“This is black and white,” tweeted Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee. “Trump officials at the highest levels knew Russia was working to aid Donald Trump and welcomed Russia’s interference.”
However, the greater significance of the emails – what they indicate in terms of the scope of potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, especially where documented Russian tampering with the 2016 presidential election is concerned – is unclear.
Unanswered questions remain in five important areas:
On the Russian lawyer
The meeting whose arrangement the emails chronicle brought together Trump Jr and two other campaign aides – Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner – with Natalia Veselnitskaya, described in the emails as a “Russian government attorney”, though she denies having worked for the Kremlin.
Significantly, Veselnitskaya has not been linked to the hacking effort that stole emails from the Democratic national committee and from Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, nor has she been linked to the alleged targeting of certain US districts with fake news or the attempted spoilage of voter rolls.
In a recent piece for the Guardian, Moscow correspondent Shaun Walker wrote that Veselnitskaya was either “a well-networked insider relaying secret Kremlin information, or a chancer who somehow managed to get into the room with three top Trump advisers in the midst of a presidential campaign.”
Who was she acting for and did she have anything to share?
On the broader investigation
The Trump Jr emails emerged not from a leak by investigators but from work by New York Times reporters. It is unclear how the emails and the meeting they document fit within the larger context of investigations into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. These investigations proceed out of public view: inside the justice department, spearheaded by special counsel Robert Mueller and the FBI; and inside Congress. The conclusion of those investigations may show the Trump Jr emails and meeting to be significant, or merely a footnote. Did the meeting mean anything, or form part of a broader pattern of connections?
On the president’s role
Trump Jr has denied that his father, the president, knew about his meeting with Veselnitskaya. A New York Times report said that Trump personally signed off on an initial statement issued by Trump Jr about the meeting, however. That statement turned out to be highly misleading. Did Trump know about the meeting before it was first reported? By participating in the misleading statement, did Trump knowingly involve himself in a cover-up about the true nature of the meeting?
On what happened at the meeting
In the emails, Trump Jr had been promised “very high level and sensitive information,” but he has complained repeatedly in the past few days that Veselnitskaya failed to deliver the goods.
“In the end,” Trump Jr told Fox host Sean Hannity on Tuesday night, “there was probably some bait-and-switch about what it was really supposed to be about. There is nothing there.”
Veselnitskaya told NBC News that she did not have any damaging information about Clinton to offer at the meeting and that was never her intention. Neither Kushner nor Manafort has commented on the nature of the meeting. Is there any record of what was discussed?
On Trump’s credibility
As Warner tweeted, the emails do indicate that the Trump camp had a knowledge of and enthusiasm for Russia’s support. That’s new, and it’s hard to square with the 20 previous denials by Trumpworld figures of contacts with Russia, unless one is willing to consider that the Trump team has been blatantly lying.
The establishment of Team Trump as a band of liars could be significant. Popular support for the president, insofar as it undergirds the continued support for him in a Congress that might otherwise impeach him, is important to the national politics and perhaps the national fate, not to mention Trump’s. How long will Republicans support him?