Over the last few days, the debate over the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russian interests during the 2016 election took a decisive turn. Many of Trump’s die-hard supporters are perfectly happy with justifying it–and that’s not OK.
The Story Of The Emails
For those now lost in the morass of the 24-hour news cycle, here’s a quick recap.
Over the weekend, the New York Times reported on a meeting between a Russian attorney, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and Donald Trump Jr. On Sunday, the Times released a second story regarding emails between Trump Jr. and British publicist Rob Goldstone.
Allegedly, Goldstone informed Trump Jr. that Veselnitskaya was affiliated with the Kremlin. He also said that she had damaging information on Hillary Clinton, which was provided by the Russian government.
We have very little definitive information on what, if anything, was actually shared in the meeting.
Veselnitskaya claims that she has no real connections to the Kremlin at all, and had no incriminating information. Bloomberg reported that she did have information, but that it was related to an already-public scandal involving several Russian investors’ past donations to the Clinton Global Initiative. In addition, Independent Journal Review reports that at least eight (but possibly more) people were in attendance.
Some in the media, including some at NPR, are also speculating that Veselnitskaya pulled a bait-and-switch. She offered kompromat to stage the meeting, but really wanted to talk about Russia-US adoption policies hampered by the Magnitsky Act, which labels several Russian leaders as human rights abusers.
After making a series of statements, Trump Jr. tweeted out the full set of emails on Tuesday. The emails themselves confirmed the Times‘s original reporting. The earliest emails also included the comment “I love it” from Trump Jr., in reference to Veselnitskaya’s offer of information.
One of President Trump’s personal attorneys, Jay Sekulow, told ABC News that the proposed meeting was “not illegal.” There is some disagreement on that point among various legal experts, but that debate is best left for another article.
Many of President Trump’s most vocal supporters, however, were fine with just stopping at “not illegal” to defend Trump Jr. Here are just a few examples:
- Fox’s Eric Bolling, in an on-air Fox News panel, said that Trump Jr. “broke no laws [and] likely broke no election ethics rules.” Later in the segment, he repeated that Trump Jr. did nothing wrong. “I will tell you, 100% of the time, if someone offers opposition research against a candidate you are running against, you’re gonna take it.”
- Attorney Gregg Jarrett also chimed in on Fox. In an interview with Neil Cavuto on Fox Business, he said that it was “not a crime to meet with a Russian or a Russian government official or a Russian lawyer connected to the government.”
- Radio host Bill Mitchell blasted the media on Twitter several times over this issue. In one tweet, he said “No media, you don’t get to write laws!”
Where The Argument Breaks Down
On one level, the “it’s not illegal” argument makes a valid point. If the meeting wasn’t illegal, then candidate Trump’s team did nothing criminally culpable. So, despite the left’s best efforts, here’s no smoking gun to fuel the fires of a Trump impeachment.
However, on another level, “it’s not illegal” just deflects from the Trump administration’s personal and moral failings.
For months and months, the Trump administration has been hammering away at the “fake news media” for running with the Russian story. “There is no ‘there’ there to chase! Why are you being so stupid wasting the American people’s time!?” And, at least for a while, the fact that journalists weren’t finding anything suggested that these criticisms were right.
However, we now know that there absolutely is a “there” there. Even if this attorney wasn’t actually linked with the Kremlin, she was held out as such to Goldstone. Furthermore, Trump Jr. believed it, and “loved it” that she wanted to give him dirt on Hillary.
Dirt, by the way, that would have come from the Russian government.
So, did Trump’s team actually collude with Russia? No, but they damn well jumped at the opportunity when presented with one. And there, to borrow from Shakespeare, lies the rub.
The Law Isn’t A Substitute For Morality
Law doesn’t magically make something more or less moral than it was before. It just defines whether that already bad or good act is punishable by the government. For example, if law reshapes morality by fiat, then there’s no moral problem with abortion. After all, Roe v. Wade makes abortion legal, right? So even if something isn’t “illegal,” it can still be very, very wrong.
Here, there’s very little question that Trump’s team tried to do something that was morally questionable, at best. They acted on the opportunity to get dirt on their political opponent from a shady foreign government deal. Even if not illegal, both the dishonesty and the attempted backdoor dealing are clearly problematic.
Was it pragmatic to try to get opposition research from a willing source? Maybe. But pragmatism also doesn’t make an action more or less moral. Pragmatism just explains why an action was expedient under certain circumstances.
Moreover, as the media’s recent misadventures in “anonymous sources” should remind us, where information comes from matters. When a source is held out as tied to a foreign government, that should raise several red flags. But it didn’t here, because Trump Jr. “loved” the opportunity to get the information, anyway.
“But Hillary!” Doesn’t Work, Either
Yes, it looks like she did get help from Ukranian officials. Does that matter? No, unless you want to hold Hillary accountable in the same way you should be holding Trump’s team accountable.
One person’s bad act should not excuse another’s same bad act. As Ben Shapiro points out, “whataboutism”–pointing out another party’s bad act in a discussion of some current issue–is frequently taken too far, and is used to excuse bad behavior:
In this case, whataboutism is itself dishonesty — it’s pretending to care about the sins of the Left in order to justify the sins of the Right. It actually throws into sharp relief the hypocrisy of the Right: we complained endlessly and justifiably about Loretta Lynch meeting secretly with Bill Clinton, but we’re fine with Donald Trump Jr. meeting secretly with Natalia Veselnitskaya… . This isn’t conservative. It’s not even moral. Kindergarteners learn that “but he did it, too” isn’t an excuse for bad behavior.
Where We Go From Here
In the age of President Trump’s Twitter account, it may be a challenge to demand decorum from our leaders. However, it’s far easier to demand honesty, and the best starting point for that is demanding honesty from ourselves.
We have to hold ourselves accountable, and refuse to engage in bad arguments like this one. We also have to call our allies out, appropriately, for their own mistakes. If we don’t, we won’t have the moral standing to expect anything better from our opponents or our leaders. After all, we engaged in the bad conduct, too.
At the end of the day, Trump Jr. isn’t the problem. The problem is a political system that has prized ends above means for too long. If we don’t address that, it won’t matter how many Russians intervene in our elections.