In the week since the Donald Trump Jr. Russia-email scandal broke, the excuses from the White House, the president’s legal team, and top Trump associates have gone from bad to worse.
On Sunday, Jay Sekulow, the face of President Trump’s outside legal team, made the rounds on the various morning political talk shows to defend the president against what Team Trump has repeatedly smeared as a “witch hunt.”
When asked by ABC’s Jonathan Karl about the infamous Trump Tower meeting that Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner attended—at which Trump Jr. solicited Hillary Clinton dirt from people he was told were Kremlin representatives and that the Kremlin wanted to support Trump—and whether the FBI should have been notified, Sekulow trotted out a fresh talking point passing the buck to the U.S. Secret Service.
“Well, I wonder why the Secret Service, if [the Trump Tower meeting] was nefarious, why the Secret Service allowed these people in,” Sekulow said on Sunday morning. “The president had Secret Service protection at that point, and that raised a question with me.”
On Sunday, Secret Service spokesman Mason Brayman offered an answer to Sekulow’s question, telling Reuters that Trump’s eldest son “was not a protectee of the USSS in June, 2016. Thus we would not have screened anyone he was meeting with at that time.”
Sekulow then tried to shift the conversation away from the Russian government and the Trump presidential campaign and toward the Ukrainian embassy and the Democratic National Committee—the Trump White House’s new favorite argument that is so flimsy even Trump aides know how weak it is, as The Daily Beast reported last week. The argument is based almost entirely on willfully blurring the meaning of a single Politico article published in January, and insisting that “if there’s been any evidence of collusion in 2016 that’s come out at all or been discussed that’s actually happened it would be between the DNC and the Ukrainian government,” as deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said last week.
The series of fishy excuses that the president’s legal team continues to push isn’t so much a bug in Team Trump’s messaging apparatus, as much as it is a feature in it.
“Hillary Clinton can illegally get the questions to the Debate & delete 33,000 emails but my son Don is being scorned by the Fake News Media?” President Trump tweeted early on Sunday, in his undying quest to make every scandal during his administration about Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival who lost in November.
And as scrutiny over the meeting expanded late last week to an increasingly large circle of people, the senior Trump aides at the center of the controversy are trying to get out exculpatory explanations—without actually saying much of anything.
An email thread that detailed the then-upcoming meeting was forwarded last summer by Trump Jr. to both Manafort, at the time Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman, and Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and still senior adviser.
In one email to Trump Jr., a friend offered to connect the president’s eldest son to a “Russian government attorney” who could relay “very high level and sensitive information” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
The thread forwarded to Kushner and Manafort included a particularly one-the-nose subject line reading, “Re: Russia - Clinton - private and confidential”—a subject header that might raise an eyebrow or two.
According to a source familiar with the situation, speaking to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter, Kushner claims that he did not scan to the bottom of the email thread forwarded by his brother-in-law, therefore completely missing the part about “Russia and its government.”
The president’s senior adviser also maintained that he was only in the room for 10 minutes, wasn’t party to any discussion touching on potential Hillary dirt, and that he managed to only be present for parts of the conversation that specifically involved Russia-U.S. adoption policies.
Last week, Kushner’s representatives referred all requests for comments back to an earlier statement, and said that Kushner was now officially deferring all further questions on what exactly happened in the Trump Tower meeting to Trump Jr. himself.
Kushner’s claim that he didn’t know precisely what was in the “confidential” “Russia” and “Clinton” email sent to him sounds familiar, only because it’s the same explanation, or excuse, that Manafort has been shopping.
On Tuesday, a source close to Manafort told Politico that the ousted Trump campaign chief “hadn’t read all the way to the bottom of the email exchanges on his phone and that he didn’t even know who he was meeting.”
Manafort’s spokesman Jason Maloni declined to comment when reached by The Daily Beast.
When Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer with alleged ties to the Kremlin who was in the meeting, sat down for an interview with NBC News, she appeared to back up at least some of what Team Kushner and Manafort-world were pushing out. Veselnitskaya claimed that Manafort spent much of the meeting fiddling with his smartphone, and Kushner exited the meeting after making a 10-minute appearance.
However, of all the people close to Manafort and Kushner who were reached by The Daily Beast this and last week, none could provide a coherent explanation—or simply would not do so on the record—for why the subject line “Russia - Clinton - private and confidential” did not set off alarm bells for either man.
One source literally just shrugged, before abruptly changing the subject.
At the time, Russia was not as front-and-center in the campaign as it would be just days later. The meeting with Veselnitskaya came less than a week before the Democratic National Committee revealed that its email servers had been compromised in cyberattacks that U.S. intelligence agencies have attributed to Russian government-linked actors.
Still, many seasoned veterans of the Trump campaign find it baffling that any of this was allowed to occur at the highest levels at this stage in the presidential fight against Hillary Clinton. Some chalk it up to the “inherent sloppiness” of the entire campaign, as one former Team Trump official characterized it. Others blamed a combination of inexperience and overzealousness.
“It is insane, borderline psychotic, that Paul [Manafort]… let this happen,” another former senior Trump campaign aide told The Daily Beast. “It’s just one of those things that will follow you forever.”
It’s a situation that has left Trump-world’s legal teams, surrogates, and senior figures in a constant scramble to find the next best-sounding explanation. And as Kushner and Manafort attempt to avoid the kind of hot water into which Trump Jr. has plunged, they will likely continue to issue yet more convenient explanations and the insistence on honest mistakes.
When Kushner originally submitted in January his SF-86 form, required for senior administration posts, he neglected to include mentions of his meetings with foreign government officials during the campaign and the presidential transition.
According to a recent report in Yahoo News, Kushner’s legal team are now asserting that this was an accident, and that “a member of his staff had prematurely hit the ‘send’ button for the firm before [the form] was completed.”