Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Politics & Government

Week In Politics: Trump Jr.'s Meeting With Russian Lawyer, GOP Health Bill


On the Trump campaign's involvement with Russia, the president's response has changed. For months, President Trump said nobody from his team coordinated with Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election. Here he was in May speaking with NBC News.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There is no collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians.

SHAPIRO: Then this week, his eldest son released emails showing that top Trump campaign officials took a meeting with Russians promising incriminating information against Hillary Clinton. Those emails said the information was, quote, "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump." In Paris yesterday, the president said this.


TRUMP: I do think this - I think from a practical standpoint most people would have taken that meeting. It's called opposition research or even research into your opponent.

SHAPIRO: Joining us now to discuss this evolving story and more from the week in politics is E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Hi there.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: And Eliana Johnson of Politico. Nice to have you here.

ELIANA JOHNSON: Great to be here.

SHAPIRO: So I want to ask first about the president's changing response here, from no collusion to most people would have taken that meeting. Eliana, how significant do you think this shift is?

JOHNSON: Well, this president's forte clearly is not consistency. That being said, I actually don't think that this is an instance necessarily of inconsistency. What he's saying is, you know, on the one hand that there was no collusion. It's not clear to me there has been any collusion based on what we know about the meeting. Now, granted, the story - the initial New York Times story came out six days ago. We've learned something new about it every day. But what Trump said the other day is that anybody would try to collude. Anybody would be in the frame of mind of eagerness to collude with a foreign government offering incriminating information on their political opponent. Those two things don't necessarily seem inconsistent to me.

SHAPIRO: So if there was no collusion it wasn't for lack of trying, E.J.?

DIONNE: Right, exactly. I mean, just because you want to do something illegal and they may not have the information - although we don't really know what happened at that meeting yet. But I think it's just a flat-out inconsistency. Merriam-Webster's defines collusion as secret agreement or cooperation, especially for an illegal and deceitful purpose. And interestingly, the example the dictionary uses is in collusion with the enemy. And I think that what - the reason this Donald Jr. story exploded so much is not only that the Trump people's explanation of that meeting changed about a half dozen times. We keep adding people to the meeting in the reporting. It'll be at Madison Square Garden before we know it. But it's...

SHAPIRO: Why wasn't I invited?

DIONNE: Exactly. We should've been there.

JOHNSON: What, you didn't know Trump is fluent in Russian?

DIONNE: He probably is by now. But it's not just that, but it's the ease with which he, Donald Jr., said I love it. I'm ready to do this. My quote of the day is from my Washington Post colleague, an anti-Trump conservative, Mike Gerson. Mike wrote, a faith that makes losing a sin will make cheating a sacrament. That's worthy of Bartlett's.

SHAPIRO: Well, you mentioned the growing roster of people at this meeting. And the latest shoe to drop comes in reports out today that a former Soviet counterintelligence official who now lobbies for Russia attended the meeting. It, of course, had Donald Trump Jr., the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, who was then campaign chairman. This lobbyist, Rinat Akhmetshin, told The Associated Press that he was at the meeting but downplayed its significance. And now there are reports of other Russians that are advocates also being in the room. How important is this development? And how does it fit into the big picture of what we've learned this week? Eliana?

JOHNSON: Look, I think the absolute worst part of this situation for the White House is that it - they showed essentially how to reverse-engineer crisis management advice in that they were not forthcoming initially about what happened in this meeting. The New York Times reported that they crafted Donald Trump Jr.'s initial response when he said this was a meeting simply between the four people talking about adoption. And so that means there's no reason for the public to have any faith that they're being honest and transparent in what they're telling us now, which means that it's all up to reporters to ferret out information about what really happened in this meeting and that the White House's word has become utterly meaningless. Each development that comes out of the press is incredibly significant.

SHAPIRO: E.J., it feels like for months we've been hearing from defenders of the president there's smoke but no fire. Having a former KGB agent in the meeting sounds like fire.

DIONNE: It sure does to me. And, you know, it's really remarkable. A conservative writer said a couple weeks ago that the Trump administration is afflicted with Russian amnesia. The one set of meetings everybody seems to forget are any meetings they've had with Russians. And again and again they've had to change their disclosure forms. They've had to say that things they said in the past were untrue. And that's what feeds the suspicion. If they are not guilty of something, whether legal or simply collusion with an enemy, they sure don't act like innocents. And they cannot get their story straight. This is, as somebody wrote, the gang that can't collude straight.

SHAPIRO: As far as we know, the only person at that meeting who's currently at the White House is Jared Kushner, who's now a senior adviser to the president. And this morning in Congress, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called for Kushner to lose his security clearance. She also said Democrats are going to force Republicans or try to force them to take votes on creating an independent commission to investigate Russian involvement in the elections. Let's listen.


NANCY PELOSI: We will expose House Republicans in action for their willful, shameful enabling. They have become enablers of the violation of our Constitution, the attack on the integrity of our elections, the security of our country.

SHAPIRO: E.J., do you think this is a useful strategy for Democrats? Can they actually accomplish anything here?

DIONNE: Whether they accomplish something or not, I think they're going to underscore something that should be really disturbing to people and, I think, really is disturbing to anti-Trump conservatives and not just Democrats, which is that the Republican leadership has been absolutely cowardly in confronting Trump. Somebody could write a book on what conservatives would say if Hillary Clinton had done this and take all of these scandals and all of these questions about Trump. And I think what Pelosi is trying to do is put them on the line and say if you're not willing to vote for an independent investigation, you're just going to underscore for voters the fact that you are utterly unwilling to confront Trump.

JOHNSON: I don't entirely agree with that. You know, there are about 10 investigations currently going on right now and an independent special counsel investigating what exactly happened. I personally have faith that ultimately we're going to find out what happened in these meetings. You know, I'm not sure what exactly you would want Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell to do. Like, are they supposed to be...

DIONNE: Condemn meeting with the Russians and trying to get negative information and say, I would never do that. That's what I would want them to do.

JOHNSON: Because I think, you know, Paul Ryan pretty full-throatedly during the campaign, you know, condemned Trump and distanced the rest of his party from Trump. It's pretty clear to me that Republicans in Congress are put in a difficult position. And they don't like what they see happening.

DIONNE: I hope so.

SHAPIRO: We'll have to leave it there. Eliana Johnson and E.J. Dionne, thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCUS ANDERSON'S "JUST LIKE ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.