The common refrain across Fox News, talk radio, and the rest of the conservative media is that the investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia is a giant waste of time because there’s been no evidence of “collusion” yet unearthed. It’s a message that’s driven primarily by President Donald Trump, who seldom wastes an opportunity to append the catchphrase “No Collusion” to his frequent, manic Twitter assaults on the special counsel investigation.
The chief weakness in this narrative is the evidence lying everywhere that points to active and enthusiastic attempts by the Trump campaign to coordinate with Russians. Among the more damning incidents is the now-infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between several Russian nationals and senior members of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, including the president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr.
Trump Jr.’s position on that meeting has forever been in flux -- he went from denying it ever happened, to insisting that it was about adoption policy, to admitting that the real impetus for the meeting was an offer from sources linked to the Russian government to turn over damaging information about Hillary Clinton. At every step of this process, the president’s son (with some direct assistance from Trump himself) has lied and been determinedly vague in his recollections of what happened.
The particulars of how this meeting came to be and what the parties involved discussed were a chief focus of Trump Jr.’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a transcript of which was released yesterday. During his testimony, Trump Jr. tried to explain how it was that a meeting he participated in between Russian officials and senior Trump campaign officials (pitched explicitly as an offer from the Russian government to help his father’s campaign) wasn’t “collusion”: He was “skeptical” of the offer and barely even thought about it at the time.
Before we get too far into what Trump Jr. said before the committee, let’s quickly revisit what he wrote to Rob Goldstone, the publicist who pitched the meeting. Goldstone emailed Trump Jr. that the “Crown prosecutor of Russia … offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia.” The “very high level and sensitive information” was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Goldstone added.
Here’s Trump Jr.’s response, in full:
Thanks Rob I appreciate that. I am on the road at the moment but perhaps I just speak to Emin first. Seems we have some time and if it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer. Could we do a call first thing next week when I am back?
In his opening statement to the committee, Trump Jr. led off by saying: “As will become clear, I did not collude with any foreign government and do not know of anyone who did.” Recognizing the trouble this email could cause him, Trump Jr. specifically addressed it in his statement. He said he was “somewhat skeptical of [Goldstone’s] outreach” but “nonetheless, at the time I thought I should listen to what Rob and his colleagues had to say.” Referring to the “if it’s what you say I love it” portion of his response, Trump Jr. tried reframing it as a sort of polite brushoff, a courtesy to someone he didn’t really take seriously. “It was simply a colloquial way of saying that I appreciated Rob’s gesture,” he said.
Under questioning from Senate staff, Trump Jr. again insisted that “I love it” was actually a heretofore unknown New York colloquialism used to convey polite disregard. “As I said in my statement, it was a colloquial term used to say, hey, great, thank you. I didn’t want to deal with anything right now,” he said.
That’s obvious nonsense. The correct, plain reading of that phrase is that Trump Jr. was excited at the prospect of receiving dirt on Hillary Clinton from a foreign government source, and he basically acknowledged as much when pinned down by a Senate lawyer:
LAWYER: All right, but more specifically you say “If it's what you say, I love it.” What was the “it” that you loved in that e-mail?
TRUMP JR.: Potential information about an opponent.
LAWYER: Potential incriminating information on Hillary Clinton?
TRUMP JR.: Yes.
More inconsistencies abound. Asked if he was “surprised” or alarmed that someone had reached out to him with an offer of incriminating information sourced to a foreign government, Trump Jr. insisted he didn’t really take it seriously and barely even thought about it. “I don’t know that it alarmed me, but like I said, I don’t know and I don’t know that I was all that focused on it at the time,” he said. “I don’t remember thinking about it at the time.”
That’s when the Senate lawyer pounced:
LAWYER: So you responded in 20 minutes to an e-mail that on its face offered sensitive information but is part of Russia and you didn't think about it at the time?
TRUMP JR.: I may have thought about it at the time. I don't recall thinking about it at the time. And I responded in 20 minutes because if I get an e-mail I respond to it. If I see it, I respond. And, again, I didn't follow up. I don't know that I ever followed up other than in response to Rob following up with me three days later.
It gets still more confounding. After insisting that he was skeptical and not really invested in Goldstone’s offer, Trump Jr. acknowledged that a meeting was set up just six days later that involved the most senior-level staffers of the Trump campaign: himself, his brother-in-law Jared Kushner, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort. At the same time, though, Trump Jr. insisted that none of them knew what the meeting was about or who was going to be there, and no one really cared enough to figure it out, ask any questions, or even talk about it among themselves. “I then asked Jared and Paul if they could attend, but told them none of the substance or who was going to be there since I did not know myself,” Trump Jr. testified. “Because we were in the same building Paul, Jared, and I would routinely invite one another to attend meetings at a moment's notice.”
Once again, Trump Jr.’s explanation fell apart under the slightest pressure, and he had to retreat into claims of forgetfulness:
LAWYER: You got an e-mail with a title “Russia- Clinton, private and confidential,” you didn't mention that to Paul Manafort?
TRUMP JR.: Other than I forwarded the e-mail to him to invite them to the meeting, I didn't discuss it with him to my recollection, no.
LAWYER: And you said you forwarded it. That was the only time you recall discussing it with him?
TRUMP JR.: That's the only time I recall, yes.
LAWYER: And Exhibit 1 which you reviewed with my colleagues indicates that you forwarded it on June 8, 2016. At that point there's just a reference to “Meeting got moved to 4:00 tomorrow at my office,” Mr. Manafort responds “See you then.” Had you not discussed the meeting with him before that time?
TRUMP: JR.: I don't recall discussing it with him at that time, but I may have.
LAWYER: How would he have known what this meeting was about if you had not discussed it with him?
TRUMP: JR.: I don 't know.
LAWYER: Did he ever ask you about it?
TRUMP JR.: Not that I recall.
Trump Jr. tried mightily to paint a picture of blithe disregard for the offer from Russia because he thinks it disproves the idea that the Trump campaign had any interest in or intention of colluding with Russians. But at each point logic and documentary evidence proved him wrong: He and the Trump campaign expressed clear interest and moved with alacrity to see what “very high level and sensitive information” they could get their hands on.
They also proceeded without much in the way of caution, requiring Trump Jr. and everyone else involved to attempt a rewrite of what the evidence shows. That’s left them and their conservative media allies in the strained position of barking “no collusion” at their rigorously documented attempts at collusion.