The Republican mantra used to be personal responsibility. As Windsor Mann reminded me, Newt Gingrich wrote this in his 1995 book, To Renew America: “When confronted with a problem, a true American doesn’t ask, ‘Who can I blame this on?’”
Yet now that Donald Trump Jr. has been caught red-handed celebrating an offer from the Russian government to help his father’s campaign, that is precisely what so many of the president’s defenders are doing. They are trying to shift blame somehow—Gingrich included.
The former House speaker claims it’s perfectly normal for any campaign to get opposition research wherever it comes from. In reality, numerous veterans of both Republican and Democratic campaigns have said they would have immediately called the FBI if they heard that the Russians were offering to help them.
According to the The Atlantic, “Gingrich also called attention to the Obama administration’s ‘actively, overtly trying to defeat Netanyahu in the Israeli election,’ a reference to the State Department’s giving funds in 2013 to a nonprofit that later built campaign infrastructure used to campaign against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election in 2015.” Whatever you may think of the Obama administration anti-Netanyahu campaign—I personally think it was a big mistake—this is hardly comparable to accepting help from a hostile foreign power to influence an American election.
Meanwhile, Sean Hannity claimed that the real story is not Russian interference in our election but, rather, Ukrainian interference. Huh? As the Washington Post explained, this is based on an old Politico article revealing that a Democratic Party consultant had met with someone at the Ukrainian embassy in Washington to research Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s work on behalf of Ukraine’s former pro-Russian president. Manafort eventually was forced to resign from the campaign after the New York Times revealed he had gotten almost $13 million in covert payments from a pro-Russian party in Ukraine. Hannity posited that this revelation was all part of a big Ukrainian plot to influence the election.
Actually, it’s not clear that there was anything like high-level Ukrainian government involvement here. There’s certainly no evidence to compare with the Washington Post revelation that Vladimir Putin personally ordered an influence operation to swing the U.S. election against Hillary Clinton. At most, what seems to have happened is that a Ukrainian embassy employee researched Manafort’s links to Russia and then shared that information with a Democratic Party consultant. That’s hardly comparable to meeting with a “Russian government lawyer” in the hopes of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton, as Donald Trump Jr. did, after being told that this “is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Hannity’s Fox News colleague, Jesse Watters, has been even more inventive in defending Trump Jr., claiming, “The whole thing was set up by this Democratic firm that was connected to the fake Trump-Russian dossier. So, that could be a setup.” This is all too reminiscent of what former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry said after he was taped smoking cracking cocaine: “Bitch set me up.”
The basis for Watters’ inventive charge is apparently the fact that the Russian lawyer who met Trump Jr., Natalia Veselnitskaya, had previously worked on a lawsuit with Fusion GPS. That opposition research firm was subsequently hired by Trump’s opponents to dig up information on his Russian connections, resulting in a notorious dossier compiled by former MI6 operative Christopher Steele.
It’s quite a stretch to go from this fact to the conclusion that Trump Jr. was set up by the DNC. If that was the case, why did they wait more than a year to spring the trap, by which time Donald Trump had already been elected president? Were they playing such a long game that they wanted Trump to win the election so that they could then undermine his legitimacy?
Trump’s defenders need to cut it out. Stop making excuses. Stop pretending that this is all Hillary Clinton’s fault or that the sins of the Trump campaign pale by comparison with those of Clinton’s. They need to remember the old Republican mantra of personal responsibility and recognize that no one forced Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner to meet with a Russian government representative.
Even if nothing came out of that meeting—which is far from certain—the very fact that they were willing to take it, and the fact that none of them appeared to be surprised at the Russian government’s willingness to help their campaign, is deeply disturbing and damaging. Instead of trying to make excuses or to echo the lame and ever-shifting White House talking points, Republicans and conservatives should be distancing themselves from this disaster and demanding a full investigation to get out all the facts.