The emails that Donald Trump Jr. released to the public on Tuesday have shattered the illusions of Trump allies and foes like, many of whom couldn’t imagine that even a heedlessly corrupt individual like Donald Trump would run an organization with such impunity that its leaders would connive in private with representatives of the Russian government to defeat Hillary Clinton.
Now we know that not only were campaign aides willing to conspire with Russian intelligence to subvert the election, they salivated at the thought.
In the immediate term, the effect of the revelation has been to change the way members of the public (including some Republicans, presumably) perceive both the scandal and the importance of the investigations into it. Trump never deserved the benefit of the doubt, but it will be more widely withheld going forward at every point of dispute in the story. And rightly so.
But it is just as important that interested players in the Russia-Trump story account for how their incorrect assumptions affected their conduct over the past year. It is striking to look back at defining moments of the campaign and of Trump’s fledgling presidency through the lens of hindsight. Some of the most powerful people in the world made history altering decisions on the basis—at best—of exceedingly naive justifications.
Chief among these people were the Republican leaders of the House and Senate. Trump and his advisers didn’t just lie to the public, but to his partisan allies as well. The most charitable read of the GOP leadership’s behavior is that they believed Trump’s lies and proceeded accordingly. Now that they know they were misled, we need to know what they intend to do about it.
The email to Trump Jr. offering “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary” as “part of Russia and it’s government’s support for Mr. Trump” arrived on June 3, 2016. Trump Jr. responded with alacrity—“If it’s what you say I love it”—less than 20 minutes later.
The meeting itself, with a Kremlin-connected lawyer, occurred on June 9. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chair,
were also in attendance.
Five days later, The Washington Post broke the news that the Democratic National Committee had been the victim of a massive, months-long cyberattack, including the theft of its Trump opposition research file.
The next day, in the leadership offices of the Capitol, House Speaker Paul Ryan and his top lieutenants had the following, secretly recorded exchange with one another.
Kevin McCarthy: [unintelligible]…I’ll GUARANTEE you that’s what it is.[Unintelligible]
McCarthy: The Russians hacked the DNC and got the opp research that they had on Trump.
Ryan: The Russian’s hacked the DNC…
[Patrick] McHenry: …to get oppo…
Ryan: …on Trump and like delivered it to…to who?
McCarthy: There’s…there’s two people, I think, Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump…[laughter]…swear to God.
Ryan: This is an off the record…[laughter]…NO LEAKS…[laughter]…alright?!
Ryan et al didn’t need to know then what we now know today—that the Trump campaign had just agreed in principle to cooperate with Russia—to understand right away that Russia was thumbing the scale for Trump. He inferred as much based on the previous day’s Post and known patterns of Russian government behavior.
The Trump campaign’s deceit around the question of meddling—which the House Republican leaders were not confused about in the slightest—began almost immediately.
When the Clinton campaign alleged that the Russian government had leaked DNC emails to help Trump at Clinton’s expense, Trump Jr. went on CNN and called it “lie after lie.” Manafort, who attended the collusion meeting, called it “pure obfuscation on the part of the Clinton campaign.” Trump himself famously cast doubt on all claims that Russian intelligence was behind any of it.
By the summer, U.S. intelligence community leaders were exceedingly alarmed. They knew what Ryan only suspected—that Russia was attempting to sabotage Clinton’s campaign—and had even seen evidence of suspicious contacts between Russian agents and people associated with Trump.
Yet when approached in a private briefing with an Obama administration proposal to issue a bipartisan statement condemning Russian interference, Republican leaders “seemed opposed to the idea of going public with such an explosive allegation in the final stages of an election,” according to the Post. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in particular “raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.”
McConnell’s treachery at that pivotal moment has been hashed over at length since the Post first broke the story. But it is instructive to revisit it in full context. As we now know, McConnell ran interference for Trump to stop President Barack Obama from warning the country about a Russian subversion campaign that Trump not only knew to exist, but with which he actively collaborated. We don’t know for certain that Ryan joined McConnell in rebuffing the Obama administration, but it stands to reason he did. At the very least, we know that as House speaker he could have forced the issue the other way, and did not.
That abdication carried a rotten stench even before we knew how solicitous the Trump campaign was of Russian meddling. But now we know that the proof McConnell supposedly needed was sitting idly in multiple inboxes at Trump campaign headquarters. Until Tuesday, he and other Republicans could escape scrutiny for their conduct by hiding behind the sensitivity of the deliberations. Now the best they can say for their behavior is that they unwittingly abetted Trump’s collusion with the Russian government because they fell for his lies. The alternative is that they made a conscious decision to allow Russian subversion of the election to continue unimpeded. The country deserves to know where the truth resides.