What Donald Trump Jr. confessed to this week is not a nothingburger. It is significant, in the scheme of Russia-related things that has seen so many insignificant things blown up into massive stories and Breaking News, that he responded to such a clear offering of opposition research from a rival government source. Anyone more experienced in politics would see the red (natch) flag in the emails he shared, particularly in their strained specificity in aim and motivation. Then the ultimate result of the meeting – no oppo, and instead a random Russian attorney with a very specific pro-government request (assuming reports are accurate) should’ve had the attendees concerned and guarded, with the message discipline locked and loaded when, not if, the story came out. Instead, the message is what we have become used to from this White House: muddled, inaccurate, and ultimately undermined their defenders and left Mike Pence once again giving the long stare into the mirror.
My view is that this story is both significant and not significant. It is significant in that Donald Trump Jr and Jared Kushner will face unclear consequences – testimony at the least, and potential future perjury traps. It is not significant in that eagerness to collude on the part of the son of a president does not a case for impeachment make, and the left’s base is baying for impeachment at a louder and louder volume with each passing week. More Democrats will come out with impeachment support and soon enough that will be the dominant narrative of 2018. Already they show the signs of overreach they have applied throughout the past six months: Tim Kaine’s decision to come out and say that the investigation in the Senate has moved from obstruction to perjury and potential treason is just madness. We are not at war with Russia. Kaine is an attorney with a degree from Harvard Law, and he should know better – unless he is of the mind that the next email to drop is a GRU contact kindly requesting the nuclear codes.
“[T]he First Amendment requires any court (and bureaucrats and prosecutors, for that matter) to scrutinize the reach of laws over Americans’ political activity. This includes the strictest tests of vagueness and overbreadth. As with Trump’s public statements supporting the publication of John Podesta’s hacked e-mails, absent actual collusion (such as, say, arranging to receive actual foreign funds through a straw donor), there is nothing wrong with pursuing (moreover, publishing) information from a third party. On the current record, if Trump, Jr.’s meeting is cause for charges, or even an investigation, then the threat to American political campaigns is one that can only be foreclosed by never meeting with a foreign national.”
The closest comparison to this collusion storyline is one that was never fully plumbed in the 1990s: the fact that Bill Clinton received millions in potentially illegal campaign donations from China in his re-election campaign, and then the Department of Justice successfully squashed an independent counsel looking into it. China got a lot out of their investment: Clinton rolled back our stance on human rights violations to give them Most Favored Nation trading status, and then renewed it. That’s significant implied quid pro quo – Russia has seen nothing like that payoff from their work elevating Trump and undermining Hillary Clinton in the primary and the general.
The people in the hardest position at this point are those Republicans outside the White House, who are now becoming used to the idea that this will never, ever go away. They are struggling with internal mismanagement of their party processes in the Congress and an unwillingness to break things open and roll the dice on the Senate floor. They are tired of answering questions about things where they don’t know any of the details – it’s like playing for Ozzie Guillen, knowing that there is the ever-present possibility you will arrive at work to discover your manager has said something you must answer for on camera unprepared and unaware of the details. This is running Hill Republicans ragged, and their frustrations are likely to start spilling over. But the level of bloodsport and the Democratic overreach in these areas also means I suspect you’ll see very few peel-offs, if any at all. You’ll see criticism, yes, but not the calls those yelling at town halls want to hear.
There is a great deal of palace intrigue around this story, understandably so. Jared Kushner filing his revised form in his effort to receive a security clearance is why we know this – Donald Trump Jr. has no administration position and has not applied for any clearance, and has not yet been deposed, so it is hard to see how there are legal consequences for any of this. The question is, in a White House with so many factions at odds on key points: who’s burning who, and why?
Yet the larger point is the one to focus on here: This sets the stage for an impeachment election. The Democrats will be forced to run on this despite Nancy Pelosi’s protests. Republicans are happy to see that happen because they believe it will turn out their Trump-supporting base. And for all the attention this story is getting, I remain skeptical that this will be the story that changes Russia from a non-factor on the campaign trail to one that runs and runs. It took Bill Clinton lying while being deposed to give enough evidence for impeachment. A similar standard applies here.