It’s one of the oldest messaging challenges in politics, one that has bedeviled countless administrations, Republican and Democratic alike: What do you say when the president’s son publishes emails on Twitter that prove the highest-ranking members of your campaign — including a current senior White House adviser — eagerly accepted an invitation to participate in a Kremlin-orchestrated effort to swing the American election, after virtually everyone in the White House spent months mocking that idea as a defamatory crock cooked up by sore-loser Democrats?
There’s an emerging strategy to turn this back around on the Democrats.
An extreme example of this approach is Roger Stone, who texted Axios: “The president can turn the tables and dominate the dialogue by ordering the indictment of [James] Clapper, [John] Brennan, [Susan] Rice and [former president Barack] Obama for the wholesale unconstitutional surveillance of Americans… I would seriously arrest [and] perp walk every one of these criminals, making as big a show of it as possible.”
Although Stone is a longtime confidant of Trump, this in no way reflects the strategy preferred by current White House staffers. With that said, there are already internal conversations about turning this into a conversation about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and the way they handled sensitive intelligence.
To Stone’s credit, sending the entire Obama administration to Guantánamo Bay would go a long way toward burying this Trump Jr. story. But assuming the president declines to go full authoritarian, this is some pretty thin gruel — and old, stale, leftover thin gruel at that.
It’s unclear exactly what the connection between Don Jr.’s emails and Obama’s handling of sensitive intelligence is supposed to be. Ostensibly, the only way the email exchange could function as evidence of Obama’s mishandling of intelligence and/or surveillance is as a sign that he should have been much more aggressive about spying on the Trump campaign. (Perhaps, President Trump plans to drop “Obama wire-tapped my team as part of fake Russia WITCH HUNT” for “weak Obama didn’t even bother to wiretap my team while they were colluding with RUSSIAN HACKERS — total incompetence, no wonder Putin didn’t respect!”)
More likely, the Trump team plans to breathe new life into its (wholly unsubstantiated) claim that the Obama administration excessively used its (legitimate) authority to unmask the names of American citizens caught up in routine surveillance so as to better understand the content of intelligence reports. Even before we learned this “scandal” was a fraud manufactured by the White House, it was a snoozer — a controversy over bureaucratic protocols that was somehow supposed to attract public attention away from the real-life, tragicomic spy novel that is the “Russia story.”
Officially, the president has said little beyond denying that he had any knowledge of the meeting, and insisting, “My son is a high quality person and I applaud his transparency.”
The administration’s defenders in the media and Congress aren’t having much better luck putting lipstick on this warthog. The Washington Post’s Ed Rogers had to rewrite his column decrying the media’s “hysteria” about imaginary collusion multiple times on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Sean Hannity argued that the emails actually prove Trump didn’t collude with the Russians — because if he wanted to engage in a criminal conspiracy then why would he have tried to put some distance between himself and the crime?
Rush Limbaugh took a similar tack.
Utah senator Orrin Hatch argued that the story was being “overblown,” since Trump Jr. is “not part of the administration, he doesn’t carry any banner, he doesn’t have any particular job in the administration” — an argument that (bizarrely) ignores the fact that Jared Kushner attended the same meeting as Trump Jr. and was forwarded the same emails that informed the president’s son that agreeing to that meeting would mean cooperating with the Kremlin.
Many GOP lawmakers declined to comment, offering variations on the sentiment “let’s wait to see what the investigation finds.” Which would be a halfway reasonable response if Kushner wasn’t still working in the White House with a top-secret security clearance.
Ohio senator Rob Portman decided to go out on a limb and express the opinion that accepting an invitation to benefit from a Russian-government conspiracy to manipulate the American electorate was “not appropriate.”
But Ted Cruz, for one, found virtue in the administration’s game plan, contending that Donald Trump Jr.’s emails are just one more piece of evidence than the Obama-Clinton policy of “constant weakness and appeasement” of Putin was a total failure that “facilitated Russian aggression.”
The Texas senator said that he was, therefore, “glad that the Trump administration is returning to a commonsense defense of our allies against our adversaries.”
This is true enough — if one stipulates that Vladimir Putin is now one of the GOP’s allies, and a well-functioning American democracy the party’s mortal enemy.