We may have finally reached the point at which it's no longer tenable to offer President Trump the benefit of the doubt about his motives for trying to obstruct the Russia investigation. He is in so far over his head with this job, and so lacking in both temperament and knowledge, that there was always the chance that he simply stumbled into this coverup without really understanding the stakes.
But the latest blockbuster Washington Post story about the president's personal involvement in crafting Donald Trump Jr.'s statement to the press regarding the now-famous meeting in June 2016 -- the one with a lawyer advertised as an emissary of the Russian government, to talk about its program to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton -- makes it impossible for anyone to maintain that he didn't understand how deeply his campaign was implicated.
What we know now is that the president overruled his own attorneys and advisers to dictate a statement that was at best misleading, in which he passed off the event as a benign meeting about Russian adoptions. The reason we can no longer assume that was just his clumsy spin to exonerate his son as "any father would do," as White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders put it on Tuesday, is because of this timeline, courtesy of journalists Laura Rozen and Josh Marshall:
July 7th: On or before Friday July 7th Trump advisors and lawyers begin discussing how to respond to press inquiries about Don Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer who an intermediary told Trump Jr. had information tied to the Russian government’s support for Trump’s candidacy.
July 7th: Presidents Trump and Putin meet for first meeting.
July 8th: Presidents Trump and Putin meet for a second, unreported meeting, at which they discussed Russian adoptions, according to President Trump [in his July 19th interview with The New York Times.]
July 8th: Late evening, President Trump overrules advisers and lawyers to dictate a statement for his son in which he claims that the topic of the June 2016 meeting was Russian adoptions.
Piecing together this timeline and based on President Trump’s own account, we can say that he knew his advisers were discussing how to respond to a press story about the June 2016 meeting. He had a secret conversation with President Putin at which they discussed the issue of Russian adoptions. Then hours later he dictated a false statement to be released in the name of his son in which he claimed that Russian adoptions were the topic of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting. That is a highly troubling chain of events to put it mildly.
It is undoubtedly true that the June 2016 meeting at least partly concerned the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 federal law imposing sanctions on certain Russian officials that resulted in Putin banning Russian adoptions in the U.S. -- sanctions that Putin is reportedly extremely anxious to have lifted. But in light of the fact that President Trump knew that the meeting with Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort was about to explode in the press, discussing this subject privately with Putin is more than a little bit suspicious.
We still do not know if there was any conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. It's well within the realm of possibility that Trump and his people simply accepted the "help" without any specific quid pro quo. But clearly Trump is desperate to keep the investigation contained and has gone to incredible lengths to do so.
If overruling his advisers and lawyers within days, to dictate a statement that made his own son look like a liar isn't convincing enough, consider Tuesday's other big report. It's a real "fake news" story involving a wealthy Trump donor by the name of Ed Butowsky who cooked up a false narrative, with help from Fox News, to make people believe that the hacking of the Democratic National Committee was actually a leak perpetrated by a disgruntled staffer who was later murdered in what remains an unsolved crime.
NPR reported Tuesday that one of the participants, a Fox News consultant named Rod Wheeler, has filed a lawsuit against the network alleging that he was coerced into creating the false report. He also revealed that Butowsky took him to the White House and spoke with former press secretary Sean Spicer about the story, and produced documentation showing that Butowsky told him the president was personally overseeing the project.
Butowsky later said that he was just joking about that part, and the White House has denied the president had anything to do with it. But consider what Butowsky instructed Wheeler at the time:
One of the big conclusions we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems and ste[a]l emails and there was no collusion [between] Trump and the Russians ... the narrative in the interviews you might use is that you and [Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman's] work prove that the Russians didn't hack into the DNC and steal the emails and impact our elections.
If you can, try to highlight this puts the Russian hacking story to rest.
The whole point of this project was not to deny that Trump colluded with the Russians but to create evidence that the Russians didn't hack the DNC in the first place. Indeed, the president himself has always hedged on that and has recently said that if the Russians had hacked the U.S., they are so skilled that American intelligence services would never be able to detect it -- which, as it turns out, is something Vladimir Putin told him! It seems almost as important to Trump to prove that U.S. intelligence has it all wrong and the Russian government wasn't guilty of the interference as it is to show he didn't collude with them.
None of this proves Trump was directly involved in this tawdry little fake news story. Indeed, if he weren't so obsessive about denying the Russian involvement, it wouldn't occur to anyone that a man in his position would be. But this president spends an inordinate amount of time on this subject. He obsessively watches cable news and often feels the need to respond via tweet to whatever he believes is unfair coverage of the story. He is micromanaging the scandal in every way, overruling his lawyers, his advisers and even his own family while trying (and failing) to keep the lid on it.
Personally, my money is still on the likelihood that Trump is desperate to keep his personal finances from being exposed. There's a reason he's hiding all the details about his fortune, and there's also likely a reason that special counsel Robert Mueller is assembling a team of experts in the fields of fraud, public corruption, organized crime and foreign bribery. But whatever it is that's got Trump so distressed, it's so important to him that he's risking everything, even the national security of the United States, to keep it a secret.