In June 2016, an intermediary contacted Donald Trump Jr., suggesting a meeting at which Russians would offer the Trump campaign information damaging to Hillary Clinton “as part of their government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Instead of reporting this approach to the FBI, Trump Junior replied “I love it.” Thus originated the notorious meeting in Trump Tower between Kremlin-connected Russians and Trump Jr.; Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
The meeting surfaced in July 2017. Two weeks ago The New York Times detailed the web of contacts that followed; last week, the New Yorker catalogued the evidence that Russia’s cyber warfare had changed the outcome of the presidential election. Russia is likely to attack our midterm elections as well.
This reminded me about how Trump’s ever-evolving stories about the June 2016 meeting have degraded our standards for presidential loyalty. The reminder came from a more conservative lawyer friend concerning the fact that Manafort, a participant in that meeting, had struck a cooperation agreement with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, tasked with looking Russia’s role into the 2016 presidential election. What’s wrong with such a meeting, my friend asked. Isn’t that just what politicians do? Wasn’t it perfectly normal for the Trump campaign to find out what the Russians had on Clinton?
But before we get to Trump’s latest attempts to normalize this collaboration with America’s leading foreign adversary, let’s consider Trump’s two-year history of lies, evasions, and contradictory defenses — culminating in “everyone does it” — confirming his appreciation that the meeting was malign.
All through 2016, Trump and his campaign denied any meetings with Russia — a patent lie. In July 2017, when The New York Times uncovered the meeting, Trump himself crafted a false statement for Donald Jr. claiming that the meeting was about Russian adoption — concealing the Russians’ offer of help. Further, Trump lied about his role in drafting the statement. Finally, when Junior was forced to admit the actual substance of the meeting, Trump’s role in crafting the lie was revealed. So Trump was reduced to claiming — unbelievably — that his son, son-in-law, and campaign manager, participants all, never told him about the meeting before or after it occurred.
This history confirms that the meeting was hardly business as usual — and that Trump desperately wanted to conceal it. But his last defense is this: For a presidential campaign to seek electoral help from America’s leading foreign adversary is no different from domestic opposition research. That this has persuaded most Republicans confirms Trump’s accelerating degradation of the most minimal standards for presidential conduct.
For openers, unlike domestic opposition research, the campaign’s deliberate pursuit of electoral help from Russia potentially violates several federal statutes, including laws barring acceptance of campaign assistance from foreign nationals or governments; protecting the integrity of our electoral process; and barring private citizens from working with foreign governments to undermine our stated policy — in this case by swapping electoral help for promises of sanctions relief sought by Vladimir Putin.
Beneath this lie fundamental questions of whether a candidate is loyal to his country, or its enemies — specifically whether, for whatever reason, Trump owes a higher loyalty to Russia than to his oath of office. The Trump Tower meeting reflects basic Russian procedures for recruiting assets: By taking the meeting, then concealing it, Trump’s team signaled its acquiescence. This spurred the web of contacts between Trump and Russia that the campaign concealed from the FBI — and the public.
At stake now is whether Trump will protect America’s electoral processes, or any American interest contrary to Putin’s own. Indeed, Trump’s dissembling suggests that he may hope for further electoral assistance from Russia in return for his obeisance.
The Trump Tower meeting was not like some operative in Chicago seeking information from another that a rival candidate is a philanderer. It goes to whether America’s president is loyal to America or Russia. If millions of Americans no longer care, Trump has done more damage than we’ve imagined.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.