After months of adamantly denying that investigators would find even a shred of evidence pointing to collusion between his campaign and Russia, President Donald Trump is aggressively embracing the view that his son’s cooperation with apparent Russian agents was entirely normal. On Monday, he acknowledged that his son, Donald Trump Jr., met with a Russian lawyer in the hopes of receiving damaging information about Hillary Clinton:
Most politicians would have gone to a meeting like the one Don jr attended in order to get info on an opponent. That's politics!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 17, 2017
As news of the June 9, 2016, meeting, involving Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, his brother-in-law (who is now a senior adviser in the White House); and Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, began to trickle out last weekend, the president’s defenders initiated a 180-degree turn in their line of argument. Gone was the claim there was no evidence of a collusion to be found—that claim was untenable in light of the emails that Trump Jr. released, in which he was very clearly informed that the meeting was with a woman identified as a “Russian government lawyer,” and that the purpose was to give the Trump campaign damaging information about Clinton, because the Russian government backed Trump in the race.
The new tactic was to normalize collusion, arguing that in fact colluding with a foreign government in such a situation was neither nefarious nor illegal, and was in fact standard operating procedure. Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News host who has emerged as one of Trump’s most dogged defenders, even said, “If the devil called me and said he wanted to set up a meeting to give me opposition research on my opponent, I’d be on the first trolley to hell to get it.”
The president had mostly steered clear of the June 9 meeting, except to state he was not aware of the meeting and to vouch for his son’s character as a “high-quality person.” Trump Sr. briefly addressed it during last week’s trip to France, in an off-the-record chat with reporters, parts of which were later made public at his behest.
“He had a meeting, nothing happened with the meeting,” Trump said. “Honestly, in a world of politics, most people are going to take that meeting. If somebody called and said, hey—and you’re a Democrat—and by the way, they have taken them—hey, I have some information on Donald Trump. You’re running against Donald Trump. Can I see you? I mean, how many people are not going to take the meeting?”
Trump’s tweet Monday is his clearest and most unequivocal embrace of the argument that collusion with a foreign country (much less a largely adversarial one) is standard-operating procedure. It confirms that Trump Jr. went to the meeting in order to get the damaging information, closing off a previous argument that the meeting was about adoptions. (The adoptions issue connects to the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law targeting human-rights abusers, and could plausibly be part of a Russian ask in a quid pro quo.)
There are several key weaknesses to the “collusion is normal” argument. The first is that members of the Trump team don’t have a great grasp on what normal is. With the exception of Manafort, a well-traveled veteran whose attendance at the meeting remains mysterious and comparatively unexplored, many of Trump’s team, and especially Trump Jr. and Kushner, had never worked on a political campaign before, much less a presidential campaign. Veteran Republican and Democratic operatives both said such a meeting was unheard-of. One anecdote that has gotten a great deal of new attention is the 2000 incident in which Al Gore’s campaign was leaked George W. Bush’s debate prep materials, and in response called the FBI. That case didn’t even involve a foreign power, and there’s little reason to believe that the Gore campaign was unusually virtuous about opposition research; after all, it is widely thought to have leaked news of Bush’s 1976 DUI to the press.
Second, the idea that other campaigns might have done the same is weak “whatabouttism”—the habit of trying to distract attention by pointing to others’ flaws. The question is not whether campaigns routinely collude with foreign powers, but whether such an action is ethical and legal. (My colleague Uri Friedman helpfully explores an accusation of Democrats working with Ukraine, in what appears to be a disturbing but manifestly lower-level matter than Trump Jr.’s connections with Russia.) Trump told voters he was not a politician and not beholden to special interests, and he promised to drain the swamp. Now his defense is that he and his aides were acting just like any other politician.
Then there’s the final problem with embracing collusion as normal: What Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort did might well be illegal. In May, Trump Sr. fired FBI Director James Comey, setting off a chain of events that culminated in the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate, among other things, Russian interference in the election. During Senate hearings last week, Christopher Wray, Trump’s nominee to lead the FBI, was asked about the Trump Jr. meeting. He protested he wasn’t familiar with the details. But he also offered some broad advice.
“I would think you’d want to consult with some good legal advisers before” taking a meeting with a foreign power offering disparaging material about a rival candidate, he said. He added, “To the members of this committee: Any threat or effort to interfere with our elections, from any nation-state or any non-state actor, is the kind of thing the FBI would want to know.”
(Wray also said during the hearing that he disagreed with Trump’s accusation that Mueller was on a “witch hunt.”)
Luckily for Wray, and for the senators, his answer to a hypothetical scenario is no longer hypothetical, since the president has confirmed that this is precisely the circumstance under which his son met with several Russians on June 9.