Testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Donald Trump Jr. offered his fifth—depending on how one counts—and arguably most clever explanation for why he took a meeting with a Russian lawyer in June 2016.
Trump Jr. slipped in and out of the closed hearing unseen, but several reporters acquired his prepared remarks, in which he offered the novel argument that meeting with a foreign agent was actually the only patriotic course of action. But to understand that, it’s helpful to briefly review his earlier explanations.
First, after The New York Times revealed the meeting’s existence, the president’s eldest son claimed that the meeting was merely about adoption and that he hadn’t known who he was meeting before he got there. (That didn’t explain why he would have brought his brother-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign chairman Paul Manafort into the conversation.)
When the Times reported that in fact Trump Jr. had been informed that the person he was meeting supposedly had damaging information about Hillary Clinton on offer, he offered a new story: Sure, he’d been open to receiving such information from the Russians, but they had been unable to deliver. They were willing to collude; they just didn’t have an effective partner.
This led directly to a third, slightly different claim. While President Trump and his allies had insisted for months that no one would ever find any evidence of collusion between his campaign and Russians, the newest explanation required some reconsideration. So Trump Jr., and later the president himself, went all in on the argument that their willingness to collude was totally normal operating procedure in politics, and that anyone in their shoes would have taken the meeting.
Then the Times struck again, reporting that despite his disavowals, Trump Jr. had received an email ahead of the meeting saying that the Russian government supported his father’s candidacy. This time, Trump Jr.’s lawyers simply claimed there was nothing to see there.
In sum, the Trump Jr. line by the end of the summer was that he was willing to collude, but didn’t; and even if he did, that would have been just politics for you. What’s more, his lawyers didn’t have much to work with, given that—after days of hemming and hawing and dissembling—Trump Jr. had released his emails about the meeting, apparently believing he’d get “credit” for transparency, even though he only did so to beat the Times from publishing them first.
Still, what they came up with for Thursday’s panel is deft. Trump Jr. told senators that he simply had to take the meeting, because what if Hillary Clinton was irreparably tainted?
To the extent they had information concerning the fitness, character, or qualifications of a presidential candidate, I believed that I should at least hear them out. Depending on what, if any, information they had, I could then consult with counsel to make an informed decision as to whether to give it further consideration.
Rather than plead politics—hey, anyone would have done it—he pleads patriotism, suggesting it was his duty as an American to hear out a foreign agent trying to influence the presidential campaign. Who knows, the Russians might have had kompromat on Clinton!
It’s an important document because while lying to the press is perhaps unwise, lying to Congress is a crime, so his statement has a higher presumption of truthfulness than previous ones. The public still hasn’t gotten an accounting of the meeting from the standpoint of Kushner or Manafort. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has appeared to be focusing on Manafort in recent weeks, conducting a predawn raid on one of his homes and subpoenaing his former spokesman.
The latest Trump Jr. explanation offers some difficulties of its own. For one, why did Trump dissemble and try to spin the encounter so hard at first? For another, why didn’t he consult with a lawyer before the meeting? Trump has an explanation for that, too: The campaign was simply too much of a mess to do things right.
“I had never worked on a campaign before and it was an exhausting, all-encompassing, life-changing experience,” he said. “Every single day I fielded dozens, if not hundreds, of emails and phone calls.” (How it is that novice workers on a chaotic campaign would be so sure that meeting with foreign agents is standard operating procedure remains unexplained.)
Trump Jr. also downplayed his now-infamous response to Rob Goldstone, the friend who arranged the meeting, which included Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with various ties to the Putin government, and Rinat Akhmetshin, a mysterious lobbyist. “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” he wrote. In his statement Thursday, Trump Jr. wrote, “As much as some have made of my using the phrase ‘I love it,’ it was simply a colloquial way of saying that I appreciated Rob’s gesture.”
There’s one final problem with Trump Jr.’s claim: By the time he took the meeting, his father’s campaign had been arguing that Clinton was unfit for the presidency for some time; the afternoon of the meeting, Trump Jr. attacked her on Twitter for deleting emails. Trump Jr. has effectively conflated his father’s political interest with the national interest.
Still, given the tough hand that Trump Jr. has dealt himself, from taking the meeting with Veselnitskaya to putting everything in writing to lying about it in the early days, excusing himself as acting out of nothing but selfless patriotism is not merely an act of chutzpah. Patriotism may indeed be the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Dr. Johnson had it, but it is also the last refuge of a clever lawyer.