So what was happening last year around June 9, when Donald Trump Jr. met with Natalia Veselnitskaya? Quite a lot, as it turns out. For one thing, the first week of June was the week that father Trump’s racist attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel went into warp speed. That was when Trump said that categorically and by definition, Curiel could not decide the Trump University case impartially because he was Latino.
It was exactly June 9, funnily enough, when Paul Ryan—who had officially endorsed Trump a few days before—acknowledged that what Trump said was “sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment.”
More on point, Hillary Clinton officially clinched the Democratic nomination on June 7. It’s not as if Trump didn’t know for weeks, of course, that Clinton was going to be his opponent (he officially sewed up the Republican nodon May 26). But it’s a psychic marker in presidential campaigns and always has been—early June, when the primaries and caucuses end, is when a nominee’s campaign starts to think in earnest about the general election.
So it was the perfect time for Don Jr. to decide to take a meeting with a Russian woman he’d never heard of who was promising dirt on Clinton. At the time, Don Sr. was behind in the polls by four points on the low end and 12 on the high, and no one in America thought he was going to win.
Trump Jr.’s tweet about all this on Monday morning was jaw-dropping: “Obviously I'm the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent… went nowhere but had to listen.”
This is your classic demagogue’s bait and switch. No, Donnie. The allegation is not that you met with someone who had info about an opponent. Obviously, people on campaigns do that all the time.
It’s just that they normally do it with fellow Americans. People who can be presumed to have America’s best interests at heart as they see it. Veselnitskaya is Russian and pro-Putin. So the allegation is not that Trump Jr. “met with someone who said she had info.” The allegation is that he met with someone who was from a hostile country, and as it happened the same hostile country that had already by last June been the subject of numerous news stories probing into Trump senior’s business relationships.
Junior’s tweet will become the talking point tonight on the cable shows, we can be sure. You can already hear Sean Hannity and Jay Sekulow saying it, can’t you? “Wouldn’t any campaign have done the same”? No, any campaign wouldn’t have. Any campaign would have sought to learn some things about this woman, try and get an idea of what her agenda was, and may well have turned her down. And any normal campaign aide approached by a person like Rob Goldstone, a former British tabloid journalist with ties to the kinds of Russian oligarchs who’d already been a headache for the campaign, would have proceeded with much greater caution. As former Bush ethics lawyer Richard Painter tweeted Monday: “When a Russian agent calls to offer dirt on a political opponent, a loyal American will call the FBI.”
And remember—it wasn’t just Junior. Paul Manafort came to the meeting. The campaign manager at the time. And Jared Kushner. To get three high-ranking people to go a meeting with a stranger, well, they must have thought it was potentially a pretty big deal.
Let’s get back to our timeline. This was a crucial period in the campaign for two reasons. First, it was the last moment that any principled Republicans had to stand up and say “I will not support this man.” A few of them did, but more typical was this flavor of porridge peddled by Marco Rubio—as it happens, on the same June 9 of the now-famous meeting. Rubio had endorsed Trump in May and was asked that day by a Weekly Standard reporter if he still believed Trump couldn’t be trusted with the nuclear codes. “I stand by everything I said during the campaign,” Rubio said. Courage! The same courage shown by Ryan that day, incidentally, when he said yes, Trump’s comments were racist, but no, he was not withdrawing his endorsement.
The second thing that made this a crucial period is that this is when the cyber-conspiracy wheels really started turning. Three days after the meeting, on June 12, Julian Assange went on British TV to say for the first time that he had a trove of Clinton-related emails he was going to be releasing (he started doing so in late July, right before the Democratic convention, timed to inflict maximum damage). On June 14, the Democratic National Committee announced that it was hacked. The next day, Guccifer 2.0 took credit for the DNC hack (the cyber-security firm that investigated the breach said it didn’t believe Guccifer’s claims and that it believed Russia was behind the hack).
Were they all coordinating on some level in those early June days? I know how easily such a question can be dismissed as conspiracy-theorizing. And I’m not a conspiracy theorist. At the same time, to use a phrase coined as far as I know by the great Wayne Barrett, there’s also such a thing as a coincidence theorist, to whom everything is just an odd little fluke that can surely be explained away.
It was these people who were saying two or three weeks ago that if this is we’ve got so far on the whole Russia story, let’s just drop it and admit Trump is right and move on. But we have no idea what Robert Mueller and his investigators know. And we now know that high figures in Trumpland were eager to collude. This is far from over.