are the general matters:

Trump has, and many of his close advisers have, lied repeatedly about their contacts with Russia. Many of his norm-breaking actions – from the refusal to disclose the tax returns that would reveal the extent of his ties to, or dependence upon, Moscow, to his firing of Preet Bharara and James Comey – can be most rationally explained as a desire to cover the story up.

On a broader plane, Trump is a swindler who partners with mobsters and has built his life around the ethos that the logic of winning overpowers any other morality. The most sinister versions of the collusion scenario have been treated as unlikely or paranoid hypotheses. But it is the explanation most consistent with distinct sleaziness that defines Trump and which he has always looked for in his partners, from Roy Cohn to Manafort.

To imagine that Trump might have had the chance to benefit politically from Russian espionage, and turned it down out of a sense of responsibility, is the unlikeliest scenario of all.

That’s a bit harsh, because it seems so true, but Donald Trump is who he is. So is his son. Everyone needs to deal with that, but Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker report on how hard that is:

The White House has been thrust into chaos after days of ever-worsening revelations about a meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a lawyer characterized as representing the Russian government, as the president fumes against his enemies and senior aides circle one another with suspicion, according to top White House officials and outside advisers.

President Trump – who has been hidden from public view since returning last weekend from a divisive international summit – is enraged that the Russia cloud still hangs over his presidency and is exasperated that his eldest son and namesake has become engulfed by it, said people who have spoken with him this week.

These are tough times:

Even supporters of Trump Jr. who believe he faces no legal repercussions privately acknowledged Tuesday that the story is a public relations disaster – for him as well as for the White House. One outside ally called it a “Category 5 hurricane,” while an outside adviser said a CNN graphic charting connections between the Trump team and Russians resembled the plot of the fictional Netflix series “House of Cards.”

Even Vice President Pence sought to distance himself from the controversy, with his spokesman noting that Trump Jr.’s meeting occurred before Pence joined the ticket.

Okay, let the infighting begin:

The makeup of Trump’s inner circle is the subject of internal debate, as ever. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser; Jared Kushner, her husband and another senior adviser; and first lady Melania Trump have been privately pressing the president to shake up his team – most specifically by replacing Reince Priebus as the White House chief of staff, according to two senior White House officials and one ally close to the White House.

The three family members are especially concerned about the steady stream of unauthorized leaks to journalists that have plagued the administration over the nearly six months that President Trump has been in office, from sensitive national security information to embarrassing details about the inner workings of the White House, the officials said.

Someone inside the White House is leaking and they don’t know who, and that led to an odd echo from the past:

The mind-set of Trump Jr. over the past few days has evolved from distress to anger to defiance, according to people close to him. He hired a criminal defense attorney but maintains that he is innocent of any wrongdoing. After his tweets commenting on the matter drew scrutiny, he agreed to his first media interview – with his friend Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity on his show on Tuesday night.

One friend of Trump Jr.’s said the presidential son saw the Hannity appearance as an opportunity to give his version of Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, a 1952 address in which the then-vice-presidential candidate defended himself against accusations of financial improprieties.

Ah, those were the days! But there is the counter-conspiracy ploy:

A handful of Republican operatives close to the White House are scrambling to Trump Jr.’s defense and have begun what could be an extensive campaign to try to discredit some of the journalists who have been reporting on the matter.

Their plan, as one member of the team described it, is to research the reporters’ previous work, in some cases going back years, and to exploit any mistakes or perceived biases. They intend to demand corrections, trumpet errors on social media and feed them to conservative outlets, such as Fox News.

But one outside adviser said a campaign against the press when it comes to Trump Jr.’s meeting could be futile: “The meeting happened. It’s tough to go to war with the facts.”

And there’s this:

In the West Wing, meanwhile, fear of the Mueller probe effectively paralyzed senior staffers as they struggled to respond.

Josh Dawsey at Politico tells a similar tale:

White House aides feel blindsided by the bombshell revelations around Donald Trump Jr.’s campaign meeting with a Russian lawyer, while the president is using his relatively light schedule to watch TV and fume about the latest scandal, according to interviews with half a dozen White House officials and advisers.

Unlike prior Russia-related controversies, the White House is not minimizing the political ramifications of Trump’s eldest son’s decision to meet with the Kremlin-linked lawyer after being offered information that he was told would “incriminate” Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

But top West Wing aides are exasperated by their limited ability to steer the damage control and the risk that more damaging news has yet to emerge.

