The Russia scandal: Talk turns to treason at Trump Tower
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The shadows of impeachment hanging over the White House have darkened massively… thanks to the New York Times which might yet end up emulating the Washington Post in bringing down a disgraced president.
The string of damning emails Donald Trump Jr was forced to release in the wake of the newspaper's investigation clearly show the Trump campaign was all too willing to secretly liaise with a sinister Russian plot to help their man defeat Hillary Clinton by interfering in last year's presidential election. The glee is all too clear, as the president's son eagerly embraced – even messaging 'I love it' – what he was told was a Russian Government attempt to sabotage Clinton's campaign.
Among many senior Capitol Hill figures – including Republicans – it looks the closest thing yet to the smoking gun that could bring down the presidency. It immediately raises serious questions over whether campaign laws were broken and why senior Trump campaign associates and family members failed to report an illegal hostile act by a foreign power.
The devastating email trail reveals how British born music promoter Rob Goldstone told Trump Jr at the height of the 2016 election campaign that 'The crown prosecutor of Russian' had offered 'to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary an her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father'.
In another email Goldstone described the glamorous Russian lawyer who was offering to help, Natalia Veselnitskaya, as a 'Russian government attorney' (in reality, she is married to a senior Kremlin official, it has now emerged).
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More significantly still, Trump Jr not only agreed to a meeting at New York's Trump Tower, but emailed intermediary Goldstone to tell him that Jared Kushner, Donald Trump's son-in-law, now a senior White House advisor, would also attend, along with Russian-connected Paul Manafort – at the time manager of Donald Trump's presidential election campaign team.
The fact that all three attended the Trump Tower meeting with Veselnitskaya on June 9 last year, at the height of the campaign, has not just rocked Washington but sent the odds on an eventual impeachment soaring. The trio will now face a grilling from the various congressional investigations taking place into the Russian Connection scandal and will also be targeted for questioning by Special Counsel Robert Mueller who is leading the investigation into potential criminal offences on the scale of Watergate.
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But the key question yet to be answered is whether the secret liaison was reported to Donald Trump himself. His son denies it, but even senior Republicans were raising their eyebrows at the idea that The Donald himself would have been kept out of the loop.
Trump Jr's decision to release the email chain was an apparent attempt to pre-empt publication in the New York Times which first exposed the story of the Veselnitskaya meeting.
In a statement posted on his father's favourite medium, Twitter, Trump Jr explained: 'To everyone, in order to be totally transparent, I am releasing the entire email chain of my emails with Rob Goldstone about the meeting on June 9th 2016. To put this in context, before the current Russian fever was in vogue.'
But the White House's position is threatened further by the fact that Trump Jr initially told the New York Times that the meeting was only about the ban on Russian children being adopted by American citizens.
And before Trump Jr was forced to release the email trail, Veselnitskaya herself denied she had gone to the meeting with information about Clinton and was only interested in the adoption issue. Damningly she told American's NBC channel: 'It's quite possible that maybe they were looking for such information, they wanted it so badly.'
As Republican party leaders struggled to come to come to terms with 'EmailGate' and its potential implications, Richard Burr, Republican chief of the Senate Intelligence Committee, offered: 'It's too early to draw any conclusions, but we're gonna look at everything and go where the facts lead us.'
His Democratic counterpart, Senator Mark Warner, stressed the significance that the emails had also been forwarded to Kushner and Manafort and that they had attended the Trump Tower meeting and had failed to report apparent Russian interference in the US election. Said Warner: 'They have got a lot of explaining to do, because all these denials of any knowledge of Russian Government involvement now seem to be a gross contradiction.'
While Senator John McCain, a former presidential candidate and frequent critic of the Trump administration, said: 'This is only the beginning ... there'll be many more shoes that will drop yet.'
Senator Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton's running mate last year, weighed in explosively by declaring: 'Nothing is proven yet, but we're beyond obstruction of justice and moved into perjury, false statements and even potentially treason.'
Suddenly, TREASON is the new buzzword being touted by Capitol Hill Democrats....and dreaded among Republicans fearful for their prospects of holding on to Congressional power in next year's mid-term elections.
In his interview on Fox News, Trump Jr sought to portray himself as a political neophyte, at one point describing politics as a 'dirty game' and employing the business terminology 'opposition research' to explain the Veselnitskaya meeting.
But the main purpose of the interview was equally clearly to insist that Donald Trump Snr had known nothing about the meeting before or after it took place.
Earlier President Trump issued an uncharacteristically muted statement (on legal advice, I'm told) in which he called his son a 'high quality person'.
The supreme irony of the current storm is that it centres around the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow (franchise holder Donald Trump) – where the President's son first met the intermediaries who set up the Veselnitskaya Trump Tower rendezvous.
The Moscow pageant was at the centre of the unproven and hotly denied claim by an ex-British intelligence agent that the Kremlin hold kompromat material of Trump Senior allegedly cavorting with Russian hookers in a hotel suite in the Russian capital.
The astonishing twists, of course, come just days after that Trump/Putin face-to-face at the G20, following which the White House was at pains to push the line that the US president had 'robustly addressed' Russian interference in the election with his counterpart. But how robustly was the question posed by sceptics after the Kremlin briefed that Trump had accepted Putin's not guilty assurances.
The sceptics' view was reinforced by the fact that at his Warsaw press conference little more than 24 hours earlier Trump again appeared to contradict the overwhelming view of US intelligence chiefs and express doubts over the Kremlin's culpability.
It was more than just scepticism though, which greeted the president's next bravado lesson in making up global policy on the hoof. Within hours of returning stateside, and to general incredulity on Capitol Hill and among intelligence chiefs, Trump announced a cyber partnership to protect elections with none other than, er, Russia!
To add to the mounting question marks over his mental state and grasp of reality, 12 hours later still Trump returned to Twitter to totally contradict himself with: 'The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security Unit doesn't mean I think it can happen. It can't…'
The initiative had lasted about as long as his latest attempt to close down the Russian Connection investigation.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, author and former Sunday Mirror editor
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