In a new book detailing the wild first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is quoted blasting top operatives in the 2016 campaign for their naivete and idiocy in their dealings with the Russians.
He’s absolutely right.
Of the July 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and several Russians – in which dirt on Hillary Clinton had been promised to the campaign – Bannon tells author Michael Wolff, according to the Guardian, which obtained an early copy of the book:
“The three senior guys in the campaign thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the 25th floor – with no lawyers. They didn’t have any lawyers. Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad s***, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately.”
The idea that a meeting between the three top officials in the Trump campaign and a handful of people with Russian ties could or should be held in Trump Tower is, on its face, ludicrous. And, that doesn’t even get into the fact that the reason (or a reason) that the meeting even happened in the first place was that Don Jr. had been promised dirt on Clinton by Rob Goldstone, a publicist for Russian pop star Emin Alagarov, whose father is a business tycoon close to the Russian government.
Whether or not anything actually happened – Don Jr. insists the meeting was brief and uneventful – the sheer appearance that such a gathering conveys is a very bad one. Particularly when you consider that two former Trump aides have already pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about their contacts with Russia during the 2016 campaign.
“Bannon went on, Wolff writes, to say that if any such meeting had to take place, it should have been set up ‘in a Holiday Inn in Manchester, New Hampshire, with your lawyers who meet with these people’. Any information, he said, could then be ‘dump[ed] … down to Breitbart or something like that, or maybe some other more legitimate publication.’ You never see it, you never know it, because you don’t need to … But that’s the brain trust that they had.”
This is what is known as plausible deniability. As in, senior leadership in any campaign never get too close to the truly explosive (or potentially explosive) material that is peddled in the dark channels of opposition research so that – if ever it actually blows up – they can honestly say they never knew about it.
What Bannon nails in the last line of his quote above is the fact that the “brain trust” of the Trump campaign simply wasn’t terribly well versed in the ways that modern campaigns operate. Don Jr. and Kushner are family; neither man had ever been involved in politics at any sort of national level prior to this campaign. Manafort hadn’t run – or really been involved at a high level with – a campaign in this country in decades.
These were not, in short, the best of the best. Why? Because no one thought Trump had a shot in hell of winning. And, even when it became clear by the spring of 2016 that he actually might win – that’s when Manafort signed on – no one who had run a previous campaign at the national level in the last decade was willing to touch the radioactive Trump.
There were undoubtedly benefits to the lack of knowledge Trump and his inner circle had about the way things were done in campaigns. They ran a different campaign because they didn’t know what a normal campaign looked like.
But, this Trump Tower meeting is the other side of that coin. It was a colossally bad decision – even if nothing at all happened in it.
Say what you will about Steve Bannon – and you can say a lot – but he gets that. And he gets – better than anyone in the White House apparently does – what is headed their way.
“They’re sitting on a beach trying to stop a Category Five,” he told Wolff.