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Wed Jul 12, 2017, 02:23 PM

Watching the Downfall of a Presidency in Real Time

July 12, 2017
12:16 pm

By Frank Rich

After Donald Trump Jr.’s constantly shifting explanations for his meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer, we now know that he, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort were eager to receive incriminating information about Hillary Clinton that was offered as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Is this the smoking gun investigators have been waiting for?

There will be no single smoking gun that will bring down this White House. It will be death by firing squad — or perhaps a sequence of firing squads — as the whole story inexorably pours out of the administration’s smoldering ruins. This week’s bombshell has the feel of gallows humor. Trump Jr.’s panicked release of the self-incriminating emails is tantamount to picking up a loaded gun and shooting himself in the head. Why did Little Donald not do what the Trumps always do in these situations — let the press (in this case the Times) go ahead and report its incriminating findings, rail against leakers, and then dismiss the latest incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing as “fake news”? Was Little Donald trying to protect his father from even worse revelations? To take down his brother-in-law even as his brother-in-law (a possible source of the emails) tried to take down him? To deliver a message from or to the Kremlin?

Some politicians, lawyers, and pundits are characterizing the emails as legal proof of perjury, the felonious solicitation of a campaign contribution from a foreign national, or even treason. But these are opinions, not the findings of judges or investigators. Even if the opinions are sound, they may hardly be the sum of the matter. For all we know, the released email chain may be only a small and relatively minor part of a much larger criminal web that stretches from Donald Trump’s tax returns to his and the Kushner family’s respective real-estate dealings in Russia and beyond. The authorities who matter — the investigators at the special counsel’s office and the FBI — are not telling us what they are up to. They may already know — or may soon know — of evidence far more incriminating than the revelations of the past 72 hours. Even this morning we are learning via McClatchy’s estimable Washington bureau that investigators are looking into possible coordination between the Jared Kushner–run Trump campaign digital operation and Russia’s “sophisticated voter targeting and fake-news attacks on Hillary Clinton in 2016.”

The good news for those who want to see justice done is that this scandal not only resembles Watergate but also The Godfather — albeit a Godfather where every Corleone is a Fredo and not a single lawyer is as crafty as Tom Hagen, despite the fact that Little Donald’s private attorney has a history of defending clients from mob families. The level of stupidity of the conspirators is staggering: Not the least of the week’s news is that Kushner thought he could get away with omitting this Trump Tower meeting on the government questionnaire he filed to get his security clearance. (The $2.5 million that Charles Kushner donated to Harvard to gain his son admission was not money well spent.) My other favorite detail of the week (so far) is that Rob Goldstone, the former British tabloid writer and Miss Universe entrepreneur who served as the Trump campaign’s Russian middleman, posted on Facebook that he was “preparing for meeting” at Trump Tower on the day it took place.

Now it’s every man (and his lawyer) for himself as the president, having hidden from the press and the public ever since he returned home from his Yalta-themed tête-à-tête with Vladimir Putin, escapes to France, of all places. His press secretary is also in hiding, as is his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, who as recently as Sunday dismissed the Donald Jr. story as a “nothingburger” — Trumpspeak for the Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler’s designation of Watergate as a “third-rate burglary.” About the only administration stalwart not remaining silent is the vice-president, whose statement following the release of the Donald Jr. emails let it be known that he was “not aware” of the Trump Tower meeting and that it had taken place before he joined the campaign. Mike Pence has clearly been boning up on Gerald Ford, and may already be brooding about the risks entailed if he should eventually be in the position to pardon the 45th president.


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