Editor’s note: This commentary by retired ABC News diplomatic correspondent Barrie Dunsmore first appeared in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald Sunday edition. All his columns can be found on his website, www.barriedunsmore.com.
“This is much ado about nothing.” “It’s a nothing burger.”
“There is no there there.”
That summed up the initial reaction of the White House and its lawyers to the news of the week — that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin, in the expectation she had dirt on Hillary Clinton. It reminds one of the Nixon White House description of Watergate, as nothing but a “third-rate burglary.”
Yet by midweek it was clear that of all of the many reports in recent months suggesting the possibility of collusion between Trump campaign officials and the Russian meddling in the 2016 American presidential election, this latest is potentially the most explosive. It cannot yet be said there is now legal proof of collusion, but such proof appears to be tantalizingly close.
When the New York Times first broke the story that Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner and then campaign manager Paul Manafort had met in June 2016 with a known Russian operative, Trump’s son dissembled. He claimed he didn’t even know the name of the female Russian lawyer, said she wanted to talk about Russian orphans, and totally dismissed the meeting’s importance. However after further prodding by the Times, the next day he admitted he had been told the Russian lawyer had damaging information about Hillary Clinton, implying that was why he had agreed to meet her — although he went on to say that her information was “vague, ambiguous and made no sense,” and was not of any use or interest to him.
But with that, the cat was out of the bag. Out of Donald Trump’s son’s mouth was an admission that the Trump campaign would love to have dirt on Hillary, even if it came from a foreign adversary like the Russians.
Then on Tuesday, faced with the reality that the Times was about to print a number of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails on how this now infamous meeting was set up, he publicly released his own copies.
Even in a cynical place like Washington, those emails landed like a political bombshell. And nowhere was the impact greater than in the White House itself. The Washington Post reported it was “in chaos … as the president fumes against his enemies and senior aides circle one another with suspicion.” The Post quoted a Trump supporter as describing the atmosphere as like “a category 5 hurricane.”
I can’t help feeling that what we have learned this past week will in hindsight, be seen as the significant turning point in this dramatic political saga.
Among other things, the email revelations have destroyed the previous assertions that the Russian lawyer was unknown to Trump Jr., Kushner or Manafort and that they had no idea her promised anti-Hillary material came directly from the Kremlin. But most important, they give lie to the Trump mantra that his campaign had never, ever had substantive contacts on such matters with the Russians.
The most significant email came from a Trump business associate, a British music publicist who represents a popular Russian singer whose father is a very wealthy businessman with close ties to President Putin. They had all been brought together in Moscow during Trump’s Miss Universe Pageant in 2013.
In that email to Donald Jr., sent June 3, 2016, the publicist said a senior Russian government official was offering to provide negative information on Hillary Clinton. The documents “would incriminate Hillary for her dealing in Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously high-level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Trump Jr. responded immediately, “If it’s what you say, I love it.” Within a few days a June 9 meeting had been set up for Trump Tower in New York with a “Russian government attorney.”
Obviously on the Trump side, this was seen as an important meeting, but which Donald Jr. now insists was a bust. Maybe it was. But maybe it wasn’t. We have only his word for it, and frankly the Trump word — his or his father’s — leaves much to be desired.
There is as yet no evidence that any crime has been committed. But it is not far-fetched to speculate that this could have been a meeting which led to a quid pro quo between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin — that if the Russians helped to elect Trump — he would be sympathetic to Russian aspirations, would be non- confrontational and might reconsider Russian sanctions.
The son and the White House both deny the president knew anything about the meeting until very recently. That seems a stretch. But we do know this: During the campaign, Trump publicly exhorted the Russians to find Hillary’s missing emails — and praised WikiLeaks, which was publishing many of the Democratic Party documents the Russians had stolen. As president, Trump has been openly critical of a number of America’s historical allies — has scared NATO, threatened trade wars and tried to upset the international order. But there has been nary a word of criticism from him of Russia — or Putin himself. Trump said it was an “honor” to meet him last week in Hamburg, where he basically gave Putin a pass on the issue of Russian meddling in the American election. Trump has also opposed the latest Senate bill to increase sanctions on Russia because of the election hacking. How can all this be explained?
We are not at the end of the Russian crisis. And we still don’t have a definitive picture of how it might end. It could take another year of investigations by the FBI/special counsel as well as the Senate and House intelligence committees, and there is some dramatic testimony ahead which could contain surprises. Trump and some conservative Republicans may try to mount a counteroffensive. Still, I can’t help feeling that what we have learned this past week will in hindsight, be seen as the significant turning point in this dramatic political saga.