There's a scene from a classic kids' flick that I haven't been able to get out of my head since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States last November. It's from "The Lion King," Disney's African plains cartoon romp about evil, ambition, resistance and finally redemption. The darkest point in the film comes when the young lion hero Simba's father King Mufasa has just died and Mufasa's corrupt and incompetent brother Scar (who'd secretly colluded in Mufasa's untimely demise) assumes the throne. Scar, backed by the scummiest creatures in the animal kingdom, promises that "out of the ashes of this tragedy, we shall rise to greet the dawning of a new era……in which lion and hyena come together, in a great and glorious future!"
Which reminds me: Trump met Russia's Vladimir Putin for the first time (or not) on Friday. Now that Trump is president, he no longer has to collude in secret. Instead, he not only seemed ready and eager to quickly move on from the issue of whether Putin and his minions illegally hacked Trump's election rival Hillary Clinton and tried to breach state election boards, but he also offered up a bizarre new idea in which the U.S. and Russia would actually work together on an "impenetrable Cyber Security unit" to prevent future hacking, which — as many were quick to point out — is the cyber-security equivalent of George W. Bush forming an anti-terrorism squad with Osama bin Laden in 2002. Trump's strange behavior seems more proof that our nation's leader simply doesn't grasp the seriousness of a large foreign power trying to subvert America's democratic election process.
Or it's something worse.
Tonight, the New York Times dropped its second of two stories in little more than 24 hours about a strange meeting that occurred in early June 2016 — just days after Trump had clinched the GOP presidential nomination — at Trump Tower; the main participants were Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump's son Donald Jr., his then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, and a Russian attorney said to have close ties to Putin's Kremlin named Natalia Veselnitskaya. The first story was significant because it was yet another contact with key Russian players that Kushner — now a top Trump aide tasked with, among other things, negotiating Middle East peace — had initially failed to disclose on his FBI background check. If offered more smoke — if not actual fire — suggesting that Team Trump and Russian interests were somehow working in tandem prior to Trump's general-election victory.
But now the story has gotten a lot worse for Donald Trump Jr. — who before this weekend had denied any campaign related confabs with Russians whatsoever. Now, he initially told the Times that he took the meeting with Veselnitskaya to discuss her passion for a deal that would restore U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans, which had been frozen amid escalating tensions between Putin and the Obama administration. That sounded kind of odd: Donald Trump Jr. — elephant hunter and adoption-rights activist, but it took less than a day for that version of the story to crumble.
Now Trump has admitted that the real reason why campaign officials wanted to meet the pro-Putin lawyer was that she had dangled dirt on Hillary Clinton's campaign, possibly — it was said — involving Russian funding for the Democratic National Committee. In Watergate parlance, which seems hard to avoid when writing about Trump, the adoption story is "no longer operative."
Like most of the bits and fragments that have emerged about the Trump campaign's dealings with Russian players that have been published in recent months, the Times scoop caused a frenzy on social media yet again raised more questions than it answered. There remains — as Trump partisans continue to point out, as they are right to do — a lack of any hard proof of a quid pro quo that would turn the whispers of treason into a scream.
That said, this story feels like a bombshell for three reasons:
- The sourcing. The Times said tonight's developments — which made a liar out of the president's first-born son and heir to his business empire — were revealed "through three advisers to the White House briefed on the meeting and two others with knowledge of it." Whoa. In horror movie parlance, "the calls are coming from inside the house"…the White House, in this case. The implication here is that the feud between key factions under the president — the right-wing nationalist cadre led by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller and the New York clique that would include Kushner and the president's son — rages on, a split which could have devastating consequences for a presidency already under investigation by a special counsel.
- The cover-up. If there was nothing underhanded about these meetings between Trump officials and various Russians close to Putin — including his U.S. ambassador, a state banker, and now a lawyer working aggressively to end American sanctions on Moscow — then why have so many high-ranking people risked their reputation and possibly their career to lie about them? The growing list of people who've lied about their Russian contacts and what was talked about now includes the U.S. attorney general (Jeff Sessions), Trump's original national security adviser (Michael Flynn), arguably Trump's closest West Wing adviser (Kushner, his son-in-law) and now the president's son. They always say it's not the crime but the cover-up. What else besides a cover-up can this be called at this stage of the game?
- The (possible) collusion. On the collusion angle, the Times scoop is another half-step forward. It shows that Team Trump (trailing in the polls for most of 2016, don't forget) was more desperate for dirt on Hillary at an earlier date than previously known, and that it had no qualms about dealing with a foreign adversary to get it. That's still no proof of collusion, but Trump's people made it known they wanted dirt on Clinton, and weeks later Russia is the prime suspect in releasing dirt on Clinton through hacked emails, even as it hired a huge team to publish anti-Hillary fake news and even poked around state election board computer systems. Russia also wanted sanctions reduced, and the Trump administration has relaxed some and seems perfectly agreeable with dropping most of the others. Here comes the second Watergate analogy — the scene in "All the President's Men" where Bob Woodward argues that "if you go to bed and there's no snow on the ground and wake up and see snow on the ground, you can say it snowed."
It definitely snowed. And yet I would say that — based on what what we know so far — this isn't yet the worst case of betrayal and, arguably, treason that has ever occurred during a U.S. presidential election. That took place in 1968, when the winning candidate threw a money wrench into talks aimed at ending the Vietnam War, since a truce would have helped his opponent. With the peace deal sabotaged, the war dragged on for four-plus more years with thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Vietnamese needlessly dying. Of course, that president was Richard Nixon, who seems to have forged the same twisted path that all Trump's men and women now follow.