A number of writers in these pages have been critical of the meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Rob Goldstone, and a Russian lawyer. They include a lot of people I respect highly. Here are a few: Charles Krauthammer, David French, and the editors of National Review.
The visceral reaction of these writers was that there was something terribly abnormal or unethical about Trump Jr. being eager to meet with Goldstone and his Russian contact.
I didn’t react the same way. My first impulse was to think that, if I had been Trump, I too would have wanted to get useful information from the Russian, or at least to see what information she had. I wouldn’t have “loved” the idea, as Trump Jr. said he did, but I would have wanted to listen to what the contact had to say.
After reading the NR articles, I thought perhaps I was missing something. So I called one of my former campaign staffers and asked him what he would have done in Trump Jr.’s place.
He said that “it would have been campaign malpractice not to explore the opportunity.” He added: “The first thing I would have done was to call the lawyers to see how I could proceed.”
That pretty much sums up my opinion. If I were running in a close race against an opponent who had been credibly accused of using her foundation to do favors for foreign entities, and a contact from one of those entities had approached my campaign with an offer of information, I would have wanted my campaign to follow up, albeit with caution. (More on the cautious part later.)
I would have been suspicious, of course, of the motives of the representative and the foreign entity. Maybe somebody was playing my campaign — setting us up. On the other hand, I would have also thought that it was precisely people connected with the foreign entity who might have the kind of information that would expose illegality by my opponent.
In other words, my reaction was that the meeting proves nothing other than that the Trump campaign was exploring a lead it thought credible, as it would have explored any other credible lead, whatever the source, and as most campaigns would have done in similar circumstances.
I ran for office eleven times, and in four highly competitive races: one for Congress, one for governor, and two for the Senate. Naturally, I wanted very much to win, in part because nobody likes to lose, but also because I really felt that I could accomplish worthwhile things in office.
To be sure, in any given election, many voters think that all of the candidates are pretty worthless, but understandably enough, the candidates themselves rarely see it that way. President Trump wasn’t the first politician, and won’t be the last, who believed that he could make America great again if only he could get elected.
In addition, when you become the nominee of your party, you have a responsibility to do everything you can to succeed. The agenda of your movement is at stake, your party is counting on you, and your supporters are working hard to elect you. Of course, every campaign should operate within ethical as well as legal constraints, but a candidate doesn’t have the luxury of eschewing an opportunity for political advantage because it carries some risk or is in some way distasteful.
I think most politicians of both parties would feel that way. And most candidates wouldn’t care too much about whether a foreign entity was rooting for them to win. How, really would you know what a foreign government is thinking? And what difference would it make to your campaign if you did know?
It’s a pretty good bet that Vladimir Putin preferred Barack Obama to Mitt Romney in 2012, given this episode, and this one.
So what should Obama have done? Blow the race to frustrate the Russians?
One of the things the press likes to do is to raise the visibility of something that has been part of the political culture for a long time, when by focusing on it they think they can embarrass a politician they don’t like. The press manifestly dislikes President Trump, and it has now discovered how terrible it is that foreign governments get involved in our elections — as if that never happened before, and as if the media hadn’t pretty much ignored it when it did.
I am not accusing Charles, David, or NR’s editors of engaging in such a double standard. But a double standard definitely is at play in much of the coverage of the Goldstone–Trump Jr. meeting.
Now for the caution part. Politics is a highly regulated affair, and so is dealing with foreign entities and people who purport to represent them.
The Trump campaign should have had experienced lawyers and senior national-security advisers, and those people should have been consulted when the request for a meeting was made. They could have helped lower the risks attendant to such a meeting. In fact, I would have had a lawyer and an intelligence professional attend the meeting, to assess the motives of the parties, the value of any information, the possibility of foreign intrigue, and whether the information should be shared with the authorities.
The Trump campaign didn’t do that, of course. But all that tells us is that the campaign was not a normal campaign with a normal infrastructure, and that President Trump’s team was less risk averse than most politicians or for that matter most people. That much we knew already. And to be fair, there is no evidence, other than the Goldstone episode itself, that at the time of the meeting, Trump’s people were aware Russia was involved in the election at all (though the Obama administration evidently knew) and therefore little reason for them to believe that the meeting would be as sensitive as it has become.
The upside of being risk positive is that you exploit more opportunities quicker. The downside is that some of those opportunities come back to bite you later.
By my count, there are at least three ongoing official investigations into Russia interference: the Mueller inquiry, and the House and Senate Intelligence Committee probes. By the time these bodies conclude their work, they will have collected a great deal of information about a great number of things, including not just the Trump campaign, but the response of the Obama administration to intelligence it received, the surveillance and unmasking of American citizens, and the leaks of classified information springing from this whole episode and its political fallout.
Some people will undoubtedly end up being embarrassed, and a few may suffer consequences greater than that. We may all be surprised, both by who gets hurt and who doesn’t. I will allow the process to finish before reaching any conclusions. In the meantime, I am inclined to view the Trump–Goldstone affair more as a straw in the wind than a smoking gun.