CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 18:  Donald Trump Jr. listens to a speech on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicks off on July 18. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
White House under siege amid email fallout
03:01 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Donald Trump’s defenders have always argued that the entire notion his campaign colluded with Russia was all smoke and no fire.

That may not cut it anymore.

The President’s son and namesake, in a sensational revelation that significantly escalated the drama over alleged Russian election meddling incessantly battering the White House, may have provided the flames by releasing an email chain that detailed his expectations of getting Kremlin dirt on Hillary Clinton in a meeting he had with a Russian lawyer last year.

Donald Trump Jr.’s shocking move is more than another lurch in the storyline of alleged election interference that has utterly consumed American politics. The emails appear to add important context to the question at the center of the entire controversy: Was the Trump campaign willing to cooperate with Russia to use and highlight information damaging to the Democratic presidential nominee? What did the President know? What did his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, know?

The documents revealed that Trump Jr. agreed to meet a “Russian government attorney” last summer after receiving an email offering him “very high level and sensitive information” that would “incriminate” Clinton.

An email from publicist Rob Goldstone offered Trump Jr. a sit down that promised the handover of information as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

“If it’s what you say, I love it” Trump Jr. replied.

After months of innuendo, leaks and whispers over the Russia intrigue, the sight of inside information laid out in simple, conversational language in the email chain was shocking in itself.

And the implications of those emails could rumble on for months.

The emails, taken at face value, appear to show a willingness by Trump Jr., a vital member of his father’s political and business inner circle, to accept information purportedly from the government of Russia to help his father’s presidential campaign.

Read the email exchange

In an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News on Tuesday, Trump Jr. explained that he wanted to find out what the information was about.

“Maybe this is something,” Trump Jr. said, adding that he thought, “I should hear them out. … This was again just basic information that was going to be possibly there. … I wanted to hear them out and play it out.”

But he admitted, “in retrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently.”

The President came to the defense of his son in a tweet on Tuesday evening.

“He is a great person who loves our country!” Trump wrote, after earlier releasing a statement praising Donald Trump Jr.’s transparency. The President did not however engage in the substance of the controversy.

What happened in the meeting?

It remains unknown what exactly went on in the meeting, though Trump Jr. has said the lawyer had no “meaningful information” to offer. But his intent in heading into the encounter last year is likely to interest congressional investigators and Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, has denied she was a Russian government employee, but the emails appear to reveal that Trump Jr. took the meeting on the assumption that she did at least have government connections.

“When it was suggested that I meet with Donald Trump Jr., I met him in a private situation. It was a private meeting, not related at all to the fact that he was the son of the candidate,” Veselnitskaya told CNN’s Matthew Chance.

Arguments are already raging over the potential depth of Trump Jr.’s legal jeopardy.

But Tuesday’s developments also raise a string of political questions, which will dictate how much the latest disclosures punish the White House’s already depleted political capital, and the President himself.

Even the most charitable reading of the emails seems to lead to a conclusion that Trump Jr.’s decision to attend the meeting at all, and to get involved in an alleged international election intrigue, showed a staggering level of naiveté that reveals the Trump campaign’s lack of experience on the political stage. The least charitable interpretation adds up to a much more damaging legal and political nightmare for the White House.

Changing story

Tuesday’s denials were also problematic for the President’s son because they were the latest effort to clean up a story that had been evolving for three days, shredding his credibility by the hour.

On Saturday, he said that the meeting had primarily focused on a frozen Russian adoption program.

The next day he said that Veselnitskaya had told him that individuals in Russia were supporting the Democratic National Committee and backing Clinton, but that her arguments were “vague, ambiguous and made no sense.”

Then came Tuesday’s email dump, as Trump Jr. apparently tried to get ahead of a story in the works by The New York Times using the same material.

Trump Kushner
12 times Trump, aides denied Russian collusion
02:15 - Source: CNN

Collateral damage?

Trump Jr. is not the only presidential acolyte drawn into the storm by Tuesday’s revelations.

Both the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort took part in the meeting with the Russian lawyer, according to Trump Jr.’s statement on Sunday. It emerged Tuesday that both were cc:ed on a forwarded email telling them that the meeting would take place at 4 p.m. on June 9 last year in Trump Tower.

It is unclear from the email exchange whether Kushner and Manafort also knew that the Russian lawyer was offering incriminating information on Clinton.

Then, there is the ultimate question. How much did Trump know and when did he know it?

The White House has insisted that he was in the dark. But the Trump team’s story has changed so often during this furor that its own credibility has often been called into question. And the Trump campaign was one of the most tight-knit operations in presidential election history – in which Trump’s trusted grown children played outsize roles.

Family ties

On a personal level, the latest twist in the staggering Russia tale must be making life inside the West Wing for Trump and his family more fraught than ever, with the daily pounding of revelations now hitting the President’s inner family circle, the place where he has always invested the greatest loyalty.

Tuesday’s bombshell also handed the White House an ever expanding political problem – not just because Democrats seized on it to hammer the White House: Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine said Trump Jr. may have committed “treason” – though many legal experts would disagree.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer commented that Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer showed “intent” and that he must testify before Congress – signaling a new Democratic attempt to call the administration to account through congressional committees, in addition to the special counsel probe by Mueller.

The standard response from Trump aides throughout the entire span of the Russian intrigue has been that there’s simply no there, there.

“No obstruction, no collusion, (fired FBI Chief James Comey’s) a leaker,” Trump said in a press conference in June.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer often said the same thing.

“It’s been very clearly stated on multiple occasions that there’s no collusion that occurred, and yet this narrative continues to be perpetuated,” said Spicer in May.

The emails that were released by Trump Jr. on Tuesday may not totally undermine that line, as they are likely to form one piece of evidence in any cases assembled by congressional investigators or the special counsel.

But they certainly leave the viability of that defense, especially in a political sense, increasingly threadbare.