Until Tuesday, the questions about whether Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia have largely centered on revelations from secret sources and suspicious connections that may ultimately be just eyebrow-raising coincidences. There’s been plenty of smoke, but no fire.
Then suddenly — there in black and white — was the president’s son eagerly accepting a meeting with a purported Russian government lawyer who dangled the promise of damaging information about Democrat Hillary Clinton. The type of coordination with Russia that Trump has long denied, the emails seem to show, was being embraced by his namesake.
“If it’s what you say I love it,” Donald Trump Jr. wrote in a June 2016 email to a music publicist who was acting as an intermediary with the Russian attorney.
In the four pages of emails published Tuesday, Trump Jr. also appeared unfazed when his associate stated that the information “is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” The meeting took place in New York’s Trump Tower a few days later.
It’s unclear if the meeting breaches election laws barring campaigns from receiving “anything of value” from foreign nationals. Nor does it clarify whether there was broader cooperation between the Trump team and the Russian government. Sorting through those questions will fall to special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional investigators, and an answer may not be known for months, or even years.
But the stunning email exchange immediately bolstered the legitimacy of those investigations, and undercut Trump’s efforts to dismiss the probes as a “hoax” and a Democratic-driven “witch hunt.”
Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, said that while Trump may have fired FBI Director James Comey, who previously led the Russia probe, “He didn’t fire the FBI. He didn’t fire the Senate intelligence committee. The FBI is going to get to the bottom of all this.”
Trump Jr. released the emails just moments before they were published by The New York Times. In a statement, he downplayed the encounter, saying the Russian lawyer ultimately “had no information to provide” and only wanted to discuss a disbanded program that allowed for U.S. adoptions of Russian children.
Regardless of what transpired in the meeting — which was also attended by then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, as well as Trump’s son-in-law and current White House adviser Jared Kushner — the disclosure pushes the collusion questions uncomfortably close to the president.
For months, Trump has vigorously denied that his campaign coordinated with Moscow and said he has no knowledge of contacts between his team and the Russian government during the election. When the attention on some of his advisers has gotten too hot, he’s quickly distanced himself from them.
Former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn, for example, was fired after misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. And as questions about Manafort’s Russian-linked business clients continued to mount this year, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the campaign chairman played only a “limited role” in the election.
But Trump can’t distance himself from his own son. He’s extremely close to his adult children, all of whom worked with him in his real estate business before the election. Though the Trump children did not have formal campaign roles, they were by their father’s side throughout the election and intimately involved in the operation.
Trump Jr., along with younger brother Eric, have taken the reins at the Trump Organization while their father serves as president and their sister Ivanka works in Washington as a senior White House adviser.
The restrained response Tuesday from White House aides — who have otherwise followed the president’s lead in aggressively condemning the Russia probes — underscored the increasingly personal nature of the latest developments. Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders read a brief statement from Trump calling his son a “high quality person” but largely avoided answering other questions.
The president has held no public events this week as the revelations about Trump Jr.’s meeting unfolded and his high-octane Twitter account has been notably silent on the matter.
The latest disclosures left some Republicans grappling for the right balance between backing a president whose broader agenda they still support and talking tough on Russia, a country many view as an adversary. Several GOP lawmakers followed the president’s lead and largely avoided the topic.
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah called the matter “overblown” and showered praise on the president’s son.
“He’s a very nice young man,” Hatch said. “One of the things that endears the president to me is how nice his children are. And they all love him. He divorced their mothers, and they love him.”