The White House and its allies have a plan to make the Donald Trump Jr. Russia-email scandal go away. The plan, which shows no sign of being able to make “Fetch” happen, relies on deliberate misrepresentation, wishful thinking, and bizarre false-equivalence. It involves making the entire story about the Democratic Party and Ukraine.
There’s just one problem with the plan: It is a shockingly weak argument and even they know it.
It’s like “trying to make the Lewinsky scandal about Bob Dole getting a blowjob,” a longtime GOP operative and outside adviser to President Trump said of the attempt to take the heat off of Don Jr. by directing it at the Democratic National Committee.
The now-famous White House talking point gained steam in the aftermath of reports from The New York Times that Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner took a meeting after being promised dirt on Hillary Clinton directly from the Russian government. After dissembling about the purpose of that meeting, Trump Jr. subsequently confirmed the Times’ reporting.
Such an admission threw a wrench into Team Trump’s year-long efforts denying any hint of Russia-related collusion. But the White House was not deterred. Instead, aides and allies responded by insisted that the Democrats were the real colluders. Go bother them.
It’s a bait-and-switch scheme that amounts to swapping Trump-Russia for DNC-Ukraine.
Sebastian Gorka, a White House aide whose substantive work primarily consists of going on TV, told CNN on Tuesday that the Democrats were the ones “sending its people to the Ukrainian embassy to coordinate oppo attacks against our candidate.”
“If you want to see collusion, it’s in the DNC,” he said. “I mean, it is up to their necks.”
On Wednesday, principal deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders followed suit, saying from the briefing room 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.”
The argument pushed by Gorka, Sanders and others is based almost entirely on a willful blurring and changing the meaning of a single Politico article published in January. Early this year, Politico posted a story (co-written by Ken Vogel, who now works for the Times) involving Alexandra Chalupa, a Ukrainian-American operative who worked as a consultant for the DNC. According to Politico, Chalupa met with officials from the Ukrainian embassy in Washington, D.C., to discuss obtaining dirt during the election on potential Team Trump foreign ties. One DNC official anonymously told the news outlet that the committee did not use her research or her findings.
An early paragraph in the story itself specifically states that Ukrainian efforts “were far less concerted or centrally directed than Russia’s alleged hacking and dissemination of Democratic emails.” Still, Trump’s team and his fervent supporters are now seizing upon the old report to try to paint the Ukrainian effort as the bigger bogeyman than Russian election meddling.
Sources in and outside the White House who spoke to The Daily Beast about this line of counterattack conceded that trying to cast the spotlight onto the DNC and Ukrainian embassy was merely making the best out of a near-impossible situation. “It’s what we have,” one White House official said, in terms of strategy and crisis-comms at the moment.
Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to discuss this week’s desperate attempt at spin.
“[The] DNC consultant WAS NOT repping DNC in mtgs w/ [Ukraine] officials, while DJT, Jr. WAS repping Dad’s campaign in mtg w/ [Russia]-linked” attorney, Vogel tweeted on Wednesday in response to the White House using his past reporting as a cudgel against his current employer.
Even as the White House and its allies hype Ukrainian-government support for the Clinton campaign, they have also suggested that the Russian government was secretly backing Clinton as well.
It’s a factually dubious premise, if only because Russia’s major geopolitical objectives are more or less diametrically opposed to those of Ukraine officials.
And yet, Trump has contended that Russian President Vladimir Putin would have been happier with a Clinton victory last year because “Hillary…wants to have windmills,” while his legal team has pointed to the Kremlin-linked clients of a political research firm that helped compile a dossier of compromising—and also unverified—information and salacious stories about Trump last year.
The message they hope to convey: There was no collusion but if there was, everyone was colluding with the other guys.
“[The Washington Times] states ‘Democrats have willfully used Moscow disinformation to influence the presidential election against Donald Trump,’” the president himself tweeted from his personal @realDonaldTrump account on Wednesday morning. “Why aren’t the same standards placed on the Democrats. Look what Hillary Clinton may have gotten away with. Disgraceful!”
President Trump did not deem it similarly disgraceful that his son took a meeting where Russian government dirt on Clinton was promised. In fact, at a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday, he defended it as standard operating political procedure.
“As far as my son is concerned, my son is a wonderful young man,” Trump said. “It was a short meeting. It was a meeting that went very, very quickly. Very fast.”