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Byron York: Trump-Russia investigation takes sharp turn toward the dumb

071117 York Trump Jr Scandal pic
If Donald Trump Jr. realized his mistake and didn't repeat it, as his words suggest, the controversy may fade. But if he is lying, things will get far worse. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Could there be a dumber, more obvious come-on than the one Rob Goldstone, described in press reports as a British-born publicist and former tabloid reporter, sent to Donald Trump Jr. on June 3, 2016?

The "Crown prosecutor" of Russia, Goldstone wrote, wants to provide some "official documents and information" to the Trump campaign that would "incriminate" Hillary Clinton "and her dealings with Russia" and would be "very useful to your father," because giving the Trump campaign the "obviously very high level and sensitive" information was "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."

The pitch seemed almost a parody of Democratic charges of Trump-Russia collusion. And yet Trump Jr. bought it. "If it's what you say I love it," he wrote back to Goldstone.

Later, when it all came out, Trump Jr. conceded he might have handled the situation better. But he didn't admit much error. "I can't help what someone sends me," Trump Jr. told Fox News' Sean Hannity Tuesday night. "I read it, I responded accordingly."

What a mess for the White House. And all for nothing. When the meeting actually happened, at Trump Tower on June 9, there was a reason Jared Kushner left after a few minutes and Paul Manafort spent the whole time staring at his phone. The "Crown prosecutor" of Russia — there is no such position — was actually a shady lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, who had no "official documents" to offer but wanted to harangue Trump Jr. about U.S. sanctions on Russia. Trump Jr. quite reasonably saw there was nothing there and cut the meeting off after about 20 minutes.

But in a capital consumed with Trump and Russia, the revelations, first reported in the New York Times and then substantiated by Trump Jr. himself, blew up into the Scandal That Ate Cable TV.

Fortunately for the White House, some Democrats got so excited they accused TrumpWorld of treason, which cooler heads saw as a silly charge, but which allowed Trump defenders to point to bad-faith overreach on the part of the president's adversaries. When observers got to talking about what laws, if any, might have been broken in the Trump Jr.-Veselnitskaya meeting, the list was less spectacular, and even that was a reach.

"The public facts about this meeting suggest that one of several crimes may have occurred, including conspiracy to steal trade secrets (one way to characterize theft of Democratic National Committee emails), conspiracy to take unlawful foreign contributions, or conspiracy to commit some other election-related offense," wrote Georgetown University adjunct law professor Phillip Carter in Slate Tuesday.

Maybe that's right, and maybe not. In any event, that question is now, as Sen. Marco Rubio said Tuesday, "in the Mueller territory."

But all the talk of treason and Trump being "willing to accept help from a hostile foreign power" — the words of a tweet from the Democratic National Committee — did raise the question of whether the current state of affairs in the Trump-Russia investigation has any precedent.

Republicans were quick to point to a Politico story from January — it never really caught on — describing an effort by the government of Ukraine to sabotage the Trump campaign. "Ukrainian government officials tried to help Hillary Clinton and undermine Trump by publicly questioning his fitness for office," Politico's Ken Vogel and David Stern reported. "They also disseminated documents implicating a top Trump aide in corruption and suggested they were investigating the matter, only to back away after the election. And they helped Clinton's allies research damaging information on Trump and his advisers, a Politico investigation found."

The covert Ukrainian campaign had some effect — it helped forced Trump to fire his campaign chief, Manafort, in a shakeup that made a difficult August even more difficult — but has generated about one-millionth the interest that Russia's meddling has produced.

But even if Trump Jr.'s actions somehow broke federal election laws — Norm Eisen, the former Obama White House ethics chief, tweeted that the Trump Jr. meeting "clearly violates campaign finance law and likely implicates Don Jr. and campaign under conspiracy statute" — the general hyperventilation suggested some in Washington had forgotten that foreign meddling, with American acquiescence, has happened in previous presidential elections.

Had they forgotten the representatives of foreign powers who weighed in on Bill Clinton's behalf in the 1996 election? Anyone remember Yah-lin "Charlie" Trie? Or Johnny Chung? Or John Huang? James Riady? Maria Shia?

Do they remember Chung — he was the one who in the pre-farecard era said the Clinton White House was like a subway because you had to put in a coin to open the gate — testified before the House of Representatives that the head of Chinese military intelligence told him: "We like your president very much. We hope to see him re-elected. I'll give you 300,000 U.S. dollars. You can give it to your president and the Democratic Party."

Foreign influence in the 1996 election was a scandal. But Clinton's attorney general steadfastly refused to call for an independent counsel in the case, which in that dawn-of-cable-TV-wars time helped keep outrage at manageable levels until Clinton was impeached for something else.

Now the talk in Washington is again all about foreign influence. In the Trump Jr. matter, it seems possible that if the Veselnitskaya meeting was a one-off, and that Trump Jr. learned a lesson and did not repeat his mistake, then the controversy will eventually fade. "There isn't anything else there," he told Hannity. But if that's not true, if there were other similar incidents, who knows?

On Tuesday, the New York Post published an editorial with the headline "Donald Trump Jr. Is An Idiot." That was a little blunt. But it did help explain the otherwise inexplicable events of June 2016.