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Analysis | 6 defenses of Donald Trump Jr.’s Russia meeting — each more dubious than the last

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 3 days ago Aaron Blake
Donald Trump Jr. gives a thumbs up to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. © REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Donald Trump Jr. gives a thumbs up to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

It's been a week since the Donald Trump Jr. scandal broke, and the White House and its allies have trotted out a whole bunch of different defenses — some of them only suggestive — from the 39-year old's age to blaming former attorney general Loretta Lynch to the idea that it was only attempted collusion. Over the weekend, President Trump's lawyer even tried to suggest the Secret Service had no problems with the meeting — only to have that argument quickly unravel.

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It's getting a little hard to keep track of all it. So below is a scorecard of each one, along with how plausible it is — scored from 0 to 10, with 10 being the most plausible.

1) Donald Trump Jr. is young

“My son is a wonderful young man,” Trump said in Paris last week. “I have a son who's a great young man,” he added later. Aboard Air Force One, he did it twice more: “He's a good boy. He's a good kid.” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) called Trump Jr. “a very nice young man.” And an anonymous Trump friend told The Post that Trump Jr. was “an honest kid” who just wanted to hunt, fish and run the family business. The biggest problem here is that Trump Jr. is going to be over the hill before the calendar hits 2018. He has been an adult longer than he was ever a “kid,” and in fact he's the same age, 39, as the president of France next to whom Trump made the first two comments above. The suggestion here seems to be that Trump Jr. was out of his depth and didn't know better.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 10. You can argue, perhaps, that Trump Jr. was a *political newcomer* who didn't know how the whole thing worked. But the idea that he's just a kid who should be given a pass is a pretty remarkable and subtle admission that this was bad. Also, the law generally doesn't allow exceptions for well-meaning and youthful adults, and being unaware of the law isn't a valid defense. We'll give it a 1 because perhaps it plays in the court of public opinion, but the implication is still that Trump Jr. just wasn't smart enough.

2) The Secret Service didn't stop it

Trump's personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, tried this one out during his appearance on ABC's “This Week” on Sunday. “I wonder why the Secret Service — if this was nefarious — why the Secret Service allowed these people in,” Sekulow said. “The president had Secret Service protection at that point, and that raised a question with me.” The main problem with this one is that the White House has said Trump wasn't in the meeting, and Donald Trump Jr. didn't have Secret Service protection at the time, in June 2016. The Secret Service said after Sekulow's comments that it thus “would not have screened anyone he was meeting with at that time.”

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 10. This was a very bad moment for Sekulow, who has regularly struggled to defend his client.

3) Loretta Lynch let the Russian lawyer into the U.S.

This one got a presidential push last week while Trump was in France. “Somebody said that her visa or her passport to come into the country was approved by Attorney General [Loretta] Lynch,” Trump said. “Now, maybe that's wrong, because I just heard about that a little while ago, but I was a little surprised to hear that: She's here because of Lynch.” Well, it does appear to be wrong. It was based of a report in The Hill that said the Justice Department granted Natalia Veselnitskaya entry into the United States for the limited purpose of helping a Russian businessman with a matter before the DOJ. But this setup — labeled “immigration parole” — is actually the domain of the Department of Homeland Security, not the DOJ, and a spokesman disputed the report that Lynch was personally involved: “Attorney General Lynch, as the former head of the Justice Department, does not have any personal knowledge of Ms. Veselnitskaya's travel.” What's more, when the June 2016 meeting was held, Veselnitskaya was no longer there on immigration parole, but had reportedly been given a B1/B2 nonimmigrant visa by the State Department — again, not the Justice Department.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 10. Perhaps Trump's underlying argument is intact — that it was the *Obama administration* that allowed Veselnitskaya into the United States — but that still leaves the question of why that matters. Donald Trump Jr. took the meeting of his own volition, knowing what he was being offered.

4) It didn't yield any useful information

From the very beginning, when it was first reported that this meeting was actually about Trump Jr. seeking opposition research about Hillary Clinton, he and the White House have assured us he got nothing — that the information was a bust. The implication is that perhaps his intent was to collude, but the collusion failed, and thus there was no collusion. And there is a legal logic behind this argument: Some have suggested that the meeting might run afoul of campaign finance law, which prohibits taking foreign contributions. If the information wasn't of value, though, perhaps it wasn't technically a contribution. Of course, we still don't know if he actually didn't get useful information; one person in the meeting, Rinat Akhmetshin, said last week that Veselnitskaya brought a plastic folder with documents allegedly showing illicit money funding the Democratic National Committee. There were no such stories written about this during the 2016 campaign.

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 10. This may actually be a good legal defense when it comes to campaign finance law and the line between intent and actual wrongdoing. But it doesn't really change the fact that Trump Jr. sure seemed to hungry for such information.

5) It's not collusion unless it's extensive or planned

Kellyanne Conway offered this one on Friday. “We were promised systemic — hard evidence of systemic, sustained, furtive collusion that not only interfered with our election process but indeed dictated the electoral outcome,” she said on Fox News. As I noted, Conway was really moving the goal posts here. The suggestion is that it's not really collusion unless it's planned or part of a concerted effort is making basically the same argument as Nos. 1 and 5 above. It's allowing that what Trump Jr. did was bad, but arguing that it could have been much worse. Also, the idea that the collusion must have “dictated the electoral outcome” is a huge stretch.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 10. Conway's definition of what “we were promised” is quite slanted. And even if it were true, it's kind of immaterial as to whether or not this meeting broke the law.

6) Veselnitskaya was just a lobbyist/not a government lawyer

“Fox and Friends” host Steve Doocy offered this one in that same interview with Conway. “As it turns out, the Russia story is starting to fall apart,” Doocy said, “because it looks like [Veselnitskaya] was just a lobbyist, and she met with a whole bunch of members of Congress and State Department officials” and others. President Trump has offered a similar defense, saying Trump Jr. “took a meeting with a Russian lawyer — not a government lawyer but a Russian lawyer.” Veselnitskaya does not hold an official government title, but that's kind of how things work in Russia. Her interests were clearly aligned with the Kremlin, and she lobbies on its foremost policy goal in the United States: the Magnitsky Act. Former CIA intelligence officer and top Energy Department intelligence staffer Rolf Mowatt-Larsen and others have noted that it follows a familiar pattern for the Russians. “It bears all the hallmarks of a professionally planned, carefully orchestrated intelligence soft pitch designed to gauge receptivity, while leaving room for plausible deniability in case the approach is rejected,” Mowatt Larson wrote in The Post.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 10. Maybe Veselnitskaya really isn't working for the Kremlin! But to take her and the Kremlin's word for it is pretty intellectually incurious and is asking us all to grant a pretty questionable premise. And at the very least, she was presented to Trump Jr. — multiple times in those emails — as working on behalf of the Russian government. So again, we're asked to separate Trump Jr.'s intent from what he actually succeeded at.

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