Over the two years that the Watergate scandal unfolded, there were few more revealing moments than in April 1973, when White House press secretary Ron Ziegler told the press corps that all of President Nixon’s previous statements on the scandal were “inoperative.”
Ziegler’s statement was an inartful yet telling recognition that the White House’s position on Watergate had dramatically changed — and that up to that point, the president and his aides had been lying to the American people about the scandal. From that point forward, Nixon’s presidency was largely doomed.
Over the weekend, we had a similar, albeit unintentional, before and after moment that represents the most damaging story to date in the Trump-Russia scandal.
For months now, Trump and his aides have vehemently denied that any collusion between his campaign and Russia occurred. They’ve gone even further than that and denied that any actual meetings took place between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
Yesterday, Donald Trump Jr. made those assertions “inoperative.”
On Saturday, the New York Times reported that Trump Jr., along with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, met a Russian lawyer with close connections to the Kremlin. At first Trump claimed that the sit-down was “primarily about an adoption program” and that he couldn’t recall any campaign meetings that had been set up with Russian officials.
Not surprisingly, this was not true. Twenty-four hours later, the Times followed up its story with an even bigger revelation: that Trump Jr. only agreed to the meeting after being promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
This demolishes the Trump campaign’s frequent denials that Russia meetings took place. What’s far worse, however, is that it shows that the campaign’s top members were quite receptive to colluding with the Russian government to do political harm to Clinton’s campaign.
But what’s truly extraordinary is that Trump admitted all of this — and more — to the New York Times.
According to Trump, the Russian lawyer claimed to have “information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Mrs. Clinton.” However, “it quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information,” Trump said.
The conversation then turned to the Magnitsky Act, said Trump, a US law intended to blacklist human rights abusers in Russia that has sparked a furious backlash from Moscow, including efforts to block the adoptions of Russian children by American families.
But it’s Trump’s next statement that blows my mind. “It became clear to me that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting,” he said.
Trump is openly admitting that he, Kushner, and Manafort met with this Russian lawyer for the explicit purpose of obtaining damaging information about Clinton. His defense seems to be that because no information was provided, no one should pay attention to it.
Let’s put aside the fact that simply soliciting help from a foreign government for a presidential campaign is a federal crime — even if no information was turned over — and might even be considered treason. But Trump Jr.’s admission also makes every statement by Trump and his aides about Russia “inoperative.”
He is now admitting that top Trump campaign officials met with Russian officials who had close connections to the Kremlin for the purpose of colluding. Period.
That’s as close to a smoking gun as we’ve seen to date.
Whether Trump Jr., Manafort, and Kushner actually broke the law is something that the special counsel will need to figure out, but what’s unquestionable is that the Trump camp had no problem working with a foreign government to win a US election. That they lied about it for months seems almost like an afterthought, though in non-bizarro America that too would be a major political scandal. Moreover, it seems almost unimaginable that Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort met with Russian officials about potential collusion and Trump, himself, was completely unaware.
Keep in mind, this is the only meeting that we know about so far in which collusion was discussed. There very well could be other interactions with Trump aides and Russian intelligence operatives in which information was offered and procured by the Trump campaign. The revelations over the weekend are likely just the tip of the iceberg.
Still, what we know now is damaging enough and suggests that the 2016 campaign was won under false pretenses and that it’s possible the president of the United States and his top aides broke the law in the process.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.