The e-mails released by Donald Trump Jr. on Tuesday mark a grave escalation of the Russia scandal engulfing Washington. With The New York Times about to publish the e-mails, the president’s son preemptively posted the messages on Twitter, confirming their accuracy. If he imagined getting ahead of the Times story would reduce its impact, though, he badly miscalculated.
Instead, they show once again that the White House simply cannot be trusted to be honest with the American people or the world. It is a tremendous self-inflicted wound to the honor and credibility of the US government and a staggering betrayal of what it means to be a patriotic citizen of a free society.
The e-mails reveal that much of what the president and his associates have said in response to allegations of collusion with the Kremlin during last year’s campaign have been lies. The Trump campaign did, in fact, agree to a meeting with a lawyer they believed to represent the Russian government, and did so in hopes of obtaining damaging information about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
As the messages show, Trump Jr. was explicitly told that the woman represented the Russian government. Two other senior aides — former campaign manager Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law — were also looped into the exchange. The e-mails are conclusive evidence that the campaign sought to collude with Moscow and was willing to accept help from a hostile foreign power.
Whether that effort came to anything, and whether it qualifies as a criminal offense, has not been established. It’s a measure of Trump Jr.’s mind-boggling misjudgment, though, that serious legal observers are debating whether his actions constitute treason. Richard Painter, the former ethics lawyer for the Bush administration, said: “This is treason. He must have known that the only way Russia would get such information was by spying.” Trump Jr. and the other campaign officials may also have run afoul of conspiracy and campaign-finance laws.
Sussing out the legal implications is important, and special counsel Robert Mueller will certainly have his hands full. The release of the e-mails only adds more urgency to his investigation, which also includes potential efforts by the president to obstruct the probe. The notion that the president himself was not informed of the meeting with the Russian lawyer seems implausible, notwithstanding his denials.
Still, it would be a mistake to view the explosive e-mails solely through a legal lens. The window they open into the Trump operation is damning. And the squirmy silence of his fellow Republicans — many of whom put their own reputations on the line by defending the administration’s lies — reveals just how few are willing to hold the president to account.