The most pressing question of our time might be: How bad is it?
As a candidate and now as President, Donald Trump has smashed the gauges that once tracked the normal temperature, pressure and wind speed in the climate map of American politics. Now when it feels like the barometer is plunging, we can only watch and wonder: Who can predict what’s coming next, with so many broken indicators?
Yet certain old ways survive. Like a farmer forecasting the weather by the ache in his knee, Washington has a feeling that this storm could be a monster. And the twinge that forecast the deluge was Donald Trump Jr. facing a camera and issuing what sounded a little like an apology. Which is an ominous sign in an Administration that means never having to say you’re sorry.
A bombshell report in the New York Times revealed the junior Trump’s enthusiastic response to “obviously very high level and sensitive” morsels supposedly collected by the Kremlin–a report so accurate that the young Trump shared the proof himself on Twitter rather than try the #FakeNews dodge. Then the President’s eldest son paid a visit to Fox News host Sean Hannity’s show. For Trumpers in trouble, this is like a grounded child serving detention at Grandpa’s house. He frowns, then spins a better excuse than the child could ever create alone, followed by ice cream.
Even in that gentle setting, Trump Jr. felt a need to drop the nonstop offense of brand Trump. “In retrospect,” he said, “I probably would have done things a little differently.”
So, how bad is it? Investigators in Congress and the Justice Department have miles to go before determining whether President Trump or his son, son-in-law or advisers cooperated–or even conspired–with Russian officials to tilt the outcome of last year’s election. But this much is now clear, thanks to Trump Jr.’s Twitter stream: whether the Trumps teamed up with the Russians or not, they certainly wanted to. And that overrides the months of denials from the Trump orbit that there was anything to what the President has repeatedly called a “witch hunt.” When Trump Jr. was asked on July 24, 2016, about Democratic claims that Russia was trying to help the Trump campaign, he responded with unmitigated outrage on CNN. “It’s disgusting. It’s so phony,” he said. “I can’t think of bigger lies.”
He now admits that he knew of purported Russian attempts to help his father weeks earlier. In fact, he tried to make it happen. The proof is in an email chain, with the subject line: “Russia – Clinton – private and confidential.” It involved Trump Jr., who shared it with both Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and former campaign manager Paul Manafort. Whether they read what he sent them is a matter of some dispute, but the email managed to gather all three men for a meeting. The campaign was in furious swing, yet these inner-circle advisers hosted a visitor from Moscow at Trump Tower. She was said to be conveying dirt on Hillary Clinton, compliments of the Kremlin. The tipster who arranged the meeting promised the younger Trump that they could expect “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” And in case that wasn’t clear enough, he added, “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” He said it had been passed by Russia’s “Crown prosecutor” just that morning. To which Trump Jr. replied, “If it’s what you say I love it.”
So much for White House efforts to deny a Russia problem. At the time of the meeting last June, Manafort–later resigned over his financial ties to Russia and its loyalists in Ukraine–was still riding high. Donald Trump, the billionaire giant killer of primary season was struggling to assume the mantle of presumptive GOP nominee, raise money for the general election and transform his campaign from chaos to clout, all while the party’s Never Trumpers hunted feverishly for a miracle to stop the takeover. Just hours after the Russia meeting was scheduled, candidate Trump announced to the world that he was drafting a “major speech” to make public “all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons.”
Trump Jr. acknowledged on Twitter that he took the meeting in hopes of mining the dirt, but says he instead received a dreary lecture on issues of Russian adoption from an empty-handed lawyer, along with some vague claims about donors to the Democratic National Committee. The meeting “went nowhere but had to listen,” he typed; later he assured Hannity that he had left Dad out of the episode entirely, a claim echoed by White House officials. Kushner maintains that he failed to read to the bottom of the email invitation to the meeting, so he did not understand the Russian promise it contained. “It was on the fourth page of a forwarded conversation,” said a source familiar with Kushner’s knowledge.
What actually happened is a mystery for special counsel Robert Mueller to unravel. What may matter more in the meantime, though, is what the three men did not do. Unlike the President and his spokespeople, these key insiders never dismissed the offer of “very high level” Russian “support” as phony or fake. On the contrary, the prospect of Russian assistance was real enough to pull three very busy men into a Trump Tower office to meet with a messenger from Moscow. They also failed to report the alleged effort of a foreign power to influence the election. Kushner failed even to report the meeting on his initial security-clearance application.
Again: How bad is it? The entire 2016 race was a test of shifting standards. In that sour season of deeply unpopular candidates, millions of people undoubtedly felt that stopping Clinton was a cause so important that they could countenance any number of strange alliances. Likewise, there were millions who, in the waning days of the campaign, clicked happily on a salacious dossier of anti-Trump material gathered by gumshoes in an effort to stop him.
