Donald Trump made countless startling statements during last year’s presidential campaign, but one—in Doral, Florida—may be coming back to haunt him. At a televised news conference on July 27, 2016, Trump delivered a direct message to Moscow. Not content with the fact that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee, the candidate stared straight into the camera and said: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Hillary Clinton] emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
The first reactions were explosive. They ranged from gleeful approval from his “lock her up” base, to widespread outrage among his critics (who were then and still are a solid majority of the American people). The critics said he was inviting the Kremlin to aid his campaign again. He was dropping hints that he might revoke Washington’s sanctions against Russia. He was mocking and denying his own country’s intelligence agencies, which had alerted everyone to Russia’s cyberattacks and propaganda. He was advocating that U.S. laws be broken.
A bit later, his spokespeople claimed that Trump was “joking.” And Trump himself altered his story slightly by saying that Russia should give Clinton’s missing emails to the FBI rather than to the press.
Trump’s message to Moscow was soon displaced by other shockers. And for more than a year—as Trump went on to win the election, and the media, congressional committees, and special counsel Robert Mueller all dug deeper into Russia’s interference—Trump’s open request to Moscow just hung there, amazingly, like some half-forgotten circus trick.
But the Trump–Russia story has grown more urgent lately, leading many to cast their minds back to Trump’s message in Doral. Consider just a few driving events from the past month alone: On December 1, Michael Flynn pled guilty to lying to the FBI about discussing U.S. sanctions with Russia during the transition, in a deal with Mueller that confirmed Flynn is working with the FBI. On December 2, Trump told reporters, “There has been absolutely no collusion,” while it emerged that Trump knew Flynn had lied to the FBI when he fired him and when he told former FBI Director James Comey to ease up on Flynn. On December 3, Trump claimed the FBI’s reputation is “in tatters,” while Dianne Feinstein, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said her group was building an obstruction of justice case against Trump. On December 7, FBI Director Christopher Wray faced concerted Republican attacks in Congress, with one congressman rattling off the names of FBI employees he suspected of “political bias.” And by December 13, Fox News and pro-Trump Republicans were in full cry against “political bias” and “corruption” in the Justice Department, the FBI, and Mueller’s office.
Republicans are positioning themselves to make an all-out assault on the legitimacy of the Mueller investigation. Meanwhile, Trump’s defenders have also retreated to the position that there’s no evidence Trump himself colluded with Russia.
This defense, however, ignores some glaring holes in Trump’s armor. One such hole, as suggested recently on CNN by David Gergen, among others, is that a claim of Trump’s non-collusion requires us to imagine him being totally out of the loop. To say he had nothing to do with his campaign’s contacts with Russia would mean he was unengaged, never alerted, not curious, and was hearing and saying nothing—as his sons, son-in-law, and other advisers met with Russians, solicited Russian dirt on Clinton, set up meetings with Russians, heard about “thousands” of Clinton’s Russian-hacked emails, and so on.
Then there’s Trump’s Doral message. The political scholar and commentator Brian Klaas argued in a column for The Washington Post that the reason the public hadn’t paid more attention to Trump’s call on Russia for illegal help was that Americans tend (wrongly, Klaas argued) to regard collusion as something done in secret, whereas open collusion tends to strike us as too stupid to be credible. (Trump, Klaas argued, actually is quite stupid sometimes.) A second column, by the Post’s own Eugene Robinson, cited the Doral quote as an early and public example of many attempts to coordinate with Russia. And a third, longer article, by the lawyer and journalist Jeffrey Toobin, appeared in the December 11 issue of The New Yorker. Toobin quoted Trump’s Doral message in the context of Trump’s possible prosecution for criminal conspiracy—whether by accepting things of value, such as political dirt, from a foreign government, or by aiding Russia’s distribution of stolen emails.
Yet there’s more to be said about Trump’s Doral statement than those authors’ excellent pieces mentioned. One key issue is what to make of the assertion that Trump was joking when he called on Russia. Like his muddying clarifications on many topics, an “only joking” excuse can be hard to disprove. But let’s give it a shot.
For one thing, Trump didn’t look or sound as if he was joking. To the contrary, he seemed quite serious. Moreover, Trump’s base clearly loved the idea of Russians purloining and publishing information that would damage Clinton. Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., had felt the same way the month before Doral when he and other top aides met in New York with a well-connected Russian lawyer. Nor did mainstream Republicans such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell treat Trump’s message as a joke: They quickly announced that Moscow should be punished for its illegal interference.
The FBI, meanwhile, considered Trump’s words worth investigating, and the mainstream media reported his message with alarm. The New York Times, for example, led its story about the Doral news conference this way: “Donald J. Trump said on Wednesday he hoped Russian intelligence services had successfully hacked Hillary Clinton’s email, and encouraged them to publish whatever they may have stolen, essentially urging a foreign adversary to conduct espionage against a former secretary of state.” Reactions by thousands of readers to that Times story apparently included only a small minority that took Trump’s statement as a joke. Most readers described it with words such as “shocking,” “reprehensible,” “bizarre,” “treasonous,” “psychopathic,” “dangerous,” “unconscionable,” and “revolting.”
As for Moscow’s reaction, some Russians must have laughed at Trump’s words. But they were also surely smart enough to hear his message as more than a joke. For they had been quietly communicating with Trump’s aides and relatives (not to mention attacking Clinton on the internet and exacerbating American social tensions) and now here was Trump himself asking them for more dirt on his opponent.
Another reason to think Trump wasn’t joking is that he seemed, at that same Doral news conference, to offer the Kremlin a reward for its illegal help. He said in reply to a reporter’s question that he had been “looking at” reversing the Obama administration’s hostile response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and that he was also considering dropping Washington’s sanctions against Russia. (Flynn and Jared Kushner, we all learned later, spoke secretly to the Russians at greater length about dropping those sanctions.) In the same pro-Russian spirit, Trump at Doral also praised Putin. “And I hope he likes me,” Trump added, striking a familiar note. He claimed at Doral, “I have nothing to do with Russia,” and he has said the same many times since. But his appeal to Russia at that same press conference turned his claim into nonsense.
Was his Doral appeal illegal? Was it part of a pattern of criminal conspiracy? And might a prosecutor like Mueller use it against him?
Toobin’s careful New Yorker piece, which included the opinions of several other legal experts, argued that a case of criminal conspiracy, or of accepting electoral aid from a foreign government, would be a more experimental case, and therefore a riskier path to victory, than a case of obstruction of justice, for which the evidence has been piling up fast. Toobin, however, leaves open the possibility that Mueller has been gathering evidence of conspiracy as well.
Short of playing a role in a case of conspiracy or a full-blown impeachment, Trump’s message to Moscow could play a larger part than it has in the moral and political case against Trump. It was wrong—terribly wrong—for him to solicit crimes by foreign agents and appeal to a hostile government for help in winning the White House. The appeal marked him indelibly, as other acts and statements have, as unfit to be president. It is undeniable that Trump urged a hostile foreign power to break American laws and to help tilt the election in his favor.
The evidence has been hiding in plain sight. Just take a look at the tape.