The latest Trump-Russia revelations make me feel like the Bill Murray character in “Groundhog Day.” I’ve already written posts to the effect that “[Candidate] Trump could really be in trouble this time.” I’ve also already written posts to the effect that “[Candidate] Trump could really be in trouble and this time it could be different.” Like practically everyone else I read and communicate with, I’ve been wrong on these scores, but I’ll be plowing the same fields again – if only because the circumstances are so extraordinary, and especially because so much is still unknown.
First, my bottom lines: I remain skeptical that the emails Donald Trump, Jr. released yesterday (after he was told they’d be published) will result in the end of his father’s presidency in any direct sense (i.e., impeachment and removal, or resignation). I remain equally skeptical of meaningful (and I know that’s an important qualifier, as I’ll discuss below) Trump-ian collusion with Russia’s government (which includes lots of operatives without official positions) to undermine his chief presidential opponent Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
I am, however, more convinced than I had been that what is different about the newest disclosures is that Washington will remain preoccupied with “Russiagate” for most of the rest of the President’s (first?) term, that they’ve just about ruled out any meaningful policy accomplishments through 2020, and that one reason is that Mr. Trump will have bigger reasons than ever to toe a standard Republican establishment policy line that’s highly unpopular even with his own base, but that’s still gospel with a Washington wing of the party whose loyalty is vital to his survival.
Second, let’s knock down the main talking points offered by Mr. Trump’s aides and other supporters (full disclosure: I support much of his agenda, and most of his establishment-bashing). As should be obvious, the failure of the Russian lawyer actually to produce any damaging information on the Clinton campaign does not absolve the president’s son – or son-in-law cum adviser Jared Kushner, or then campaign manager Paul Manafort, of the charges that they tried to cooperate with foreign agents to affect an American political campaign (the heart of the politically salient collusion charge).
The email exchange showed that this information was the principal reason that all three figures attended the meeting. Their motives are completely unaffected by the false pretenses under which they acted.
Just as obvious, and just as bogus, is Trump, Jr.’s claim that he and his colleagues viewed an offer from Russia as nothing special because the Russia-gate charges had not proliferated. Manafort, for example, formally joined the Trump campaign manager on March 29. Certainly by May 2 – a month before Trump, Jr. first heard about the supposed Russian information – Manafort’s longstanding lobbying for pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine was making news. As a result, even if the president’s son was politically inexperienced enough not to recognize the potential dangers, Manafort himself, a veteran Washington operative, surely knew the score.
Even more important, the Russia business ties of Trump, Sr. himself were being scrutinized and fretted about at least as early as March 15.
Have any laws been broken? Beats me. That’s now officially the responsibility of Robert Mueller, te Justice Department’s Special Counsel, to determine. But much of this uncertainty centers on how much is known about this meeting, and how much is known about similar activities. Further, neither impeachment nor the future of the Trump presidency will necessarily hinge on such legal questions. A president, as I’ve noted previously, can be impeached for anything the House of Representatives believes satisfies the definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors” – which itself is a political, not a legal, concept. The Senate, moreover, can remove a president from office for equally political reasons.
So public opinion will be crucial. There are no signs yet that Russia-related charges have significantly damaged President Trump’s support either with the general public or among Republicans. But the more such Russia-related material keeps coming out, the likelier such erosion becomes.
Nor will the president’s political support depend completely, or even largely, on politicians’ often less than steely backbones. The new Trump, Jr. emails – and the continuing and utter failure of anyone in the Trump circle (including the president himself) to provide straight, durable answers to perfectly reasonable questions – understandably revive questions of how extensively individuals associated in any significant way with Mr. Trump or his campaign worked with the Russian government to sway election results.
Until yesterday, as I’ve written, I’ve felt confident that no important collusion evidence would emerge because none had yet been leaked – even though the matter had been probed for months by several official and many unofficial investigations, and even though bureaucrats at the highest levels have been positively eager to reveal incriminating Trump information even if national security could be undermined.
In addition, it’s never been clear to me why Russian interference with the election ever required cooperation from the Trump campaign – or any other American source. As long as Moscow was so motivated, its formidable hacking and disinformation capabilities were amply capable of producing the desired results on their own. Moreover, the U.S. intelligence community’s January report on the Russian interference campaign itself reported that Russian leader Vladimir Putin was wary of praising candidate Trump too enthusiastically precisely for fear of generating a backlash.
At the same time, even the canniest political leaders and other figures don’t always behave logically or sensibly. It’s also now clear at least that many in the Trump circle have been less than canny or, when it comes to explaining controversial events, even minimally competent. As a result, as stated above, there’s now indisputable evidence of receptivity to collusion by three extremely influential Trump aides (including two family members).
If the June Trump, Jr. meeting represents the extent of the collusion, there’s still an excellent chance that the president ultimately will survive the Russia mess. After all, what kind of (serious) collusion effort, once started, would feature no follow up? But because no one close to Mr. Trump now enjoys (or deserves) much credibility on these matters outside hardcore Trump-supporter circles, Democrats now have the pretext they need to force the administration to keep trying to prove a negative – a challenge no one should relish. Special Counsel Mueller has a comparable justification for prolonging his own investigation considerably.
Yet even before the possible crumbling of the president’s political support, for either legal or political reasons or some combination of the two, the Trump administration’s Russia-related problems could profoundly impact the nation’s policy agenda – and not in a good way if you’ve hoped Mr. Trump would be an agent of serious change. Here’s what I mean.
Recall that last year, Mr. Trump did not simply assume the leadership of the Republican party after winning its presidential primaries. He engineered a hostile takeover, supplanting a party mainstream that strongly opposed him on his two signature issues – trade and immigration policies. The shocking Trump fall victory, however, gave the incoming president crucial leverage in this relationship, and for a very powerful, concrete reason. The Republicans’ establishment leaders in Congress gave his campaign, and especially the inroads he made with new constituencies, abundant credit for saving the party’s control of both the House and Senate.
Once the Russia-gate charges and Team Trump’s failures to address them adequately began gaining critical mass, though, the dynamics of this relationship began changing dramatically. President Trump’s future became more dependent on the establishment GOP’s support. Therefore, he needed to warm to its establishment agenda – notably their budget and healthcare proposals – despite the poor poll numbers they’ve been drawing. Additionally, his ability to reach across the aisle on promising areas of bipartisan agreement, like infrastructure, turned into a function of the overall party’s flexibility – which seems pretty limited to date.
Since such vast new – and, due to the Trump circle’s constantly changing responses, legitimate – investigative frontiers have been opened up by the new emails, the Trump wagon now looks to be hitched to the Congressional Republican star more tightly than ever. That’s not to say that House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will never stray from their party’s orthodoxy. McConnell, at least, has hinted that bipartisan compromise may be needed on healthcare. Moreover, the party establishment is by no means united on all major issues, either. Consequently, intra-party divisions may widen the scope for bipartisanship (as has generally been the case to avoid or mitigate various budget crises).
But the main point here is that at this point, these decisions are likeliest to be driven by the establishment, not the president. And the tragedy, at least for anyone rooting for the president or any of his agenda, is how many of the resulting White House political and policy wounds will have been entirely self-inflicted.