In a White House press conference last week, the head of the U.S. intelligence community was asked about the impact of President Trump’s discussions with Vladimir Putin during a recent summit in Finland.
"I’m not in a position to either understand fully or talk about what happened in Helsinki," Dan Coats told reporters.
And why is Coats “not in a position” to understand such things when in fact, his position requires him to understand such things, when his job of protecting America requires that he do so?
Because no other American official was allowed to be in that room while Putin met with Trump -- not the U.S. secretary of state, not the U.S. national security adviser, not Coats, the head of U.S. intelligence agencies. Even now, several weeks after that meeting, top U.S. government officials have no real idea what took place there. If Coats wants to know what occurred -- and I’m sure he does -- he is pretty much reduced to working sources within the Russian government, because he has been effectively frozen out by his own president.
Think about that, because even viewed in isolation it is extraordinary. I cannot think of a parallel in American diplomatic history.
However, when placed into its context, the situation becomes more extraordinary still. In Helsinki, Trump met in secrecy from his own government with the man who launched an attack on the U.S. electoral process to try to get Trump elected. That is not a point of contention -- that is a well-documented fact. As Putin himself acknowledged in Helsinki, with Trump standing beside him, the Russian leader was quite happy to see Trump get elected, for reasons that have since become obvious.
(It is also worth noting that this was not a one-off. Immediately after Trump’s surprise victory, son-in-law Jared Kushner met privately with Russia’s ambassador and asked to establish a secret back-channel to the Kremlin, via secure Russian communications systems, through which Trump could communicate with our foe without detection by anyone else in the U.S. government. That too was without precedent.)
And then of course there’s all this:
During the campaign and presidential transition, Trump and his top staff repeatedly and emphatically denied that they had had any contacts with the Russian government or Russian nationals.
“Of course not,” Mike Pence said. “Why would there be any contacts between the campaign?”
“It never happened,” Hope Hicks said. “There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.”
“Absolutely not, and I discussed that with the president-elect just last night,” Kellyanne Conway said. “Those conversations never happened.”
Yet as we have learned since, those conversations did happen. They happened multiple times, in multiple places, with multiple Russian officials and multiple campaign officials. They happened in Trump Tower, in Washington, in Moscow, at the GOP convention in Cleveland, at an NRA convention, in Europe and Dubai and via email and telephone and Twitter and WikiLeaks. Two Trump officials have confessed to lying to the FBI about those contacts, and face prison time for doing so.
In setting up one such meeting, this one at Trump Tower, Donald Trump Jr. was explicitly offered “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary ... and would be very useful to your father,” and that “this is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump.”
To which Trump Jr. responded not with surprise at the offer of Russian help, but with glee:
“If it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
Remember, this is a meeting that according to the Trump camp had never occurred, with an outraged Trump Jr. publicly calling such allegations “disgusting.” “It just goes to show you their exact moral compass,” Trump Jr. said of those making such claims. “I mean, they will say anything to be able to win this. I mean, this is time and time again, lie after lie.”
Lie after lie. They lied about whether such meetings occurred. When those lies failed, they lied about what had occurred at such meetings. When those lies failed, they lied about who was responsible for such lies, claiming that Trump himself had played no role when in fact he had personally dictated what the lies would be.
None of these statements are allegations. Every little bit is documented by eyewitness accounts, documents or both, and when the time comes, special counsel Robert Mueller would have no problem substantiating them and probably a lot more, either in court or before Congress.
So after the denial of contacts proved a massive lie, after the initial explanations for those contacts also proved a lie, after the explanations for those lies themselves proved to be lies, the Trump operation has retreated to yet another line of defense that we are somehow supposed to treat as the truth:
OK, those meetings occurred; OK, the topic of Russian government assistance came up. But hey, there’s nothing untoward or suspicious or illegal about such discussions -- campaigns have them all the time. Trump himself is publicly leading the effort to establish that new narrative:
A couple of points here:
-- If all this were so innocent, why did the campaign and administration work so hard for so long and so emphatically to deny that any of it ever happened, and to spin a layered defense of lie after lie to prevent the truth from emerging? That is not the behavior of a group confident of its innocence; it is the action of people fearful of their guilt.
-- Note the telling last line of Trump’s tweet. After arguing vehemently that this was “totally legal and done all the time in politics,” and after professing no concern whatsoever for his son’s fate, Trump reiterates and stresses that as for him personally, “I did not know about it!” He is publicly and legally trying to put distance between himself and the actions of his own son, which again is not the behavior of an innocent leader or frankly of a loyal father.
Personally, I think that Trump’s denial of knowledge will also prove to be another level of lying. This is admittedly surmise on my part, but I don’t believe the Trump campaign was disciplined enough as an operation to compartmentalize incriminating information of this sort and keep it from the candidate, particularly when it was so potentially juicy.
And like his administration, the Trump campaign was very much a top-down operation, with Trump a hands-on leader. If the meeting at Trump Tower promising help from the Russian government was deemed important enough to require the attendance of the top three campaign officials under Trump -- Trump Jr., Kushner and campaign manager Paul Manafort -- then Trump himself almost certainly knew of it beforehand and approved it.
If and when we have public proof of that surmise -- I suspect Mueller already has it -- then Trump will be forced to retreat once again behind yet another layer of lies to try to defend himself. And at some point, further retreat will no longer be possible, we will have the truth, and Dan Coats and other Americans will finally be able to understand what the hell has been going on here.