Trump’s Russia scandal shows the perils of rejecting the rules

Rachel Cunliffe
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The First Family keeps creating more smoke – is there a fire somewhere? (Source: Getty)

Depending on who you listen to, Donald Trump Jr’s decision to meet Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya to get dirt on his father’s opponent during the presidential campaign was either an act of treason or a “nothing burger” peddled by the hostile media.

The President’s son this week released an email chain showing he was approached for a meeting with the “Crown prosecutor of Russia” (a role that doesn’t exist) who had “information that would incriminate Hillary [Clinton]”. He replied “if it’s what you say I love it”, and met Veselnitskaya in June 2016. According to Donald Trump Jr, nothing came of the meeting and – crucially – his father did not know about it.

There are so many speculations, accusations and justifications flying about that the facts are getting lost in a partisan firestorm. But without accusing the current President of treason or collusion, the ongoing revelations do show the danger of Trump’s “tear up the rulebook” style of politics.

Read more: Trump Jr revelations prompt spike in impeachment odds

Russian connections

It is a fact that the Trump campaign hired several advisers who had significant interests in Russia.

Paul Manafort, who was chair until August last year, headed up the campaign of the pro-Russian candidate in the Ukraine elections. Carter Page had links to Russian officials and is now being investigated by the FBI. Roger Stone had public contact with a hacker associated with the cyber attacks on the Democratic National Committee. Michael Flynn, who was appointed national security adviser, received a significant payment from a state-owned Russian TV channel, which he initially denied.

Trump’s son-in-law and chief adviser Jared Kushner, had contact with Russians that he failed to disclose. So too did Flynn and attorney general Jeff Sessions. Donald Trump Jr’s meeting with Veselnitskaya to get Russian dirt on Clinton, which Kushner also attended, fits into this pattern of Trump operatives giving Kremlin officials facetime, if nothing else.

None of this automatically proves collusion, much as the Democrats might wish it did. But with Republicans admitting that this doesn’t look good, and with key congressmen lamenting that the ongoing revelations are proving damaging, the Trump administration is once again fighting fires.

Tear up the rulebook

Any seasoned campaigner would know that the optics of secret meetings with shady Russian figures are terrible, and would run from a questionable source promising intel of dubious origin. In fact, that’s exactly what Al Gore did about an anonymous tip on his then-opponent George W Bush in 2000 – his team handed the correspondence straight over to the FBI.

Because the truth in politics is that nothing stays a secret forever, and when the details spill out, exposure can be devastating. It is never worth the risk.

No one on the Trump team seems to have realised this. It is unclear whether Trump’s inner circle realise it now. There have been so many denials of any Russian contact, only for contradictory evidence to surface, showing that the core White House team still don’t have a coherent strategy. Official lines change constantly. The picture looks bad and keeps getting worse in part because every denial morphs into an admission once the reporters get digging.

There has been a naivety to Trump’s presidency, from announcing “who knew healthcare could be so complicated?” to saying peace in the Middle East is “not as difficult as people have thought”. He has been caught off-guard by the tedious struggle of actually passing laws through Congress, and seems surprised that not all presidential problems can be solved by his idealistic America First vision trumpeted at campaign rallies.

That disregard for detail has its roots in the campaign. A ruthlessly effective campaign that livestreamed rallies rather than paying for ads, that made the front pages daily with a stream of provocative comments, that broke every rule of modern politicking and left rivals gasping for breath. And, crucially, a campaign staffed with business execs and media spinners, who either didn’t know or didn’t care about the protocols for holding covert meetings with foreign agents.

Political ammunition

However boring those protocols are, they exist for a reason. And that reason is to place the candidate – now President – above accusation, to remove any hint of conflicts of interest that give political enemies ammunition.

The Democrats don’t have a cast-iron case, but ammunition is the one thing they are not short of. They have a string of suspicious encounters that they can link together to form an uncomfortable narrative of collusion, especially as Trump only started mentioning Clinton’s emails after his son’s meeting with the Russian lawyer. It may all be speculation, but it’s a good story. And it’s a story the Trump campaign handed over, by playing fast and loose with convention, and subsequently by covering it up.

Call it inexperience, carelessness, or ineptitude – but it all amounts to a mistake from which it may be hard to recover. It may turn out that there’s nothing there, that Donald Trump Jr’s conversation with Veselnitskaya was an innocent if misguided error of judgement, as were Kushner’s meetings and the decisions to hire Manafort, Page, Stone and Flynn.

But the First Family keeps creating more smoke, and regardless of whether there’s a real fire burning deep somewhere, if they carry on like this then the Trump presidency may well self-incinerate.

Read more: Donald Trump UK trip postponed until 2018

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