The White House Narrative Meltdown
The Trump Administration wants to turn the page on Russia. Don Jr. may have turned it into the whole book
Donald Trump Jr.’s emails were going to come out eventually. The New York Times had a full story prepared that would outline the claims against Trump Jr., that he had met with a lawyer connected to the Kremlin to get dirt on Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election, and that he was told the Russian Government was seeking to support his father’s campaign through this information. They had the emails ready, and they were going to lay the story out for the nation.
Then, at 9 AM EST, Don Jr. did the work for them.
He released the emails in question on his Twitter feed, claiming that he wanted to be fully transparent about the matter. In the emails, publicist Rob Goldstone let Trump Jr. know of a contact he had with damaging information that the Russian government was willing to provide to damage Clinton and support his father. Trump Jr., excited by the prospect, set up a meeting with the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, himself, Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner.
Trump Jr. has maintained his innocence since the release of the emails, pointing out that there was no damaging information garnered from that meeting and thus, it is not collusion. On the right, he has been defended by Fox News pundits and administration officials, and his father vouched for his good character, and suggested that Democrats were just continuing to overplay the Russia issue. Therein lies a strength that the Trump Administration has been more than willing to take advantage of. The focus on the Russia investigation mostly follows partisan lines, and Donald Trump has put this fact to use in defense of his agenda. It’s a witch hunt, they are grasping at straws, it’s fake news, they just don’t want to Make America Great Again.
‘Fake news’ has been the most common retort by President Trump. The Trump Administration’s fight with the mainstream media has given them an ability to present an alternative narrative than what the press is showing, whether it’s honest or not. While most media outlets focus on the mere existence of the Russia investigations, the Trump Administration chooses to focus on the lack of concrete evidence against them, claiming that these probes will all end with a huge pile of nothing. Anonymous sources are liars, statements are always out of context, and the media is just out to take down this presidency. And it works, as he tarnishes the credibility of media outlets through accusations and petty feuds, while assuring his base that nothing is true unless it comes from his lips.
And so, with such a strong tool at their disposal, Trump Jr.’s actions only become that much more confusing and damaging for the administration. While Trump Jr. claimed that this was all done in the name of ‘transparency’, it was only when faced with a damaging New York Times story that he decided to release the emails. But a better question lies in wondering why he felt pressured to begin with? He isn’t under any investigation that warranted the release of these emails. It would have been his word versus The New York Times’, which is a fight his father and his supporters are well-acquainted with. President Trump has literally accused media outlets of falsifying anonymous sources to smear his administration, so what was stopping Trump Jr. from claiming that the Times’ emails were fake news? It’s not like he would’ve had to sue them for libel, he would just need to make the accusation to satisfy his base.
A major part of that decision could have been the fact that Trump Jr. believes he did absolutely nothing wrong, so it was a better decision to beat the media at their own game. But that mindset has come at the cost of redefining what wrong is. Trump Jr. was told that the Russian Government supported his father and was willing to give information to help his campaign, and Trump Jr. accepted the help, which turned out to be nothing. For some, it’s clear intent to collude. For others, there was no collusion because the campaign didn’t get any information on Clinton. But what is ostensibly true is that Donald Trump Jr. was willing to get damaging information, potentially from the Russian Government, from a source with Kremlin connections, to damage Hillary Clinton. It’s as strong of a link between Russia and Trump as there has ever been in this story.
So where does the Administration go from here? In the short-term, they have two items on their side, their unshakable base, and the shortness of news cycles. But can they really use fake news to talk this away? They’re trying, as Trump Jr. called the accusations of collusion ‘ridiculous’, while Kellyanne Conway wrote out that collusion an ‘illusion’ and ‘delusion’ by Democrats on television. But by that point the narrative is no longer on what was done, but what we’re calling it. No one in the administration is denying that a member of Trump’s campaign met with someone intending to get information from a foreign entity, but rather whether it’s criminal to do so. And that is a shift from the narrative that they’ve constructed, that they did not and were not willing to work with the Russians to help take down Hillary Clinton. And that is significant for a White House that assured its base there was no wrongdoing. The Administration has gone from ‘We didn’t do anything wrong, let’s move on’ to ‘We’re telling you this wasn’t wrong’. It’s a slight change, but one that hurts the administration’s goal of moving forward. Rather than champion their innocence, the Trump Administration is playing a game of moral relativism, trying to get people to support them not because there is nothing there, but because they are right and the opposition is wrong about it.
Is it a game that they can win? A YouGov/Huffington Post poll found that the majority found Trump Jr.’s meeting inappropriate, but it did little to change the sentiments about their feelings about the investigation. But the Trump Administration is suddenly playing a different kind of game. Rather than treating the Russia investigation as a matter of fact and the lack thereof, it’s now a matter of opinion on what constitutes collusion. And that isn’t a game that means immediate success for the administration. During the Access Hollywood controversy, Donald Trump admitted to wrongdoing immediately, and deflected the outrage to other sources such as Bill Clinton. But with criminal prosecution and impeachment talk growing, deflecting may not work to ensure the survival of his presidency. The White House was able to publicly discredit the Russia investigation for months, but now Donald Trump Jr. may have just given the issue its first big break.
Izzy Rodriguez is a writer and student at Rice University. You can follow Izzy for more commentary on politics and pop culture on Twitter @IzzyRxdriguez.