We now know, in part, how the Trump-Russia scandal ends. As McKay Coppins and Rosie Gray pointed out on Tuesday, the revelation that Donald Trump Jr. enthusiastically requested dirt on Hillary Clinton despite knowing it was coming from the Russian government has radically changed the argument being deployed by Trump’s defenders. Until this week, it was: “There is no collusion with the Russian government.” Now it is: “Collusion with a foreign government is fine. Everyone does it. Let’s talk about the Clinton campaign’s collusion with the government of Ukraine?”
Trump’s defenders didn’t have to take this line. They could have argued that what Trump’s underlings did was terrible but that he knew nothing about it. (This defense saved Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra crisis—Trump’s attorneys have said he was unaware of the meeting but did not condemn Trump Jr. for taking it.) They could have argued that the meeting Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort held with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya would have been terrible had it led to meaningful cooperation between Moscow and the Trump campaign but that it did not.
Either defense would have given Trump defenders like Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich space to turn on Trump later on. If the Trump Jr. meeting was a “nothingburger” because President Trump didn’t know about it, then a future revelation that Trump did know about Russia collusion might force his defenders to admit he did something wrong. If the Trump Jr. meeting was a “nothingburger” because it didn’t lead anywhere, then a future revelation that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government in a more substantive, sustained way would be hard to dismiss.