Here is a good rule of thumb for dealing with President Donald Trump: Everyone who gives him the benefit of the doubt eventually regrets it.
This was true of clients and contractors and creditors throughout his business career. It was true of the sycophants and opportunists before whom he dangled cabinet appointments during the campaign and then, oh, never mind. It has been true of his cabinet members and spokesmen, whose attempts to defend and explain their boss’ conduct are gleefully undercut by the boss himself. And it should be true — for the sake of their souls, I sincerely hope it’s true — of the Republican leaders whose reputations for probity and principle he has stomped all over since winning their party’s nomination.
And now it’s true of me.
The benefit of the doubt I extended to Trump was limited, but on a rather important subject: I thought that direct collusion between his inner circle and Russian officialdom during the 2016 campaign was relatively unlikely and the odds of ever finding proof of such a conspiracy vanishingly low. A lot of weirdness around Trump and Russia, I argued, had a more normal explanation — he had made business deals with Russians, he still harbors a 1980s-era vision of superpower cooperation, and as a foreign-policy neophyte he clutched the idea of détente like a security blanket even as the Russians separately made moves to help him win.
My argument is no longer operative, because we know now that Trump’s son, his son-in-law and his campaign manager all took a meeting in which it was explicitly promised that damaging information on Hillary Clinton would be supplied as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
The meeting does not carry us all the way to the maximal collusion scenario, in which Trump himself was aware of Russia’s role in the hack of the Democratic National Committee and ordered his aides to conspire with WikiLeaks and Russian intelligence to time the drip-drip-drip of hacked emails and maximize their impact.
As the hapless Don Jr. protested in his own defense, the Russian rendezvous we know about came before (though only slightly before) the WikiLeaks haul was announced. So the Trump team presumably assumed that it involved some other Hillary-related dirt — some of the missing Clinton server emails that Trump himself jokingly (“jokingly”?) urged Russian hackers to conjure and release, or direct evidence of Clinton Foundation corruption in its Russian relationships.
With that semi-exculpatory explanation in hand, you can grope your way to the current anti-anti-Trump talking point — that Don Jr. and company were just hoping to “gather oppo” to which a foreign government might happen to be privy, much as Democratic operatives looked to Ukraine for evidence of the Trump campaign’s shady ties.
But even if accepting oppo from a foreign government is technically legal — it probably is, but I leave that question to campaign finance lawyers to work out — this talking point takes you only so far. I am not a particularly fierce Russia hawk, but the Russians are still a more-hostile-than-not power these days, with stronger incentives to subvert American democracy than the average foreign government. So taking their oppo has a gravity that should have stopped a more upright and patriotic campaign short.
So while this is not direct evidence that the president of the United States was complicit in a virtual burglary perpetrated against the other party during an election season, it’s strong evidence that we should drop the presumption that such collusion is an extreme or implausible scenario.
Anyone presuming Trump’s innocence at this point should have all the confidence of Chris Christie awaiting his cabinet appointment. Keep an eye on that Trump-monogrammed rug under your feet; it may not be there for long.