The latest revelation about the collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is about a meeting attended by the campaign manager Manafort, Trump Son No. 1, Donald Jr., and Trump-in-Law Jared Kushner. I won’t waste your time with the details which were first reported by the New York Times, a newspaper of global fame to which the Trump family has been notably hostile. Maybe not a good move on their part.
I want instead to focus on the narrative that the Trump Family, and its enablers like Kellyanne Conway, have tried to spin in response to the now-admitted meeting whose stated-in-advance purpose was to secure dirt on Hillary Clinton that was sourced in the Russian government. That narrative has a familiar ring as it seems to follow almost exactly the concept of “alternative pleading” that law students learn about in courses on trial practice.
The idea of alternative pleading is that since, in the early stages of a lawsuit, you don’t know for sure how things are going to play out, you, as the defendant accused of some wrongdoing are entitled by rules of court to plead alternative defenses, including defenses that are inconsistent with each other. The evidence will then show what it shows and some defenses will fail while others may succeed. To some extent it resembles the old saw about throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.
To illustrate, suppose a lawsuit is filed against D claiming D’s conduct was the proximate cause of injury to plaintiff P resulting in damages of X amount, which P therefore is entitled to recover from D. D’s typical first step is to move to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. That is, in simple English, even if everything alleged by P is true, there was nothing wrong with D’s conduct and thus the suit should be dismissed. A “fake suit” in current Trumpian parlance.
Kellyanne Conway, among others, has made this precise argument: even if Junior was seeking dirt on Clinton, this is politics and there was nothing wrong with seeking such dirt that might help the Trump campaign. But this argument ignores the fact that the source of the information was the Russian government, which suggests conspiracy with a foreign power to affect the outcome of an American election. Most rational people consider that seriously wrong, possibly criminally wrong.
So, what next? Faced with the revelations about Junior’s meeting, to which he has confessed publicly via the Family’s chosen medium, Twitter, the Trump Family Deniers change the tune, moving toward classical alternative pleading. First, the story was “there was no such meeting,” Then, if there was a meeting, I didn’t attend it. But if I did attend a meeting, it was a waste of time because we didn’t learn anything with which to smear Clinton so I left the meeting empty-handed. So, even if I did attend the meeting with the intention to do harm to Clinton, no harm to Clinton arose from my conduct, so everything is okeydokey. No harm, no foul. Finally, even if there were some harm, we were just amateurs at politics so we can and should be forgiven our sins and let bygones be ….
In a lawsuit, this sort of stairway to the basement approach is perfectly acceptable practice and the Trump Family Deniers’ playbook appears to follow it quite closely. The problem, of course, is that this is not a lawsuit, not yet anyway.
Instead, it is the early-to-middle stage of investigation into one of the greatest scandals in the history of American politics. One of the singular features of the scandal is that, from the very outset, during the campaign itself, Trump made no secret of his desire for assistance from Russia among others and no secret of his desire to buddy-up with Vladimir Putin (who will be featured in my next blog post). At the same time. Trump repeatedly denied there was any connection between him and Putin or between his campaign and anyone connected with the Russian government. His fame as liar-in-chief, thoroughly documented by many observers, led many to suspect that the denials were false.
Slowly but surely, more revelations of contacts between the Russians and the Trump campaign have emerged. All the while Trump and his enablers, including Attorney General Sessions as well as several family members and key campaign players, have denied there is anything there. Their stories have changed over time, of course, as new revelations undermine the previous denials. This is starkly shown by the latest stories about Junior and Kushner meeting with a promised source of incriminating evidence on Clinton.
Even if it is true that the Russian lawyer with whom Junior/Kushner/Manafort met did not actually have any useful information and was really trying to influence Trump on the issue of adopting Russian children or to blunt the move to increase U.S. sanctions on Russia, the fact remains, and at this point appears to be undeniable and undenied, that the purpose of the gathering, from Junior’s point of view, was to seek Russian help in the battle with Clinton. And, of course, he wants everyone to believe that the President knew nothing of the meeting.
So craven are the enablers of the Trump Family Deniers that Ed Rogers, in an op-ed in the Washington Post this morning, http://wapo.st/2uaPmNy, singing the familiar tune “hysteria among the media,” argues that,
No senior campaign official, much less a family member of the candidate, should take such a meeting. Having the meeting was a rookie, amateur mistake. Between human curiosity and a campaign professional’s duty to get the dirt when you can, Trump Jr. likely felt that the person had to be heard. However, the meeting should have been handed off to a lackey. Said lackey would have then reported the scoop — or lack thereof — and awaited further instruction. [emphasis added]
What can one say after that? A fair reading of it, I suggest, is (1) perfect execution of “we were just amateurs at politics” defense, and (2) in a play right out of the Godfather, never send anyone from the family to do the dirty work and leave fingerprints; send in one of the stooge soldiers who can be sacrificed if necessary to protect the family, (3) seeking dirt from dirty sources like the Russian government is just good political fun, so what’s the problem?
This “win at any cost” mentality may be part of what led Trump to confess to Lester Holt in the now famous interview that he was going to fire FBI Director Comey because of Comey’s pursuit of the Trump-Russia connection regardless of what the leadership of the Department of Justice recommended. Trump and his very very rich family are accustomed to getting their way without arguments and if you do argue, you’re fired.
Maybe I’m being naïve about politics but I continue to struggle with understanding how the Republican Party can continue to support this president, given that he has no real connection to conservative political values that have driven the Republican Party historically and is making a complete hash of the office of the President. He has accomplished nothing of positive significance since taking office six months ago while destroying international relationships that have sustained world peace for decades. More about this in the next post.