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In the 1997 movie Conspiracy Theory, Mel Gibson plays cab driver and conspiracy nut Jerry Fletcher, who weaves together wild theories on everything from the United Nations to the Vietnam War—and then one of his theories turns out to be true, and very dangerous.
The media in the first months of the Donald Trump presidency have been Jerry Fletcher, obsessed to the point of derangement with Trump and especially with the idea that he “colluded” with the Russian government in its attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election. The Trump administration strongly denied the charges, and reporters produced very little evidence. It seemed like a “nothingburger” that served only to boost ratings, as a hidden camera caught CNN’s leftist commentator Van Jones saying.
That calculation changed this week, as the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., released emails showing he responded with great interest last year to a proposed meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who claimed to have documents from the Russian government that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign and be “very useful to your father.” Trump Jr. told an intermediary, “… [I]f it’s what you say I love it” and arranged for a secret meeting on June 9, 2016, with Veselnitskaya that included Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.
In other words, the Jerry Fletcher media may have stumbled onto a real scandal. So far, no evidence suggests the meeting comes anywhere near the definition of treason, as some Democrats have argued, or was likely even illegal, but it’s more than a nothingburger. The question of legality turns on a federal statute that prohibits foreign nationals from “making any contribution or donation of money or other thing of value” to a U.S. political campaign. But many legal experts say that interpreting information as a “thing of value” would probably render the statute unconstitutional.
The real concern here is most likely ethics. The Russian government has its own purposes in everything it does, and those purposes do not involve the best interests of the United States. It is a hostile power that attacked Ukraine and annexed Crimea, spies on the United States, and launches hundreds of jet fighters into NATO airspace. Americans have a right to know whether Trump aides discussed offering policy concessions (such as a lifting or softening of sanctions) to this adversary of America in return for campaign help.
Even if they didn’t do so, the secret meeting may have put the Trump team in a position to have this hostile foreign government politically blackmail the administration later, as National Review columnist David French points out. (No evidence suggests such blackmail happened, but the meeting opened up the possibility.) And while it may not be illegal for a candidate to go to an American adversary for help in defeating a domestic political opponent, it certainly should concern us. Members of the Trump administration know this, given their previous denials that any such meetings took place, including denials from Trump Jr. himself, before he finally released the emails.
Have Democrats made similar errors? Certainly. Democratic Party officials reportedly met with Ukrainian officials to help the Clinton campaign, including in the area of opposition research. The Clinton Foundation, meanwhile, was a vehicle for foreign interests to try to buy influence in what they thought would be a future Clinton administration. But those ethical breaches don’t excuse the Trump team, which is now in the White House, from showing a dangerous lapse in judgment.
Donald Trump as president has done some excellent things. A person can be enthusiastic about the Neil Gorsuch appointment to the Supreme Court, the repeal of the contraceptive/abortifacient mandate, and Trump’s defense of Western civilization during his July 6 speech in Poland, and still be concerned that some of his top advisers seemed eager to meet secretly with Russian officials hoping to influence the U.S. election.
The meeting, even in its best possible light, is an ethical blemish on the administration. It’s not Watergate or Whitewater, but we need to know more about what happened on that June day in Trump Tower.