But while partisanship is one thing, Russia has long been an entirely different matter. From Damascus to Turtle Bay, from oil fields to outer space, Russia is a fierce rival of the U.S. and has been for generations. What politician jumps in bed with Russia? Whether overt or covert, Moscow’s stance toward Washington runs a short, troubling gamut from mischievous to hostile. “Russia is the one country that could physically destroy America,” former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer noted in a Brookings Institution paper published last October. For advisers to a would-be President to take at face value an offer of clandestine assistance from Moscow is foolish at best, reckless for sure and potentially treasonous in the worst-case scenario.
Maybe this is what it means to elect a billionaire dealmaker to the White House. Trump has promised to put “America first.” But in this episode, the guiding mind-set seems, at best, to be a very strange, postnational wheeler-dealerism. The juicy fruit dangled in front of Trump Jr. was supposedly passed from the Kremlin’s chief prosecutor to a real estate oligarch named Aras Agalarov. He has been a pal of the Trumps ever since the future President staged a Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013. Known as “Putin’s builder” for his close ties to the Russian leader, Agalarov proposed a partnership to construct a Trump-branded skyscraper in the Russian capital, and he remained in touch with the new President even after the deal fell through. Agalarov also had well-established ties to Yuri Chaika, Russia’s prosecutor general since 2006, and publicly came to Chaika’s defense against corruption claims in 2015.
Agalarov’s son Emin, a pop star in Russia for whom Trump once appeared in a music video, is on a first-name basis with Trump Jr. It was Emin who first asked for the meeting–via his publicist, a Fleet Street veteran of Britain’s rough-and-tumble tabloids named Rob Goldstone. Although Emin did not wind up at Trump Tower (instead, the visitor was a connected attorney named Natalia Veselnitskaya), the overall picture was a series of transactions, from mogul to mogul, heir to heir, Moscow to London to Manhattan. Borders vanish when you’re looking down from a private jet at cruising altitude.
But with Congressional committees at work and with Mueller bulking up his staff at the Justice Department, questions of patriotism may pale beside questions of legal and political jeopardy. In 1974, before Trump had built his first tower or Trump Jr. had drawn his first breath, Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas explained in a silky drawl the reasoning behind his proposed ban on international support for U.S. political campaigns. “I am saying that contributions by foreign nationals are wrong,” Bentsen honeyed, “and they have no place in the American political system.”
Over the years, the Bentsen amendment has been interpreted to ban many types of information sharing, on grounds that information is itself a thing of value. For example, the Federal Election Commission ruled in a 1990 case that polling data can be a thing of value if shared with a campaign. Legal experts are split on the question of whether Trump Jr. could be charged with conspiring to break Bentsen’s law by accepting anti-Clinton research–a thing of value to the Trump campaign–even if the supposed research was never, in fact, delivered.
One skeptic is Jan Baran, an expert on campaign laws at the firm of Wiley Rein. For many years, he notes, federal regulations have permitted foreign nationals to volunteer on U.S. campaigns, and in this case the Agalarovs might simply be volunteers who offered to carry “documents and information” that they picked up at no cost. So where is the foul? “Everyone’s upset that Don Jr. met with Russians, but I don’t see where there’s a violation of campaign-finance laws, let alone a conspiracy to violate those laws,” Baran says.
Other theories of legal peril lurk outside of campaign law. Perhaps Trump Jr. violated the ancient Logan Act, a relic of the 18th century that forbids “intercourse with any foreign government” in connection with “disputes or controversies with the United States.” Would it matter that no one has been convicted under the law in more than 200 years?
Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia and Clinton’s running mate, raised the stakes further by saying that these fresh revelations move the Russia investigation into the realms of “perjury, false statements and even, potentially, treason.” The first two crimes on his list might apply to Kushner, who had to fill out a form disclosing contacts with foreign officials as part of the screening process for security clearance for an official White House position. If he could be shown to have omitted the meeting with the Russian lawyer on purpose, he could be vulnerable. (Kushner’s attorney says he failed to initially disclose foreign contacts because his form was submitted prematurely. A source familiar with the situation says he later amended the form with the contacts he remembered, and amended it again after an internal review uncovered the June 2016 email.) Neither Trump Jr. nor Manafort was subject to the vetting.
Treason, meanwhile, is an extremely hard case to make. Only about 30 Americans in the history of the country have been charged with it. The only crime defined in the Constitution, treason is limited to “levying war” against the U.S., “adhering to their enemies” or “giving [those enemies] aid and comfort.” The attempted hanky-panky at Trump Tower is not likely to meet that test.
