Reactions to each development in the Trump-Russia scandal tend to follow the same pattern. At first, journalists express incredulity and then horror. It doesn’t matter if the Team Trump member under suspicion is Mike Flynn, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Junior, even big daddy Trump himself, everybody agrees this is big news. Dots are connected and then, click, we all conclude that Russia ‘hacked’ the election.
Then, once the initial flush of excitement, passes, everybody says ‘where is the actual evidence?’ Or ‘is it really that bad?’ And the Trump-Russia scandal subsides for a few days. People who are inclined to accept Trump’s presidency say that the media has gone mad over the Russia thing. People who aren’t lament that the free world has just rolled over and accepted that the world’s greatest power has been tricked by the Kremlin, and look out for the next big Trump-Russia story.
Yesterday’s New York Times Donald Trump Jnr scoop feels different — or at least it did yesterday. At last, the press and Trump’s enemies have the ‘smoking gun’ they have been looking for, as Jacob Heilbrunn put it yesterday. The White House seemed wrongfooted — excuses about political naivety just won’t wash, given it has now been shown that Trump Jnr, who was intimately involved in his father’s campaign, had replied so enthusiastically to a Russian government conspiracy to incriminate Hillary Clinton. The word impeachment flared up again over social media.
Very soon, though, doubts as to how damning the story is start to creep in. All Trump Jnr did as far as we know was express excitement in response to a shady email – like an idiot enthusiastically responding to some Nigerian phishing scam — and hold a meeting about it. Happens to the best of us.
Trump jr’s ‘I love it’ response could prove to be criminal in the eyes of the law, and little Donny’s naivety defence may not hold. But does it point towards a concerted effort between the Russian government and the Trump campaign? No. If anything, it suggests the real story might be more farcical than sinister (although it could still be both).
What we know is that a funny looking British PR man, who has worked on behalf of a Russian billionaire and his wannabe pop star son, approached the Trump campaign supposedly with sensitive government information and Trump Jnr was so excited he had a meeting with a Russian lawyer. That’s intriguing but hardly enough to bring down a president.
The most interesting question about the latest revelations is about the source of the leak to the New York Times. Could it have been from Team Trump itself? The story could so neatly inoculate Trump from direct blame – pinning the error on a bungling son who is not well-loved among Trump’s closest advisers – that it might suggest another media conspiracy in itself. Or could it turn out to be what Chris Christie would call another ‘nothing burger’? This gunsmoke is thin at best.