Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: The collusion case heats up (a lot)


UPDATE at 11:30 a.m.:

Donald Trump Jr. has released the email chain between himself and Rob Goldstone, who set up the June 2016 meeting. Here's the portion of the chain in which Trump is told that the requested information about Hillary Clinton is coming from the highest levels of the Russian government, as part of the Russian government's commitment to support the Trump campaign.

In his response to the above email, also posted just now on Twitter, Trump Jr. says that "if it's what you say, I love it, especially later this summer." In short, he explicitly requests the assistance of the Russian government in unearthing intelligence against Hillary Clinton.

Note also that his father is mentioned as someone who might be brought into the discussion. I suppose that we're now at the phase in which Republicans concede there might have been collusion, but hey, what's wrong with that!?

UPDATE at 2:45 p.m.

There's something else subtle yet striking in the email exchange cited above. Trump Jr. is being informed that the Russian government not only supports his father's election but is willing to take active measures to help. Yet he does not respond with the slightest degree of shock or surprise to what should have been a major revelation. It's as if he was already fully aware of Russian support, as if it were already part of his understanding of the world.

That's telling.

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On Saturday, news broke in the New York Times about a previously undisclosed meeting between top figures in the Trump campaign and a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer. The primary topic of that June 2016 meeting, at least as Donald Trump Jr. first told it?

"We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at that time and there was no follow up,” the junior Trump explained.

The other party in that meeting, attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, confirmed that version of events. "Nothing at all was discussed about the presidential campaign,” she told the Times.

Yet it seemed odd.

Why would the junior Trump, Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort all take time in the midst of a hard-fought campaign to meet with somebody they didn't know, to talk about such an obscure topic? The question gets more interesting when you learn that adoptions of Russian children by American parents had been ended by Vladimir Putin in retaliation for U.S. economic sanctions placed against some of Putin's buddies. So what they were really talking about was those sanctions.

Unable to answer such questions, Trump Jr. changed his story within a day. He now acknowledged that he and his colleagues had agreed to the meeting at Trump Tower because Veselnitskaya had claimed to possess derogatory information about Hillary Clinton. He also said that the lawyer's claim had proved false, that she delivered no such information.

Then, on Monday evening, the story took yet another turn. We learned that the Trump campaign had been told beforehand in an email that the derogatory information it sought was coming from the Russian government, yet it chose to pursue the meeting anyway.

Suddenly, what the Trump camp had dismissed as a “nothing burger” of a story had become two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.

So let's sit down and think this through:

If Russian sources come to you, suggesting that the Russian government can provide you dirt on a presidential opponent and former secretary of state, what are you saying when you agree to the meeting? You are saying that you are ready to use such material, without regard to its source.

Do you pause to consider the means -- most probably espionage -- by which such information would have ended up in the hands of the Russian government? Do you care how it was acquired? Do you wonder why the Russian government might be so willing to take your side in the campaign? More importantly, if you take and use such information, as Trump Jr., Manafort and Kushner were apparently willing to do, haven't you placed yourself in secret debt to Putin and the Russian government? Don't they now have leverage on you as well?

Officials from a broad spectrum of past presidential campaigns, Republican as well as Democratic, have unanimously recoiled at the idea of accepting or seeking such information from such a source. Offered such a meeting, they all say they would have placed an immediate phone call to the FBI instead. The Trump campaign took a different course.

In the latest version told by Trump Jr., the meeting was considered important enough that the eldest son, the favorite son-in-law and the top campaign official for Donald Trump were all in attendance, yet Trump himself was never told about the meeting, nor was he told about the delicious possibility of derogatory information about the hated Hillary.

That might be possible; it just doesn't sound plausible. Sequestering such information from the elder Trump would require a degree of discipline, compartmentalization and professionalism that the campaign showed no sign of possessing in other contexts. And a month after this meeting, remember, Trump publicly sought Russia's assistance in attacking Clinton.

“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he told a press conference in July, adding that “They probably have them. I’d like to have them released.” When asked whether he had any compunction about using such information, Trump said he did not. “No, it gives me no pause," he said. "If they have them, they have them.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, investigators are also tugging at another thread, in which a long-time Republican operative named Peter Smith attempted to link up with Russian hackers to gain dirt against Clinton. In seeking that information, the elderly Smith claimed to have had close ties to Michael Flynn. And while Smith has since died, Flynn faces significant legal exposure and may be cooperating with prosecutors.

What does it all mean? The evidence made public to date certainly suggests that a mutual courtship was taking place between Russia and the Trump campaign, with each side reaching out to the other side in various fashions. Whether that courtship was ever consummated remains an open question. As I've said all along, the possibility of actual collusion has seemed low, with the most damning evidence of guilt being the guilty way that Trump and his team have reacted.

You know, firing the FBI director in hopes of stopping an investigation. Refusing to accept the finding of our intelligence agencies that Russian intervention had occurred. An ongoing eagerness to court Putin's favor. Things like that. It's also interesting that as of Tuesday morning, President Trump continues to maintain a total and uncharacteristic Twitter silence on his son's situation. For some reason, the perpetually barking dog isn't barking.

For those who want to read further, I highly recommend this analysis of how campaign finance law could be applied to this case, and why Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort might already face significant legal trouble. It was written by Bob Bauer, White House counsel to Barack Obama from 2010-2011, so it's fair to keep that in mind, but it reads as a dispassionate, expert assessment of the facts and the law, laying out the basis on which prosecution could proceed.

This is a long way from over.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.