Judging from conversations online and in person, the emerging Trump-friendly defense of Donald Trump Jr.’s decision to respond enthusiastically to an invitation to meet a “Russian government attorney” to receive “official documents and information” as part of the Russian government’s “support for Mr. Trump” is two-fold. First, of course you meet with someone who’s proposing to help you win your political race. And second, the meeting itself was allegedly unimportant. The Russian attorney didn’t deliver the goods. What’s the big deal?
Let’s leave aside the obvious fact that no living Republican would be making those arguments if equivalent news emerged about a Democratic president’s team and address the core of the argument. Yes, it is a “big deal” when senior representatives of an American presidential campaign meet with a purported representative of a hostile foreign power for the purpose of cooperating in that foreign power’s effort to influence an American presidential campaign. It’s an even bigger deal when news of that meeting emerges after an avalanche of denials and evasions.
As an initial matter, it’s amazing that anyone on the right or left is taking any talking points from the Trump administration at face value. After months of deception and misdirection, why should anyone believe the Trump administration’s account of the meeting? Why should anyone believe that this is the last shoe to drop or the only shoe to drop demonstrating an effort to collude with Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election? And yet conservatives are rallying across the Internet, ignoring all previous false statements, and essentially saying, “Now we know the truth, and the truth is that nothing happened.” This isn’t analysis; it’s wishful thinking.
Moreover, it glosses over a fundamental political reality — by taking meetings with enemies, expressing a willingness to cooperate with enemies, and concealing those meetings, you grant your enemy leverage over your political fortunes. We do not know the extent of the Trump team’s interactions with the Russians. The Russians, however, do, and they know if the Trump team is lying in its most current round of public statements. If there are further contacts or more or different embarrassing paper trails, then that knowledge can hang like the sword of Damocles over the heads of relevant Trump officials. Can that impact their dealings with Russia? Will it? Perhaps not, but they’re only human, and human beings tend to act in their perceived self-interest.
I don’t want to use an over-worked term like “kompromat,” but compromising information doesn’t need to truly “turn” someone to have its impact. It can have more subtle and insidious influence, placing boundaries on your own behavior and causing fear that should not exist.
Finally, it’s naïve (at best) and unquestionably dangerous to cooperate with a hostile foreign power when you know that this foreign power is actively seeking to harm American interests. In their hubris, people are tempted to believe that they can use an enemy without being used in return. It’s silly for an American to interact with hostile intelligence professionals and then believe he can use that interaction for his exclusive benefit. In reality, it threatens to turn you into a tool of enemy interests.
In fact, Russians have a long history of using Americans, and Americans have a long and sordid history of trying to accept Russian help. Post–Cold War intelligence revelations have helped expose the extent of Soviet penetration into American society and the extent to which Americans turned themselves into willing tools of Soviet influence for the sake of winning domestic political arguments. As conservatives rightly pointed out yesterday, Ted Kennedy inexcusably sought Soviet help in the effort to defeat Ronald Reagan. The Cold War–era peace movement was often influenced by KGB “active measures.” These were shameful moments for the Left. They are shameful moments in American history. They were not precedent for Republicans to pursue a similar course — dancing with the devil to win debates at home.
Russians have a long history of using Americans, and Americans have a long and sordid history of trying to accept Russian help.
When confronted with written evidence that Russia was actively seeking to use Americans to intervene in a presidential election, Donald Trump Jr. should have refused the meeting. He should have alerted the FBI. Instead, he not only said “I love it,” he pulled in Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner. At the time, Manafort was the Trump-campaign chairman. Kushner is currently one of the most powerful men in the administration, in charge of a vast portfolio of public policy. Then, after that meeting, he surrounded his misdeeds with a bodyguard of lies. There is no excuse.
My colleague Jonah Goldberg has given perhaps the best one-sentence advice for conservatives in these troubling times: “Trust nothing, defend nothing.” We don’t know the truth. We don’t know the extent of the Trump team’s misdeeds. We do, however, know enough to reject the administration’s spin. Donald Jr.’s meeting was, in fact, a “big deal,” and Americans who aren’t troubled are Americans who need to check whether their tribalism has trumped their good sense.