WASHINGTON — They knew. All along, they knew.
The inner circle of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign knew that the Russian government preferred that Trump win. They knew that the Russian government was prepared to help. And what’s more, Donald Trump Jr. expressed delight at the prospect.
“I love it.’’
It remains to be seen what the candidate himself knew of the potentially illegal plot — because that’s what it was — that was outlined in advance of the June 2016 meeting between Trump Jr., Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and campaign manager Paul Manafort. But what is glaringly obvious now is that the campaign was lying — repeatedly, publicly, and emphatically denying any Russian involvement or backing of the Trump campaign — beginning at least six weeks after they took the meeting with a “Russian government attorney’’ who was said to be ready to pass along incriminating information about Hillary Clinton.
And in an ironic twist for a campaign that was dominated by discussions over Clinton’s e-mails, it was all spelled out in an e-mail exchange with Donald Trump Jr.
The four pages of e-mails, which Trump Jr. released Tuesday after The New York Times revealed to him that it had copies, are the closest thing to a smoking gun in the ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in the US election. Trump’s son, his son-in-law, and his then-campaign manager were all in the loop on an e-mail that had a subject line: “Russia — Clinton — private and confidential.”
The e-mails introduce a new cast of characters into the unfolding drama, players in the worlds of entertainment and real estate who, like the Trumps, seemingly had little or no sensitivity to the ethical demands of a campaign for the presidency of the United States.
The e-mail to Trump Jr. — sent by Rob Goldstone, who had connections with Trump through the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, held in Moscow — said that a senior Russian government official wanted to pass along documents that “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”
“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Goldstone wrote.
“If it’s what you say,” Trump Jr. responded, “I love it.”
It would be especially useful, he added, later in the summer.
Later in the summer — seven weeks after that June 3 exchange — e-mails from the Democratic National Committee were released by Wikileaks. In October, just an hour after an “Access Hollywood” tape damaging Trump’s campaign had emerged, Wikileaks began releasing e-mails from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta.
The US intelligence community later concluded that Russia was behind the hacks, although President Trump has continued to express skepticism.
Trump Jr. forwarded the e-mail chain along to Kushner, his brother-in-law and current top White House adviser; and Manafort, who at the time was running the Trump campaign. That trio attended a meeting a few days later with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya.
Trump Jr. said nothing of consequence came from the meeting, and Veselnitskaya said that she was not acting on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There is still plenty that is murky. How much did President Trump himself know about what his son, son-in-law, and then-campaign manager were doing? Did more come from the meeting than the participants — who so far have not proven to be reliably forthcoming — are letting on?
“All of these denials that we have heard in the campaign, during the transition, in the administration, that there were no contacts with Russians, no discussions about the campaign, are all patently false,” said Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Sarah Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, answered questions from reporters for just over 20 minutes Tuesday afternoon. In an unusual move, she read a statement from the president in response to an opening question about the meeting.
“My son is a high quality person and I applaud his transparency,” according to the statement she read. She then referred most additional inquiries to Donald Trump Jr.’s attorney — even though it is questions about the president’s credibility and conduct that beg for answers, and indeed, are the subject of multiple investigations.
Sanders said Donald Trump is “frustrated” that his presidency continues to be dogged by his campaign’s connections to Russia. She added that the president would prefer to talk about other issues.
Trump had no public events Tuesday. The president, who declared he represented the people of “Pittsburgh not Paris” last month as he announced withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, may first answer questions during a Thursday press conference in Paris.
The Trump Jr. e-mail chain released Tuesday creates the biggest crack in the Trump operation’s credibility thus far. It puts a more ominous cast on all of the events that followed, including Trump’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey in May.
Despite repeated claims of “fake news” by Trump — and despite claims they knew nothing of Russian involvement in the US election — Trump’s closest advisers, his family members, had evidence to the contrary. It’s right there, in the e-mail exchange.
But just over six weeks after the meeting with the Russian attorney, when hacked DNC e-mails began to emerge on WikiLeaks, those who participated in the meeting were adamantly denying there were any ties with Russia.
“That’s absurd,” Manafort told ABC News on July 24. “There’s no basis to it.”
The same day, Trump Jr. rebuffed Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook’s claims that the DNC hacking may have been orchestrated by Russia as a plot to help Trump and hurt Clinton.
“Well, just goes to show you their exact moral compass,” he told CNN. “I mean, they’ll say anything to be able to win this. I mean, this is time and time again, lie after lie. . . . It’s disgusting; it’s so phony.”
“He should be ashamed of himself,” he continued, referring to Mook. “If a Republican did that, they’d be calling for the electric chair.”
The drumbeat of denial continued after Trump won the election.
Asked if anyone in the Trump campaign had contact with Russians trying to meddle in the election, Kellyanne Conway told “Face the Nation” in December: “Absolutely not. And I discussed that with the president-elect just last night. Those conversations never happened. I hear people saying it like it’s a fact on television. That is just not only inaccurate and false, but it’s dangerous. And—and it does undermine our democracy.”
Trump himself has repeatedly rejected the investigations into his campaign ties to Russia as “a witch hunt” and said that Democrats were using it as a political excuse for their own failings.
“Again,’’ the president tweeted on May 12, “the story that there was collusion between the Russians & Trump campaign was fabricated by Dems as an excuse for losing the election.’’