Below is my column in the Hill newspaper on the release of the transcripts from the investigation into the infamous Trump Tower meeting. The testimony of key players is consistent with a reckless effort to get dirt of Hillary Clinton but, if anything, it undermines claims of collusion or conspiracy with the Russians. The answer may lie in the writings of 13th Century English Franciscan friar William of Ockham.
Here is the column:
In an important step toward transparency, the Senate Judiciary Committee released over 2,500 pages of materials from its investigation of the infamous June 9, 2016, meeting between Donald Trump Jr., presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, and Russian figures promising evidence of criminal conduct by Hillary Clinton. The transcripts are enlightening, as critical witnesses under oath described in detail a classic bait-and-switch meeting where Russians came promising dirt and left with disappointment on all sides.
The public will have to reach its own conclusions on the Trump Tower meeting but it is now more likely to find enlightenment in the writings of a 14th century Franciscan friar than from partisans in Congress. William of Ockham is famous as the source of “Ockham’s razor,” the principle that when presented with competing possible solutions to a problem, one should select the answer that makes the fewest assumptions. There is an obvious explanation for the Trump Tower meeting, and it is not conspiracy, but stupidity.
For more than a year, some of us have argued that allegations of collusion or conspiracy in the Trump Tower meeting were unsubstantiated and illogical. If a true conspiracy occurred between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence, why would they ever call a meeting with unknown participants in the most highly visible location possible?
The Russians may be duplicitous, but they are not stupid. What was the benefit of such a meeting when the Russians could work through back channels to get the information to journalists or a single insider? Instead, conspiracy theorists suggested that the Russians picked a clownish British music promoter to arrange a meeting by expressly promising compromising information from the Russian government in writing.
One of the most interesting aspects of the new information was the response from the media. CNN, which has a bevy of legal analysts who have been flogging the Trump Tower conspiracy for months, ran the headline, “Trump Tower transcripts detail quest for dirt on Hillary Clinton.” Nothing on the great conspiracy or collusion. Just a detailed account of the quest for “dirt.” Trump Jr. admitted his ill-considered “I love it” comment was in response to the prospect of getting official documents that would expose Clinton as a criminal. If true, then the meeting was moronic, naive, but entirely legal.
Trump Jr. admitted he wanted to see any official documents on criminal conduct by Clinton. In this case, Trump Jr. was told that the “crown prosecutor of Russia” had offered “to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” Music promoter Rod Goldstone added, “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
All of the participants confirmed that the meeting was brief — around 20 minutes — and that no real evidence was supplied or discussed. All of the witnesses were consistent in describing a meeting billed as the disclosure of criminal conduct but actually meant to raise the continuing controversy over the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 congressional bill that imposed restrictions on travel and banking on 18 Russian officials and other figures. It remains an ongoing controversy in Russia and was the long focus of Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.
The use of the meeting to pitch for the rescission of the Magnitsky Act was described by Goldstone as an embarrassment. He testified that “Jared Kushner, who is sitting next to me, appeared somewhat agitated by this and said, ‘I really have no idea what you’re talking about. Could you please focus a bit more and maybe just start again?’ And I recall that she began the presentation exactly where she had begun it last time, almost word for word, which seemed, by his body language, to infuriate him even more.” Goldstone apologized to Trump Jr. for wasting his time.
Many of the media continue to refuse to acknowledge the fact that both campaigns were actively seeking dirt on the other side, including information from Russian intelligence figures. While the Clinton campaign long denied the connection to the Steele dossier, including in meetings with investigators, Clinton and her top campaign officials belatedly admitted to funding the dossier after media found evidence linking it to Clinton’s top lawyer. It was buried as a campaign expenditure to a law firm. Clinton aides now express disbelief that anyone would question such “opposition research” on Trump, even from Russian sources.
None of this changes the fact that Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort were idiots to take such a meeting. Clinton was far more sophisticated, using a surrogate like former British spy Christopher Steele. Moreover, there remains uncertainty over the identity of a caller who telephoned Trump Jr. after he spoke with Russian pop star Emin Agalarov about the meeting. The number was blocked and Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans refused to subpoena the records to determine the identity of the caller. (President Trump is known to use a blocked number.) The committee should have subpoenaed that record. If that call was Trump, it would sharply contradict the statements of the president and his son.
However, the transcript reveals a largely consistent and entirely plausible account of a meeting of chumps, not conspirators. The statement drafted by President Trump on Air Force One was misleading in failing to mention the original purpose of the meeting. But if such spins were crimes in Washington, there would not be a single politician left at liberty.
None of this changes my view that special counsel Robert Mueller should be allowed to finish his investigation or that real, though largely unrelated, crimes have been exposed by Manafort and others. However, it is also true that the original purpose of the investigation — Russian collusion with the campaign — has thus far failed to materialize. Mueller may well have evidence, but it is unlikely to be found in the Trump Tower meeting.
The Trump Tower meeting is now ready for Ockham’s razor: Those 20 minutes have resulted in more than a year of investigation, countless hours of testimony and tens of thousands of documents. The most obvious explanation, with the least assumptions, is that this was a case of blind and reckless desire overcoming judgment. It is called a “razor” precisely because it “shaves away” unnecessary, or in this case partisan, assumptions. When you shave away the unsupported facts, the Trump Tower meeting appears hardly complimentary but entirely legal.