July 12, 2017
by The NY Times Editorial Board
At a critical juncture in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign last year, his son Donald Trump Jr. met with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer who promised to share political dirt on Hillary Clinton. Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman at the time, and Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and a key strategist, also attended.
The June 9, 2016, meeting is of obvious interest to Robert Mueller III, the Justice Department special counsel investigating the Trump team’s potential involvement in Russia’s effort to influence the presidential election. In two clumsy statements over the weekend, the younger Mr. Trump on Saturday said the meeting was related to Russia’s freezing of an adoption program popular with Americans. When confronted a day later with a Times story citing authoritative sources that Ms. Veselnitskaya had promised damaging material on Mrs. Clinton, he said that the information she supplied was essentially meaningless and merely a “pretext” for discussing the adoption issue.
On the face of it, this seemed a clear though perhaps unintended admission by Donald Trump Jr. that he had gone into the meeting expecting damaging information, and the episode is clearly grist for Mr. Mueller’s mill. As is a report Monday night by The Times that the president’s son had received an email saying Ms. Veselnitskaya’s information came from Moscow. But his shifty statements are also further evidence of how freely his father and the people around the president contort the truth. Only six months in, President Trump has compiled a record of dishonesty — ranging from casual misstatements to flat-out lies — without precedent in the modern presidency. Equally disheartening is his team’s willingness to share in his mendacity.
On Sunday, before Donald Trump Jr. acknowledged that there was a Clinton-related aspect to the meeting, Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, was on Fox News suggesting that the Veselnitskaya episode was “a big nothingburger” for the Trump campaign.
If a culture of dishonesty takes root in an administration, how can Americans believe anything its officials say? Take, for instance, the matter of whether President Vladimir Putin of Russia personally directed Moscow’s hacking of the 2016 presidential election. In statements dating from his first days in office until the eve of his meeting with Mr. Putin in Germany last week, when he said “nobody really knows,” Mr. Trump has deflected and sought to discredit his own intelligence agencies’ finding that Moscow, at Mr. Putin’s direction, tried to disrupt the election to help him win. Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, said after the American and Russian presidents met in Hamburg that they “had a very robust and lengthy exchange on the subject” and that Mr. Trump had “pressed” Mr. Putin on the issue. Later, Mr. Trump made much the same claim on Twitter. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, had quite a different version of the facts, suggesting that Mr. Trump had characterized the hacking controversy as a “campaign” against Russia in which “not a single fact has been produced.” So whom should Americans believe? In a more credible administration, who would ever ask?
On Monday, Donald Trump Jr. hired a lawyer, while maintaining on Twitter that he’d been forthright in answering questions about the meeting last year. Meanwhile, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, deputy press secretary, blew more smoke: The “only thing I see inappropriate” about the meeting, she said, is that it was leaked to the media.