Last week, I deigned to cite a hidden-camera hit job on my one-time employer CNN by conservative activist James O’Keefe when I quoted John Bonifield, a medical unit producer for the network, saying that based on his conversations with others at the company, including high-level executives, that it was his opinion that allegations of Donald Trump’s campaign colluding with Russia were looking like “mostly bullshit right now.”
That was then. Right now, however, things are looking decidedly different.
“If it was something really good, it would leak,” Bonifield also said in that conversation captured on hidden camera. While the name of this site, MirrorWilderness.com, is itself a reference to the “wilderness of mirrors,” a favorite image invoked by the late James Jesus Angleton — a former head of counterintelligence for the Central Intelligence Agency who became obsessed with the idea that Russia was running intensive, long-term influence and espionage operations against the United States and had infiltrated the CIA — like Bonifield, I too have remained cautiously skeptical of the mainstream media narrative regarding the Russian effort to influence the U.S. election and the Trump campaign’s collusion with that effort. The media have repeatedly gotten it wrong, after all.
Yet I have also remained open to the idea that something of substance could come out of the Trump-Russia investigation. Following Robert Mueller’s appointment as special counsel after former FBI director James Comey’s firing in May, for example, I wrote that it was “probably safe to expect a few more surprises before it’s all over.” One such surprise came during Comey’s own testimony last month when he acknowledged keeping and then leaking memos of his conversations with Trump, which have since reportedly been determined to contain classified information Comey was not authorized to disclose.
But the biggest bombshell by far — the smoking gun, if you will, or as Nick Akerman, an attorney who worked as an assistant special prosecutor on the Watergate case put it, “almost a smoking cannon” — is the ludicrous and nearly unbelievable email exchange released Tuesday by Donald Trump Jr. after being questioned about it by the New York Times.
In the emails, a curious character named Rob Goldstone offers Trump Jr., on behalf of a Russian billionaire and his pop singer son, “to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father,” and adds that “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin [the aforementioned billionaire and his son].”
Trump Jr. responded with “Thanks Rob I appreciate that” and “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer. Could we do a call first thing next week when I am back?”
It’s hard to conceive of a dumber way the president’s son could have handled this situation. Given the media attention on Hillary Clinton’s emails at the time, it is astounding that, even if Trump Jr.’s reaction to the offer was exactly as it appears in the emails, he would even put anything into writing rather than insisting on speaking over the phone. But this is Donald Trump Jr. we’re talking about — someone who is essentially living proof that the theory that the United States is a meritocracy is incorrect.
Maybe that’s why he was not serving in an official capacity in the campaign at the time, nor is he currently part of the Trump administration. But two others who were officially involved in the campaign, Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, also attended the meeting.
If you believe Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer described in the emails as “The Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow” to meet with Trump Jr. (but who has denied ties to the Russian government), then Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, spent most of the meeting on his phone. He was “always looking at his phone [and] never took any active part in the conversation,” she said. This despite that, according to an anonymous “source close to Manafort” interviewed by Politico, “the campaign chairman hadn’t read all the way to the bottom of the email exchanges on his phone and […] he didn’t even know who he was meeting with when he attended the 20- to 30-minute session.” Perhaps he was finishing reading the email during the meeting?
Kushner, for his part, has reportedly confirmed he was at the meeting through his attorney. According to Veselnitskaya, Kushner left early, after seven to ten minutes. But given that, of the three Trump associates at the meeting, Kushner is the only one currently serving in the White House and holding a security clearance, his role is being closely scrutinized. Democratic lawmakers have called for his clearance to be revoked, as has the former campaign communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz (R- Texas), Rick Tyler, while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) has reportedly said there are questions about Kushner’s involvement that need to be answered. The Trump campaign’s digital operation, meanwhile, which Kushner was in charge of, is also now reportedly being investigated for possible collusion with Russia.
There are still reasons to remain cautious of the Trump-Russia collusion story. It seems quite plausible, based on how glaringly unthinking Trump Jr. appeared in his emails, that he simply got tricked, and that, as he claims, there was no follow-up on the meeting (though his openness to accepting Russian government help seems clear from the emails). Many elements of the Russian influence campaign during the 2016 U.S. election seem to suggest the goal was just as much to sow confusion and chaos and distrust and in the political system as it was to get Trump elected — and it has certainly succeeded on that front.
It is also far from clear what the end result will be for President Trump, Trump Jr., or any administration officials. Controversial high-profile Harvard attorney Alan Dershowitz has already come to Trump Jr.’s defense, saying the recently released emails are not evidence of any crime.
Yet if there does end up being enough evidence of collusion to, say, impeach President Trump, or even to decisively turn public opinion against him solely or primarily over the Russia issue to the point that Democrats stand to make significant gains in Congress in 2018 or retake the presidency in 2020, it will be crucial to keep an eye on how the party attempts to use the Trump-Russia narrative. It should not be forgotten that the leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee, which have spawned so much media coverage about Russian election meddling, actually exposed high-level favoritism at the DNC for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders — who was consistently polling higher than Clinton in a head-to-head match-up against Trump — which led to the resignations of DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and several other staffers.
“Imagine it’s four years from now (if indeed that’s when we have our next election),” Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wrote back in April. “A Democratic candidate stands before the stump, and announces that a consortium of intelligence experts has concluded that Putin is backing the hippie/anti-war/anti-corporate opposition candidate.
“Or, even better: that same candidate reminds us ‘what happened last time’ when people decided to vote their consciences during primary season. It will be argued, in seriousness, that true Americans will owe their votes to the non-Putin candidate. It would be a shock if some version of this didn’t become an effective political trope going forward.”
Much remains to be seen as the Trump-Russia saga continues to unfold, and it’s always important to remain skeptical of media narratives and politicians’ statements. But the Trump Jr. emails are without question the clearest evidence yet that Mueller’s investigation could really be going somewhere.
“They’ve been handed a smoking gun,” a “white-collar Washington lawyer who is representing a client mired in the Russia probe” reportedly told Politico on Tuesday. “What none of us know is what else he’s got. He may have had all these emails already. He may have reams of paper. There’s no way to know what’s under the water line in terms of this investigation.”