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Those Donald Trump Jr. emails probably aren’t as big a deal as some people are suggesting

Shady? Sure. But criminal is another matter.

Donald Trump Jr. in an elevator at Trump Tower in New York City.
REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

I feel like a sucker or a sap or whatever the kids are calling it these days. A tool?

I believe Donald Trump (senior) lies constantly and has no respect for factual accuracy that gets in the way whatever he is selling, even if he is selling it to himself, but especially if he is selling it for more than it is worth, which he almost always is. That approach to honesty and accuracy seems to be required of most of those who work for him.

I’m pretty much the opposite, by nature and by professional training. I can’t even bring myself to be knowingly “unfair” to Mr. Trump on a matter of fact. I have no respect for him and am not interested in feigning any. But I’m not ready to give up on facticity nor fairness, nor even some minimum level of civility, as a journalist nor as a citizen.

So, since I haven’t mentioned it yet, here’s where I am on the Donald-Jr.-colluded-with-the-Russians thing. It might turn into something Trump-presidency-threatening, but I’m not ready to get ahead of the evidence, and I have a hunch it might actually turn out to be a nothing-burger.

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Donald Jr. colluded. And there were Russians involved. He was told in advance that a Russian woman attorney wanted to meet, to give him dirt on Hillary Clinton that would help his father defeat her, and that this was part of the larger effort by the Russian government to help him win the election. The actual smoking-gun quote, in an email from the guy who offered to set up the meeting (and you’ve surely read this several times by now) was that the information that would be given by the Russian-government-connected woman at the meeting: “is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

And Trump Jr. said yes, he would attend such a meeting. In fact, he said “I love it.” (His father, the current incumbent president, provided his usual moral clarity when told about this, saying: “Many people would have had that meeting.

Maybe they would, but should they?

That’s as good as this story gets, so far. But, to me, even that would qualify as “collusion,” which the online dictionary defines as: “a secret agreement, especially for fraudulent or treacherous purposes; conspiracy.”

By agreeing to the meeting, Donald Jr. colluded with a woman for treacherous purposes, namely to participate in a Russian government scheme (conspiracy) to influence the U.S. election. He was told that was what the meeting was for, and he agreed to have the meeting. In his big Sean Hannity interview Tuesday night, he indicated that he was unaware there was anything inappropriate about having such a meeting with such a person for such a purpose, but he understands it better now.

I’m not sure we have the evidence yet to venture an opinion on the legality question. By agreeing to the meeting and attending it, Trump Jr. colluded in the dictionary sense, but just the emails that he released are hardly enough to convict him (or his brother-in-law, or then-Trump Campaign Manager Paul Manafort) of colluding in the legal sense. A lot of smart lawyers are weighing in on that and many of them say that to cross the line into clear criminality, the colluders would have had to agree to commit to illegal conspiratorial acts at the meeting and then carry them out.

Did they? Quite possibly, but no evidence of that has entered the public domain, and I guess I’m skeptical. We have Trump Junior’s account (the version I have is based on the interview he gave to Sean Hannity on Tuesday night).

According to Trump Jr., the Russian woman had nothing interesting to offer, nothing that would live up to the pre-meeting promise of helping Trump Sr. win the election, and that this became immediately obvious. Manafort was texting on his phone all through the meeting. Kushner left early. It was a “nothing burger.”

Is Trump Jr.’s account accurate? We have no proof either way, although it seems likely that others who were at the meeting will back him up. Was it a crime even to agree to the meeting? Or was it perhaps a technical crime not to have disclosed the meeting? Or did Kushner commit a crime when he filled out the paperwork for his current White House advisor role, and didn’t list the meeting even though he was required disclose all recent contacts with foreigners? Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker, a very smart lawyer-journalist, raises all those possibilities in this piece.

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I have no position on the technical-legal questions, although these might be important if law enforcement was trying to get leverage on lower level officials to get them to rat out higher level officials. (Kushner, by the way, has since amended his form to acknowledge the undisclosed foreigner meeting.)

What I (and I suspect most of us) really care about is whether we now have a president who knowingly and willingly colluded with representatives of a hostile foreign power to subvert a presidential election. That would be a big deal. And I am highly suspicious that it happened in this instance. I don’t expect the Trump Jr. meeting with the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, is going to turn out to be the smoking gun.

I’m not skilled in the craft of Kremlinology, but others who are so-schooled are skeptical. Check out this piece by Leonid Bershisky, a Russian businessman turned Berlin-based journalist who writes a regular column for Bloomberg View, which is where this one, headlined “Trump’s low level Russian connection,” was published. He says that, among other things, the shorthand “Kremlin-linked” for Veselnitskaya exaggerates what is known about her standing. “Kremlin-linked” seems designed to get us thinking big, thinking Putin.

According to Bershisky, Veselnitskaya is known in Russia for her efforts to get the U.S. to repeal the so-called Magnitsky Act, which is what Trump, Jr. claims she tried to do when she met with him. Bershisky says Veselnitskaya is not so much Kremlin-connected as connected with the regional government that includes Moscow.

Okay, now I’m starting to bore and confuse even myself. I’m skeptical that Veselnitskaya will turn out to be the Mata Hari figure for which some are hoping. Since I’ve gone on so long, and since I do believe in fairness and balance, I’ll close by linking to this Washington Post piece, in which several legal scholars smarter than me suggest that what’s already known, basically in Trump Jr.’s smoking gun email, demonstrates a criminal act.

“It’s a shocking admission of a criminal conspiracy,” said Jens David Ohlin, associate dean of Cornell Law School, in a statement shared with The Post. “The conversation will now turn to whether President Trump was personally involved or not. But the question of the campaign’s involvement appears settled now. The answer is yes.”

I don’t know Robert Mueller. He seems to have a sterling reputation. My big idea is to let that guy do his job. He’ll have the power to compel testimony under oath and follow the clues where they lead. Then we’ll see what we have.