A more plausible charge is obstruction of justice–and here the President himself might be vulnerable. As investigators dig deeper into all things Russia-related, they might find explanations for some of Trump’s seemingly erratic decisions. Why did he praise former FBI director James Comey publicly, allegedly court his loyalty privately and then fire him so abruptly? Why did Trump encourage the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails, then deny evidence that Russian hacking took place? Was he trying to derail or divert the investigation? Even if he was, can a President be indicted for thwarting an investigation when his executive authority clearly includes the Justice Department?
Such questions may explain why one of Mueller’s first hires is an expert in constitutional law and the limits of executive power. Mueller, who was for a dozen years the director of the FBI, has been summoned back to the Justice Department to riddle out his own version of the question “How bad is it?” So far he isn’t saying.
Beyond the legal implications lies the political damage, which will be tallied over time. Trump had just returned from a trip to Europe when the latest bad news broke, blotting out coverage of his speech defending Western values in Poland and casting a jaundiced light on his first meeting with Putin. With his agenda bottled up in Congress by the cork of an unpopular health care bill, Trump may be losing any ability to focus political attention on matters of his choosing. Few elected Republicans were willing to defend the Trump camp when the email chain went public.
Their silence pointed to the one measuring stick that Trump hasn’t yet broken: the voters. The year 2016–the year of Trump’s unexpected victory–is receding as quickly as 2018 approaches, and members of the GOP must decide how closely to embrace their party’s leader in their next campaigns. This is a delicate calculation. Polling suggests a deepening determination among core Republicans to shut out what they’re hearing from established institutions. Strong majorities on the right express skepticism, not just of the media but also of many government agencies, colleges and universities. For them, the sound of established authorities howling over the emails might as well be music.
But polls also make it clear that core Republicans are not a majority in the U.S. Trump’s nationwide job approval remains stuck at about 40%. If you think of elected officials as a needle wobbling between the GOP base and persuadable independents, you can watch them to see how much political damage is being done. So far, special elections in places like Georgia, Kansas and South Carolina have shown the needle tilting away from Trump, but not enough to lose him any Republican Congressmen.
Inside the White House, the mood was, once again, weary and grim. The President dropped from public view, surfacing briefly to praise his son as “a high-quality person” and to tweet his approval of Trump Jr.’s Hannity appearance. “My son Donald did a good job last night. He was open, transparent and innocent.”
Sources describe the President as “frustrated” by the Russia mire–his millions of online followers could tell you that–and he continues to be unwilling to recognize that his impetuous and improvisational actions are partly to blame. It was his choice to praise Putin throughout the campaign, his whim to suggest that the Russians should hack Clinton’s email, his decision to hire figures as Manafort and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and his impulse to fire Comey after a meeting in which the former FBI director says the President asked him to dial down a part of the investigation.
Instead, Trump is said to have turned on his lawyers, blaming longtime personal attorney Marc Kasowitz for the team’s failure to put an end to his woes. Adding to their burden, the lawyers have been hamstrung by a deliberate decision inside the White House to avoid an internal investigation. Fearing the bad odor that news of an inquiry could create, the Administration has not asked individual staffers to produce lists of their contacts with Russians during the campaign and transition. Such lists are an invitation to nitpicking by the press and investigators, one White House official noted, but the alternative is no better. Without asking for lists, the Administration is flying blind, unsure whether their own statements will prove true, just waiting for the next shoe to drop.
Trump’s attorneys, meanwhile, hope they have enough remaining credibility with the President to drive home just how perilous his predicament has become for him. The incriminating interplay between his son and a potential business partner in Russia points Mueller ever deeper into the guts of the Trump Organization, which Trump Jr. now runs with his brother Eric. In hopes of limiting the damage, the lawyers, not to mention some White House staff members, would love to shut down Trump’s Twitter–but he made it clear in remarks to the New York Times Magazine that this will never happen. “It’s my voice,” he said. “They’re not going to take away my social media.”
It all adds up, in the words of a senior Administration official, to a “sh-tstorm” that no White House staffer even tries to deny. The #FakeNews defense won’t work when the Trump family is the one tweeting the potentially incriminating emails. And all of Washington has awakened to the fact that the Russia issue has spiraled beyond anyone’s control. There are too many investigations and too many targets–each with his own interests to protect and his own team of attorneys to protect them–and too many enemies created by Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop style. It’s not a question anymore of putting them all in a box and shutting the lid. It’s only a question of how bad it will get.
–With reporting by MASSIMO CALABRESI, ZEKE J. MILLER, MICHAEL SCHERER/WASHINGTON and SIMON SHUSTER/BERLIN
This appears in the July 24, 2017 issue of News time.