Robert Mueller’s definitive account of the Donald Trump campaign’s interactions with Russian operatives and the president’s efforts to undermine that investigation resolved nothing. At least, not for activists in Washington’s more partisan quarters.
Once “totally exonerated” by the report, Trump has since soured on its conclusions and belatedly invoked executive privilege to shield whatever hasn’t already been released to the public from congressional investigators. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerold Nadler presided over a vote to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for withholding the 2 percent of the report that is redacted to shield grand jury testimony from scrutiny and preserve the integrity of ongoing investigations. Both House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and ranking member Devin Nunes want the Justice Department to surrender the underlying evidence that informed Mueller’s conclusions. Everyone, it seems, wants to relitigate the investigation with an eye toward implicating their political enemies in malfeasance.
The exception to this rule appears to be the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, which has conducted itself in a bipartisan fashion throughout this sordid affair. That makes the committee’s decision to subpoena Donald Trump Jr. to again account for his conduct so momentous. Some, including Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr’s colleague, Sen. Thom Tillis, insist that this, too, is an effort to dredge up old news for the sole purpose of making the president look bad. But, unlike his congressional colleagues, Burr’s committee isn’t relitigating the Mueller probe. They are pursuing its conclusions. And Donald Trump Jr. has a lot to answer for.
If the purpose of Burr’s subpoena is to squeeze a “collusion” narrative out of the Mueller report, it would be a vain quest. The Special Counsel’s office determined that Trump campaign officials’ infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 with the plausibly deniable Kremlin emissary Natalia Veselnitskaya did not constitute a conspiracy with Russia to subvert the political process. If anything, the meeting might have constituted a campaign finance violation, but prosecutors did not believe they could prove an intention to violate the law in court.
That is, however, where the exculpation of Donald Trump Jr.’s conduct ends.
The president’s son testified before congressional investigators in September 2017 behind closed doors. But, according to the opening statement he released to the public, he characterized the Trump Tower meeting as “primarily focused on Russian adoptions.” He also claimed that he had always maintained that this was the case, but that was not true. The president personally dictated a statement on his son’s behalf claiming that the meeting was unrelated to the campaign. White House emails subsequently revealed that the agenda was going to include substantive support for the president’s reelection efforts as part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” The question the Mueller probe declined to resolve was whether Donald Trump Jr. was aware of the campaign-finance laws he was violating at the time of the meeting. That’s a question that can only be satisfactorily resolved by the president’s son under oath.
This wasn’t the only occasion in which Don Jr. appears to have been manipulated by Russian assets with a few degrees of separation from Moscow. In November 2017, media reports revealed that the president’s son had exchanged direct messages with Wikileaks’s Twitter account in 2016, which was often utilized by Julian Assange himself. By that point, it was already public knowledge that the entity known as Guccifer 2.0, which was understood to be a front for Russian military intelligence, was responsible for the hack of Democratic National Committee servers and had funneled the documents it stole through Wikileaks. According to Mueller’s report, Wikileaks gave the password to an anti-Trump website to Don Jr., who proceeded to inform campaign officials of the find without disclosing its provenance. “I tried the password and it works,” the younger Trump revealed. This could constitute illegal hacking.
But the Senate Intelligence Committee is reportedly most curious about the extent to which Don Trump Jr. was aware of his father’s efforts to secure the rights to construct a skyscraper in Moscow—efforts that reportedly continued well into 2016, even after Trump had secured the Republican nomination for president. The president’s son told Senate investigators that he “wasn’t involved” in those negotiations and was only “peripherally aware of it.” But Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, testified in his plea agreement with prosecutors that he repeatedly briefed both Don Jr. and Ivanka Trump about the status of negotiations regarding the Moscow tower project. Someone has not been entirely truthful.
This subpoena suggests that the president’s son declined to cooperate with Congress voluntarily. The New York Times revealed that, according to someone close to Don Jr., “he could invoke his Fifth Amendment rights in a written response.” Congressional investigators are obliged to pursue these outstanding issues and reconcile Donald Trump Jr.’s 2017 testimony with what we know today.
This is not a witch hunt. It isn’t rank partisan politics masquerading as congressional oversight. Donald Trump Jr. is not being persecuted, and the congressional investigators compelling his testimony are compelled by their duties as lawmakers to resolve these outstanding questions. Anyone with a desire to uphold the rule of law in this country should want to see this saga reach a definitive conclusion, even if the ending isn’t a happy one for the president and his family.