For months now, I have been in the “there’s lots of suspicious smoke, but no real fire” camp when it comes to the issue of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. After the stunning weekend revelations & reversals involving Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner meeting with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton, that is now changing.
It feels like we have reached a “tipping point” from a factual standpoint, though there is still no evidence that anything has, or likely will, change politically because of these developments.
Here are the key/damaging elements of this story:
-The timing of early June is exactly when it became clear that Trump would be the GOP nominee and is just before we (at least must of us) now know that Russia began dumping emails hacked from the Clinton campaign through WikiLeaks.
-This wasn’t just a meeting with the Presidential candidate’s son, it was also with his campaign manager (who would soon resign, seemingly over contacts with Russia) and his son-in-law, who would eventually be his top White House advisor. This was not a low-level meeting and it is absurd to think that Trump himself was not at least somewhat aware of it.
-Donald Trump Jr.’s first version of the story turned out to be a clear and bald-faced lie (these three big-wigs took a meeting during a critical time, with someone of whom they had no knowledge, to discuss adoption?!). Needing to lie so blatantly is obviously never a good sign, but the fact that it was White House sources who forced him to come forward with the new version so quickly is a strong indication that something really big is going on behind the scenes.
-The new story itself, that they were promised Clinton “dirt,” but didn’t actually get any, is, much like the president’s interview with Lester Holt after the James Comey firing, a virtual confession, at least with regard to the intent to “collude” with Russia.
-The White House explanations/excuses for this episode are laughable and come on the heels of Trump and his surrogates gladly/absurdly accepting Vladimir Putin’s claim that none of this ever happened to begin with.
-Trump peddling a highly dubious story circulating on state-run “conservative” media outlets about Comey possibly having “leaked” classified information (via memos which have never been given to anyone in the media?!) is a classic Trump tactic to strategically distract his “Cult 45” base, and another indication that they know this is bad.
Of course, all of this is not happening in a vacuum and must be seen in the larger context of what we already know. If this was the first we had heard of this issue, it would hardly be remotely conclusive. It could, after all, all be chalked up to a strange combination of coincidence and incompetence.
We already have the following data points, however, which are not in dispute:Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort reportedly resigned over ties to Russia and then, bizarrely, got called a “very limited” figure by press secretary Sean Spicer.
-Trump foreign policy adviser (and general goofball) Carter Page resigned from the campaign due to ties to Russia.
-Trump constantly praised Putin during the campaign, urged WikiLeaks to keep hacking, never released his taxes (as promised), and has showed no signs of wanting to punish Russia for what they did.
-Trump was forced to fire his National Security advisor Mike Flynn because he lied about his conversations with the Russian Ambassador.
-Attorney General Jeff Sessions has had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation because, on two separate occasions, he “neglected” to disclose, including under oath, meeting with top Russian officials during the campaign.
-Trump fired the FBI Director, put out a false cover story as to why, and the next day told a Russian spy in the Oval Office that he had done so to get rid of the pressure of the Russia investigation.
I’m still not willing to say that all of this proves that there was actual “collusion” between Trump and Russia, or if, even more importantly, Russia has Trump blackmailed, but even O.J. Simpson would look at all of that circumstantial evidence and think it looks REALLY bad. At the very least, the idea that this story is “Fake News!” is now ridiculous and anyone who still thinks that it is, must officially be deemed a member of “Cult 45,” or at least is paid by the state-run “conservative” media.
Living in the strange world in which we now do, however, none of this is likely to matter at all in the short run. Politically, this will change basically nothing.
Some Trump-critics are already overplaying their hand on this story. The low-information portion of the public has shown no sign of being fully engaged in any of this, and for those who haven’t already concluded it is “Fake News!” it is quickly becoming “old news.”
Of course, having already inoculated his cult against revelations like this, which it is becoming increasingly clear he anticipated, Trump can still rely on “Cult 45” to be unmoved (the mind boggles when contemplating what they might consider to be legitimate “evidence” here). This then means that cowardly Republican leaders will continue to pretend that this apparent earthquake is just another harmless tremor, which will quickly pass and be forgotten.
This will “work” at least until (assuming Trump doesn’t fire him in desperation first) Robert Mueller finally comes to his conclusions. At that point, the only line of Trump defense left might be to bet that the attention span of the average American is no longer than that of the president himself.
Sadly, this is probably not a bad wager.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at email@example.com
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.