Don Jr. and the email chain that devoured American democracy
The emails may prove to be the smoking gun in a shocking plot to steal information and thus a U.S. presidential election, but they also say something about ourselves. The truth is that Russia couldn't steal American democracy unless we helped them.
It was about 30 years ago — right, it turned out, as the Cold War was winding down — that ABC aired a seven-night television event called Amerika, a fantastical mini-series about life in these United States after a bloodless takeover by the Soviet Union. The show was something of a flop — the concept was poorly executed and already seemed dated by 1987, thanks to the dramatic reforms under Mikhail Gorbachev that would soon lead to the end of the USSR. But the biggest problem was that critics found the basic premise so gosh-darned hard to imagine, with the New York Times arguing that the idea that "the United States would simply crumble from within because of a national moral flabbiness is monumentally implausible."
Today, it doesn't sound that way.
That seismic political rumbling that you felt at exactly 10 a.m. Tuesday was the son of the president of the United States, Donald Trump Jr., releasing his email chain with an intermediary showing that the highest-ranking officials in Trump's 2016 campaign were informed that Russia was helping Trump and that "a Russian government attorney" wanted to provide them with damning info about rival Hillary Clinton, prompting the younger Trump to enthuse, "I love it.."
The email release — prompted by aggressive (and much appreciated) journalism from the Times and leaks that, mysteriously, are said to be from within the White House — came after three days of banner headlines and ever-shifting stories from Trump Jr. about the meeting that he, Trump son-in-law-turned-top-aide Jared Kushner, and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort took with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya on June 9, 2016. The disclosures were stunning — potentially game-changing — on a level that recalled the 1973 afternoon when a White House aide revealed at the height of Watergate that Richard Nixon had taped his Oval Office conversations.
Indeed, cable TV news anchors were so flummoxed that the president's son had voluntarily posted the email thread on Twitter that some speculated for a few minutes that the disclosure must somehow be helpful to the younger Trump or his dad. Why else would he have released it? "I would be lying to you if I said I could explain almost any of this," veteran Los Angeles Times political reporter Jackie Calmes blurted out on CNN.
But in a reality best expressed in a Ron Howard Arrested Development narrator voice, the disclosures were not helpful. No explanation of any of this was beneficial to the Trump White House. Indeed, when President Trump issued a tepid and almost-not-human-sounding statement of support for his eldest child — "My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency" — one could almost picture the scene in The Godfather II when Michael Corleone gives that fateful kiss to the family ne'er-do-well, Fredo.
It's true that the emails don't reveal what exactly was discussed in that Trump Tower meeting 13 months ago (Team Trump still insists the whole thing was a "nothingburger"), and there's still no proof that aides to the future president knew for an absolute fact that Russia was going to — in the opinion of America's top intelligence agencies — hack Democratic emails and churn out volumes of "fake news" to assist candidate Trump or, if they did, whether specific U.S. government favors were promised in return.
But what we do know now is all so damning: That the top aides to now-President Trump were not just willing but eager to meet with people they believed to be representatives of an adversary of the United States — under sanction for its military adventurism in Ukraine — in order to get dirt on the opposition candidate and tip the scales of our 2016 election. And that since those meetings, those same aides have gone to great lengths to lie or otherwise obscure the truth of their multiple contacts with key Russians.
You say there's no proof of a quid pro quo? Just look at all the quids since the late spring of 2016, and look at all the quos. In early June, an intermediary says Russia wants to help elect Trump, and Trump's son says, "I love it." On June 7, 2016, two days before the Trump Tower meeting, Trump promises his supporters he'll shortly be delivering a major speech with new information on Clinton corruption, and in the time both right before and right after the meeting, he harps repeatedly about 33,000 emails deleted by Clinton. On June 15, a hacker named "Guccifer 2.0" believed linked to Russia posts emails that were stolen from the Democratic National Committee, one of several stolen information dumps before the November election. While the purloined anti-Clinton material was being released, Trump continues to praise Putin, his aides fight to make the GOP party platform less anti-Russia on the Ukraine issue, and they continually prod for an easing of sanctions placed on Russia by President Barack Obama.
The quids and quos were flying so fast it's a miracle they didn't collide in mid-air.
And so the legal implications of Tuesday's email disclosure are large. Experts in the law say there's now a clear-cut case that Trump Jr. solicited something of value — "opposition research," for want of a better term — from a foreign national to sway the presidential campaign, which is a violation of federal election laws; likewise, Kushner placed himself in serious legal jeopardy by failing to disclose his myriad Russian contacts during his FBI background checks. Mounting evidence of crimes involving Trump Jr., Kushner, Manafort and ousted national security chief Michael Flynn is giving special counsel Robert Mueller plenty of ammunition to make a case for a conspiracy to use stolen emails to tip the election, and possibly for obstruction of justice in covering up those offenses.
But what about the moral implications? I know, all political candidates wade through the mud, and there are folks who've become millionaires digging up "oppo research." All's fair in love and war and politics, right? Except — Team Trump went into this particular deal with the devil knowing that Vladimir Putin wanted things in return — things that are clearly not in the interest of the U.S. citizens now served by the 45th president. That includes a tacit OK for Putin's militarism in Ukraine, a possible green light for aggression in other hot spots like the Baltic states, a weakening of NATO and general disintegration of the U.S.-European alliance that has held together a fragile peace during our lifetimes. And he's rewarding a butcher who murders journalists and political opponents. What happened in Trump Tower is the very reason that the U.S. Constitution and our legal code are larded with provisions to prevent foreign meddling in our internal affairs.
But moral actions require a moral universe. Yes, much of the blame belongs with Trump — a dangerous and, to be brutally honest, sick narcissist with no empathy for anyone, not even his son, who might be headed soon to Allenwood — his family and his sycophants who stop at nothing to amass power and wealth. But let's be even more honest. Much as ABC's Amerika predicted three decades ago, the Russians were able to mess with our presidential election in part because we let them. The Trump family doesn't know much outside of crude marketing, and were desperate for Hillary's emails because they knew there was a willing audience eager to gobble up that material, people who shared a belief that hatred for the Other, for those know-it-all liberal elites, meant so much more than caring about where the purloined emails came from. Sure, the Russians could build up a "content farm" of 1,000 people churning out fake news about Hillary, but that ploy wouldn't have worked if your American uncles and cousins and neighbors weren't so excited to share their output on Facebook.
When I looked at Donald Trump Jr.'s email chain today, I saw what may have been the smoking gun that could — could — eventually bring down Trump's presidency, but I also saw a lot more. I saw the symptoms of a deeper sickness in American politics — the ridiculously blurred lines among entertainment, political discourse, wealth, and what once passed for reality, with concert promoters and sleazy developers accustomed to making deals over the Miss Universe pageant and cutting pop-music videos instead plotting to put an unqualified man's finger on the world's largest nuclear arsenal. And a win-at-all-costs, destroy-your-opponent, "I love it" culture that doesn't even have the phrase "but this is wrong" in its vocabulary. In other words, I saw the "moral flabbiness" — a casual willingness to destroy everything that America was supposed to stand for — that the New York Times didn't think was in our national character less than two generations ago. And it was building up for a long time before that fateful nanosecond when Donald Trump Jr. finally hit the "send" button.