Mr Trump Jr and his lawyers have denied he did anything wrong EPA
When you really looked into it, the British 'interfered' with the US election just as much as Russians allegedly did. So where's the big fuss about that?
It might seem a long way to travel for a day of Gallic pomp. Given what is happening in Washington, however, Donald Trump’s acceptance of President Macron’s invitation to this year’s Bastille Day celebrations makes perfect sense, even though it means a second trip across the Atlantic in a week.
Not that the advantage accrues only to Trump. Emmanuel Macron’s invitation to the US President, for a parade in which American troops will march to commemorate the centenary of the US entry into the First World War, is an adroit piece of diplomacy on a par with his early hosting of President Putin in the splendour of Versailles. It places the new French President at the diplomatic top table and it allows France to outflank the UK, with its clumsy courting of Trump and that on/off state visit.
The respite for Trump, though, will be short-lived. He had barely arrived back in the US from the G20 in Germany when a new Russia-related scandal broke over his head. The New York Timesrevealed details of a meeting between Trump’s son, Donald Jr, sundry others, and crucially a Moscow lawyer, that was interpreted as bolstering claims of Russian interference in the US election. Donald Jr then gave his version of the meeting on the Trump-friendly Fox News, while his father denied that anyone had done anything wrong.
Cue a new frenzy in Washington, with suggestions that Donald Jr risked charges of treason. The celebrity lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, was among those arguing that no crime had been committed. But the reports resumed the drip-drip of political damage. After the briefest of intervals, the Russia connection was back.
It is a connection – with the specific charges of Trump-Russia collusion to rig the US election in Trump’s favour – that I still find profoundly implausible. The new story, which relates to a meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016, does nothing to change my perspective.
Here is why. First, the big picture. There is still no evidence whatever that the Kremlin did anything to engineer Trump’s victory, or that the US election was in any way compromised.
The combined US intelligence report (of February), at least in its unclassified form, is unconvincing in the extreme – and even long-standing foes of the Kremlin agree. No one, either in the US or abroad, had any expectation of a Trump victory; that certainly included Russia, and probably included Trump himself. The Russia connection was a device used by Trump’s enemies – first the Clinton supporters, and then, after his election, sections of the Washington establishment – to discredit him.
There are some useful tests that can be applied to judge the claims of Russia influence. What if similar meetings had taken place with, say, Britons or French individuals; would they be judged in the same way? Did such meetings take place? Whatever the provenance, foreign influence, or attempted influence, on an election is surely wrong. Then again, do not most foreign countries try, by whatever means, to fathom out what is going on – especially in a campaign as opaque as this one and in a country as powerful as the United States? Do they not delegate officials, and unofficial envoys, to lobby in their own interests?
Consider that it was British intelligence (GCHQ) that reportedly tipped off their US counterparts (and so the Obama administration) about a supposed Russia connection. It was a British ex-spy who was commissioned to compile a dirt-dishing dossier on Trump for a Democratic Party lobbyist, and it was a British ex-diplomat who gave the dossier an extra push, by vouchsafing to a senior US Republican and Trump-adversary (Senator John McCain) that its findings could make Trump susceptible to Russian blackmail.
Might these be defined as attempts to interfere in someone else’s election? If not, why not? Was the intention merely to supply disinterested help to an ally, or might it have been – deniably, of course – first to subvert the campaign of a democratically nominated candidate, and then to discredit a democratically elected President? Think about it.
Now to the latest allegations, and that meeting between the Russian lawyer, Natalya Veselnitskaya, Donald Trump Jr and others at Trump Tower. First, the encounter took place before the Republican Party convention, at a time when the possibility of a Trump victory seemed remote in the extreme.
Second, it was arranged by a go-between who obviously had an interest in boosting Veselnitskaya’s status. Since the election, it seems that every Russian who has ever crossed the Trump clan’s path is a "Putin associate” or "close to the Kremlin”; very few are. Third, the come-on was an offer of compromising material on Hillary Clinton. It turned out, though, that Veselnitskaya actually wanted to lobby on a pet issue: US adoptions of Russian orphans.
Maybe if the Trump clan’s political antennae had been more attuned to the ways of Washington, or if the approach had taken place later in the campaign, Donald Jr would not have agreed to such a meeting, or informed the FBI. But, as he says – and no one disputes this – nothing came of it. How many approaches from foreign lobbyists did the Trump campaign receive over the months? I doubt they were all from Russians.
To my mind, the most damaging claim to have emerged from the whole Trump-Russia saga so far is, as with Watergate, to do with the reaction rather than any action. If Trump ever tried – or tries – to halt the Justice Department investigation into alleged Russian collusion over the election, that would amount to obstruction of justice and could spell the end of his presidency. But there is no evidence of this so far, and the ex-director of the FBI, James Comey – hardly a friend of the Trump clan – provided none.
Given the mood in Washington, it may be gratifying that the long-awaited meeting between Trump and Putin on the fringe of the G20 in Hamburg passed off as well as it did. Elaborate arrangements seemed to have been made on both sides to minimise the risks: both presidents were kept on a short leash by their more equable chief diplomats, Sergei Lavrov for Russia and Rex Tillerson for the US. But two features stand out. A meeting scheduled to last 30 minutes went on five times as long; and – or so it seemed to me – Putin was on absolute best behaviour.
This suggests, for the time being at least, that neither Trump nor Putin has yet given up on the possibility of normalised relations. With the Western enemies of Russia and Donald Trump so intent on making common cause, however, it would be unrealistic to bank on an improvement soon.