A smoking gun emerged this week and although the only reason we know about it is that it was leaked to reporters at the New York Times, reporting isn’t what unearthed it.
Lawyers are the reason it came to light. Specifically, Jared Kushner’s lawyers who, while prepping disclosures for the Senate Intelligence Committee, stumbled upon the emails detailing the meeting between him, Don Jr., Paul Manafort, a Kremlin-linked lawyer, and a cadre of god knows how many others. Kushner’s legal team likely decided that the sooner this bombshell swept the front pages of media and perhaps died down, the better for their client, who has offered to testify before Congress (before he had lawyers, of course, so who knows if it will happen).
With that, Kushner, who originally omitted 100-plus foreign contacts from his Standard Form 86 (SF86) security clearance until he first amended it, amended the form yet again to include the Team Trump/Kremlin meeting that was previously unknown to his lawyers and exploded across the nation this week upon its discovery.
Why would he disclose such a thing? Because his lawyers told him to. Why would they tell him to do that? Because a dogged special counsel with a fierce reputation and a full complement of FBI tools at his disposal is now researching everything Russia. Kushner’s lawyers may have been tipped off to something specific or they may have simply wanted to afford their client the benefit of claiming he made an honest effort to amend his SF86 before investigators uncovered that meeting, but whatever their rationale, it’s Robert Mueller’s special investigation that forced their hand.
In other words, the criminal investigation and the lawyers trying to mitigate its consequences are now driving a high stakes legal game that Donald Trump and his immediate family members don’t know how to play. Except for Kushner, who has more to lose than almost anyone in Trump’s orbit given his White House post and the fact that he lied about three crucial meetings on his SF86, which alone puts him in jeopardy of a felony conviction.
In fact, Kushner’s secret meetings get more interesting all the time.
First, we find out he met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December about setting up a secret backchannel of communication with the Kremlin. Then we find out he also met in December with the head of a U.S.-sanctioned Russian state-run bank, Sergey Gorkov, a meeting that was either about diplomacy (sanctions) or personal finance (a gigantic loan) or both. And now we discover another sanctions-related meeting from last summer that reportedly also included an offering of Clinton-related dirt and a possible quid pro quo mention. NBC News reported that as the meeting concluded Don Jr. hinted about the sanctions Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya was urging Team Trump to overturn:
“Well, the story that you’ve told us, it sounds very interesting but unfortunately at the moment, there is nothing that we, we can help you with about it. But maybe if we come to power, maybe one day, we will get back to you on that, because it really sounds interesting.”
Maybe, just maybe, if we come to power. Subtle.
But Kushner, for perhaps obvious reasons, is deadly serious about protecting his interests.
He’s hired well-known Washington hands now led by Abbe Lowell, an experienced criminal defense lawyer, while Trump and his son have been relying on New York lawyers with ties to Russia and who specialize in defending mobsters. That is, until yesterday, when Trump actually added a Beltway-savvy lawyer, Ty Cobb, to his legal team at the White House.
What that yields inside the White House is a legal tug of war between a mix of attorneys who are angling to protect their client, and their client only. Trump’s lawyers led by Marc Kasowitz are suspicious of Kushner, who they believe is giving Trump terrible advice. They’re not wrong. It was Kushner who pushed Trump to fire former FBI director James Comey, which then led to the Mueller probe. It was Kushner who assured his father-in-law that the White House could just breeze through this disclosure about the Don Jr. meeting. And ever since that bombshell meeting detonated, Kushner’s been pushing for a far more muscular response from the White House. With any luck, Kushner will have some more bright ideas and he’ll get them to Trump soonest.
But not if Trump’s private lawyer Marc Kasowitz can help it. He’s reportedly been a little overwhelmed as he attempts to impose a certain amount of structure and discipline on the communication that transpires within the White House, as well as that which comes out of it.
Not to be forgotten in all this is Mike Pence, whose spokesperson had a lot of trouble this week answering the simple question of whether Pence had met with any Russians. After a disastrous outing on friendly territory at Fox News, it’s almost a certainty that Pence’s lawyers labored over issuing a follow up statement that would stanch the bleeding while leaving Pence some wiggle room for plausible deniability. Remember, Pence’s counsel is also an experienced Washington operator.
But any way you slice it, the White House is now a hotbed of legal activity, which is hamstringing Team Trump’s ability to strategize politically about all things Russia. Caught in the middle is the White House staff, many of whom are simply trying to avoid legal liabilities. One Washington Post piece described senior White House staffers as “paralyzed” by “fear of the Mueller probe” as they tried to respond to the Don Jr. whopper.
Capitol Hill, on the other hand, is still being driven entirely by politics and GOP leaders are doing everything in their power to turn a blind eye to the 5-alarm fire that’s enveloping the White House. Paul Ryan has kept the Russia sanctions bill that the Senate overwhelmingly approved by 98-2 bottled up in the House, while his colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee banded together this week to block a measure that would have suspended Kushner’s security clearance.
These both seem like common-sense steps toward protecting the country from a White House that’s potentially crawling with people who are subject to blackmail by a hostile foreign power. Forget about impeachment for the moment, we’re just talking about the basics here.
But Republicans appear to have forgotten that they take an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies,” not the president. We could use a little patriotism now amidst a White House that is imploding on itself—and smothering American interests in the process.