- - Monday, April 30, 2018


When it comes to President Trump and the question of collusion with Russia, there is indeed a smoking gun. But it’s not the June 2016 meeting that Donald Trump Jr., along with campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, held in Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer.

The lawyer, Natalia V. Veselnitskaya, duped Don Jr. into setting up the meeting by claiming to have dirt on Hillary Clinton. In fact, the meeting was a bait and switch. It turned out the lawyer had no meaningful information to offer on Mrs. Clinton. Rather, she wanted to interest the Trump team in a Moscow initiative to allow American families to adopt Russian children.

The meeting, which lasted 20 minutes, was the sort any political campaign or media outlet would have agreed to. Like investigative reporters, political operatives want to obtain tips, even if most of the time the proffered information turns out to be of no value. In this case, nothing came of the meeting. In contrast, Hillary Clinton’s campaign actually helped pay for a dossier of almost entirely false accusations about Mr. Trump, some of which a British former intelligence official obtained from Russian contacts.

According to journalistic standards that existed decades ago, the fact that such a meeting took place would not have even been a story. The pretext for the meeting was a hoax, and nothing resulted from it. To suggest by running a story that there was something nefarious about it was unfair. But in today’s politically charged media world, the meeting became an immediate sensation as part of a narrative — pushed by the media and Democrats — suggesting that the Trump campaign illegally colluded with Russia.

On its face, the claim is bogus: Even if the campaign had colluded with Russia, that would not have been a violation of law, as former Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, who voted for Hillary Clinton, pointed out in TV interviews. Campaigns are free to obtain information and coordinate with any source, foreign or domestic, just as Mrs. Clinton’s campaign did when funding the dossier on Mr. Trump.

Moreover, after he became president, Mr. Trump demonstrated that he is no pawn of Russia: In response to its chemical attacks, Mr. Trump sent missiles into Syria, an ally of Russia. Against Russian interests, he approved the largest U.S. commercial sale of lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine since 2014 to help Ukrainian forces fight a Russian-backed separatist movement in two eastern provinces. And he imposed sanctions on Russia that targeted Vladimir Putin’s oligarch pals.

Rather than acknowledge that there was no actual substance to the claims of collusion, papers like The Washington Post and The New York Times ran elaborate charts with lines drawn between campaign aides and Russians. Democratic members of Congress got TV time by couching their remarks as questions and prefacing their accusations by saying, “If it’s true that “

It turns out that in all the thousands of stories about collusion, there was indeed a smoking gun — in reverse. It established definitively that there had been no collusion and that the entire effort by the media and Democrats to try to tie the Trump campaign to Russia was a fraud. That evidence was an Aug. 14, 2017, Washington Post story citing campaign emails demonstrating conclusively that top campaign officials, including Chairman Paul Manafort, had no interest in obtaining any kind of cooperation from Russia.

The idea for obtaining help from Russia came from a onetime campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos. Three days after Mr. Trump named his campaign foreign policy team in March 2016, Mr. Papadopoulos offered to set up “a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss U.S.-Russia ties under President Trump,” according to an email he sent to seven Trump campaign officials with the subject line “Meeting with Russian Leadership — Including Putin.” He said his Russian contacts welcomed the opportunity.

“The proposal sent a ripple of concern through campaign headquarters in Trump Tower,” The Washington Post story said. “Campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis wrote that he thought NATO allies should be consulted before any plans were made. Another Trump adviser, retired Navy Rear Admiral Charles Kubic, cited legal concerns, including a possible violation of U.S. sanctions against Russia and of the Logan Act, which prohibits U.S. citizens from unauthorized negotiation with foreign governments.”

Indeed, “Among those to express concern about the effort was then-campaign chairman Manafort, who rejected in May 2016 a proposal for Trump to do so,” The Post story said. Moreover, on March 24, Clovis, the campaign co-chairman who also served on the foreign policy team, reacted to one proposed Russia meeting by writing, “We thought we probably should not go forward with any meeting with the Russians until we have had occasion to sit with our NATO allies.”

In the same email chain, Kubic, the retired admiral, reminded others about legal restrictions on meetings with certain Russian officials, adding, “Just want to make sure that no one on the team outruns their headlights and embarrasses the campaign.”

Finally, Mr. Manafort responded to one email about an invitation from a Russian organization official to set up a meeting by saying in an email to his associate Richard Gates: “We need someone to communicate that DT [Donald Trump] is not doing these trips.”

Mr. Gates agreed with Mr. Manafort and told him he would make sure that no one in the campaign would respond. He would do that, he said, by instructing “the person responding to all mail of non-importance” that any communication about a Russian overture is to be ignored by everyone in the campaign.

There could be no clearer evidence that the Russia collusion story is a sham than the emails, which were among more than 20,000 documents the Trump campaign turned over to congressional committees. But rather than putting an end to the conspiracy theories, the story has largely been ignored by the media, which continues to run stories about alleged Russia collusion as if the emails had never existed.

Indeed, The Washington Post story that demonstrated conclusively that there was nothing to claims of Russia collaboration was headlined “Trump Campaign Emails Show Aide’s Repeated Efforts to Set Up Russia Meetings.”

Each indictment by Special Counsel Robert Mueller having nothing to do with the Trump campaign triggers endless speculation by the media that the defendant is about to spill the beans about Mr. Trump or his White House aides. But what if there are no beans to spill? And what was the crime in the first place? Collusion during a campaign is not a crime. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are only too happy to join in the speculation, giving them air time.

Never have so many words been uttered about so little.

• Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, is the author of “The Trump White House: Changing the Rules of the Game” (Crown Forum).

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