Trump Jr.'s meeting, 'That's politics'? Hardly

Our view: No, campaigns do not routinely meet with agents of hostile foreign governments

The Trump White House tried to divert attention from scandals to its policy agenda by declaring this “Made in America Week.” But with critics quickly pointing out the frequency with which Trump-branded products are produced overseas and foreign steel used to construct Trump buildings, President Donald Trump did what he does best: Change the subject to something that makes him look even worse.

While Internet wiseacres were spending the weekend busily tweeting out images of Trump products with “Made in China” labels, the president fired off his own string of tweets returning the subject to Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer who was purported to have damaging information on Hillary Clinton as part of the Russian government’s effort to help his father.

He resurrected some old chestnuts about Ms. Clinton’s deleted emails and the debate questions leaked to her in advance (to steal her phrase, “at this point, what difference does it make?”) and made a strange detour to declare his own modern record low approval ratings “not bad at this time” before landing on a direct, full-throated defense of his son this morning.

“Most politicians would have gone to a meeting like the one Don jr attended in order to get info on an opponent,” President Trump tweeted. “That's politics!”

No, it’s not. Seeking dirt on an opponent may be as old as American democracy, but getting together the candidate’s son, son-in-law and campaign manager to meet with someone they don’t know who is purportedly working on behalf of a foreign government to influence the election is a new one. That’s what the vast majority of Americans believe; according to the same Washington Post/ABC News poll the president referred to, 63 percent of respondents said the meeting was inappropriate, compared to 26 percent who thought it was OK.

But is it collusion? (Or, in legal terms, conspiracy?) It seems that the American public did not find this piece of evidence at all dispositive on that point. The Post and ABC asked in April, and again in the wake of the Trump Jr. revelations, whether respondents thought Russia sought to influence the election, and if so, whether the Trump campaign helped. There was no statistically significant change in any of the responses. If you believe the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the election, you believed it a long time ago. If you don’t, then nothing so far — not the news that President Trump asked investigators to lay off their investigation of Michael Flynn’s Russia ties, not the firing of FBI director James Comey, not the president’s confirmation that he did so because of the “Russia thing” — has changed your mind. Not even an email from Donald Trump Jr. saying he would “love” help from the Russian government to hurt the Clinton campaign makes any difference.

That’s a testament to how effectively President Trump has fact-proofed himself when it comes to his ardent supporters. His constant criticism of the media as purveyors of “fake news” — including in a tweet over the weekend — renders his core of support impervious to any new, negative information.

If the president says there’s nothing unusual about his son’s meeting, his core supporters don’t question it, just as they don’t question the notion that Mr. Trump will bring back coal jobs or convince Mexico to pay for a border wall. Anyone who says otherwise — whether a partisan Democrat or former Republican official — is dismissed as a member of an establishment determined to see President Trump fail. For his core supporters, stomping on his own message about domestic manufacturing to fight some more about the Russia investigation isn’t a distraction, it’s the main event.

But a presidency based on the willing suspension of disbelief can only go so far. We have moved beyond questions about whether Trump advisers lied about contacts with Russians to whether they actually broke a law prohibiting campaigns from soliciting anything of value from a foreign national, much less a purported representative of a semi-hostile foreign government. The Trump administration’s shifting explanations about what happened provide no confidence that we’ve heard the last of this. President Trump may believe he can tweet his own reality into existence, and his core supporters may go along with it. But the rest of us aren’t fooled.

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