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What we know about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting

CNN's Tom Foreman explains the details of Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with the Russians at Trump Tower in 2016.

Posted: Aug 7, 2018 11:05 PM
Updated: Aug 7, 2018 11:32 PM

In normal circumstances, fathers safeguard sons.

But with a peevish statement on Twitter this weekend, President Donald Trump undermined his son, Donald Trump Jr., and one of his own lawyers, saying that when the Trump presidential campaign team met with a Russian operative at Trump Tower in 2016, its purpose was "to get information on an opponent." Trump added, that it all was "totally legal and done all the time in politics - and it went nowhere. I did not know about it!"

As with so many Trump tweets, a few words can reveal a host of serious problems. And indeed, if you are able to find a similar example of paternal aggression in real life or in mythology, you are an able scholar.

Trump's tweet about the 2016 meeting reads like nothing so much as an exasperated father having to clean up the mess left by a bumbling offspring who -- it turns out -- is pretty bad at plying the family trade. More than anything else, that trade has been about managing -- and massaging -- the mythology of the Trump business: We're rich! We're decisive! We're winners!

And in this case Donald Jr. has failed utterly.

The fact is, his father's statement may imperil him: Trump Jr. could face perjury charges if he is shown to have lied to a Congressional committee about his intentions for the meeting and particularly his understanding of who would be there.

To review: First Trump Jr. said he never met with Russians about the campaign. Then, after a 2017 New York Times article reported that he and others had met in 2016 with a Kremlin-tied lawyer (who later described herself as an "informant") at Trump Tower, he first released a statement that the discussion at the meeting had been primarily about a US adoption program that had been halted by Russia (this statement was a deception concocted aboard Air Force One by his father).Then he released emails that made plain he was actually drawn to the meeting by the promise of dirt on Hillary Clinton -- a promise, he told investigators, that went unfulfilled.

The deception over the meeting was compounded when Trump attorney Jay Sekulow stated publicly: "I wasn't involved in the statement drafting at all, nor was the President." Now Sekulow says: "I had bad information at that time and made a mistake in my statement. I've talked about that before. That happens when you have cases like this."

Though Sekulow tried to explain away the reversal -- "I had bad information" -- no qualified lawyer, especially one representing the President, would speak to the press without being sure of the facts. "Bad information" can be fatal in a legal context, and if Sekulow disseminated a lie, he was either the President's dupe or his co-conspirator.

After kneecapping Sekulow, Trump then went into his usual don't-blame-me position with his weekend tweet. "I did not know about it" was a classic Trump effort to wriggle out of responsibility. It also signaled a definite shift in his response to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the links between Trump's campaign and Russians who attacked the election process.

For more than a year Trump's mantra has been "no collusion." "No collusion" occurred with the Russians who stole private emails for his opponents and facilitated their release to the public. With Mueller closing in, the new defense seems to be: OK, maybe collusion, but that's not a crime and, besides, the man at the top knew nothing.

So who did know? The list begins with his son, Donald Jr., the one most imperiled by Mueller's team. Those emails released more than a year ago show Donald Jr. was eager to receive foreign help in the pursuit of his father's goal of the presidency. "If it's what you say, I love it," he wrote in response to a foreigner's note about dirt on Hillary Clinton.

No one should doubt that documents that might damage an opponent constitute a contribution with real value. As such, Donald Jr.'s emails and his attendance at the Trump Tower meeting could put him in the middle of a criminal conspiracy.

If he lied to Congressional investigators who questioned him on the matter, he might also be subject to charges of perjury. Others who attended the meeting, including the President's son-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign manager Paul Manafort -- the latter of whom is on trial for alleged financial crimes right now -- and they face great peril, too.

By insisting he knew nothing about such a dramatic scheme, Trump wants us to reject logic and everything we know about how he operates. Trump is a man who relishes gossip, inside information and the thrill of breaking the rules. Manipulation is the family business that Donald Jr. was groomed to practice. And as sure as he breathes, he would have eagerly announced to his father that he was playing this game.

Over many decades of public life, Trump has shown that for him, winning is all that matters and if victory requires a bit of distortion and immorality, so be it. This attitude, as he adopted false personas in the past to promote himself, and, during his presidency, displayed as he inflamed racial tensions and whipped others into a frenzy of hatred for the press, is the core of Trump's personality. He is so devoted to his winner's façade that he refuses to take responsibility for anything that goes wrong.

As candidate and now President, Trump has violated so many moral norms that the shadowy content of his character is well established.

In apparently selling out his son, and exposing him to inevitable shame and possible prosecution, he has reached yet another new low. This is appalling but not a surprise, nor does it reflect a momentary lapse. It is a reflection of the President's truest self and we should expect to see more of the same.

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