There’s no good way out of this, and this was inevitable:

One Trump adviser said the White House was “essentially helpless” because the conduct happened during an “anything goes” campaign that had few rules. This person said he had spoken to several people in the White House on Tuesday and that “none of them knew anything about Donald Trump Jr.’s meetings,” despite the fact that top adviser Jared Kushner was also present for the controversial Trump Tower sit-down.

Many of the White House aides had previously dismissed the Russia stories as “conspiracy bullshit,” this person said, but that this development was not being dismissed as that.

Maybe it is time to head to Paris:

One White House aide said the president’s light public schedule was a function of his upcoming trip to France on Wednesday – and that “it makes sense that you have a couple days off between the one last week and this one.”

But a second official said Trump’s schedule was unusually light – and that he had been watching TV news and venting about the investigation.

That’s dangerous. Strange tweets will follow – but the father is not the problem:

Others in the White House have been more explicit about their frustration with Trump Jr., who served as an adviser and surrogate for Trump’s campaign but has no official role in his father’s administration. Instead, he and his brother Eric Trump have taken over the day-to-day operations of the Trump Organization.

Some in the West Wing have seen Trump Jr.’s defenses – including his decision to post the damning email chain setting up the meeting – as tone deaf and naive about the political ramifications, according to a White House official.

And since Trump Jr. is not a White House employee and is represented by his own lawyer, the White House communications operation has had to take a back seat, while holding its breath for the next batch of revelations.

What the core issue will be going forward, the Trump adviser said, is that the “Russia story will get worse and worse, and you can’t just really say anymore, ‘fake news.'”

This person said the White House has “very little to no role” in coordinating a response.

And there’s that other matter:

White House aides and advisers also spent part of the day guessing who was leaking – and what their motivation was.

Trump Jr. had looped in then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and senior adviser Jared Kushner to the email chain, and included them in the meeting with the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, at Trump Tower.

“There are only a few names on those emails,” one person close to the White House said. “And it would have to be someone out to get the president’s son.”

There’s a general feeling of paranoia in the West Wing about who leaked details of the meeting, with speculation that it may have come from within the White House.

But one White House aide said, “There’s no way to know.”

The president broods and shouts at the television. Everyone else in the White House is worried about everyone else in the White House – someone is messing things up. People will be pointing fingers soon. Say little. Say nothing. Hide. Forget about getting anything done.

Ezra Klein sums up the situation:

The best defense of Trump’s associates, at this point, is they were too dumb to know what they were doing – a defense that doesn’t work when it includes experienced international operators like campaign manager Paul Manafort and ex-Defense Intelligence Agency Director Michael Flynn. Donald Trump Jr.’s own defense of himself is that he attempted to collude with Russian agents but they didn’t have any useful information and so he didn’t. This is no defense at all – even if it is true, Trump Jr. may well have committed a crime.

What’s more, we know for a fact that the Russian hacking of Democratic files happened, that it was successful, and that Trump has stubbornly resisted efforts to admit or investigate Russia’s intervention into the campaign while repeatedly praising Putin. We also know Trump has, since taking office, undermined the NATO alliance while cozying up to Putin – the two of them joked about their shared dislike for the American media at the G20 last week and pledged to work together on cybersecurity.

This isn’t just smoke. We can see the damage done by the fire.

There is real damage:

The most important fact about Trump Jr.’s meeting is that Manafort and Kushner were there. Absent their involvement, this may have just been Trump Jr. entertaining himself. But Manafort and Kushner were Trump’s campaign manager and key consigliere, respectively. Their presence suggests the Trump campaign was keenly interested in this kind of collusion, though we don’t yet know whether it actually happened.

It was only days after Trump Jr.’s meeting that Trump himself publicly asked Russian hackers to find and release Clinton’s missing emails. Under criticism, Trump played off the comments as a joke, but it seems plausible that there was a theory floating around the campaign that Russian hackers had breached Clinton’s files and could reveal information that would devastate her campaign.

Currently, the White House is saying Trump only learned of his son’s meeting in the past few days. So the going defense of the president is this: His son, his son-in-law, and his campaign manager met with Russian operatives to try to obtain dirt on Clinton – potentially both committing a crime and giving the Russians leverage over the candidate – and no one bothered to ask Trump whether this was a good idea. As with many of Trumpworld’s excuses, it’s hard to know whether it’s more damning if it’s true or if it’s false.

It’s hard to know anything now:

One theory of Russia’s involvement in the election is they never expected to elect Trump – they just wanted to sow doubt in America’s institutions and its leaders. Look how easily and wildly they succeeded.

Now what? President Trump really does need to spend a few days in Paris. Maybe he can ask that young fellow, Macron, how to do this “president” thing. Paris is always a good idea.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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