Trials of Donald Jr turn Russia scandal into another Trump family affair
Though the president is fiercely loyal to his children, some observers wonder if deepening and dangerous controversy might test such bonds to breaking point
It was an unseasonably cool day in New York. At 1.50pm on 9 June, Hillary Clinton tweeted that Barack Obama was backing her for US president. Half an hour later, Donald Trump tweeted: Obama just endorsed Crooked Hillary. At 2.27pm, Clinton replied: Delete your account. It was the most retweeted post of her campaign.
Just before 4pm, several figures passed through the shiny marble atrium of Trump Tower and took the elevator up to the office of Donald Trump Jr on the 25th floor, one below that of his father. Among them was Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer. Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian American lobbyist and former Soviet military officer.
What passed between them remains a matter of uncertain recollections and international intrigue. The meeting was kept secret for more than a year. When news of it first emerged last Saturday, the world was provided with the first public evidence that Trump campaign officials met with Russians in an attempt to swing the election the political crime of the century. A steady drip of damning details followed.
It also showed that a scandal frequently compared to Watergate goes right to the heart of the Trump family business. The presidents oldest son had handed investigators and journalists the much sought-after smoking gun. The presidents son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, also attended the meeting and failed to declare it. The presidents daughter, Ivanka, faces continued scrutiny over her own role in the White House.
Like everything else, Trump doesn't do nepotism by halves. His three sons and two daughters have been seen as a political asset even Clinton once said during an otherwise rancorous presidential debate: I respect his children. His children are incredibly able and devoted. I think that says a lot about Donald.
But recent events beg the question of whether they're becoming a liability. And, some ponder, is Trump certain to remain loyal to them. Would he throw his own son under the bus if it was politically expedient?
The core organising principles of his life are winning and family, said Bill Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. It'll be interesting to see what happens if those two principles come into competition.
The Trump family have earned comparisons with the Corleone clan, from The Godfather novels and films. Donald Jr was dubbed Fredo Corleone several times over this week. But perhaps a more accurate template for a man steeped in the glitzy, avaricious 1980s are the Ewing and Colby clans in the glossy soaps Dallas and Dynasty.
Donald Jr, Eric and Ivanka Trumps involvement in their fathers property, hotel, golf and merchandise empire perhaps made it seem natural for them to join his seemingly quixotic campaign for White House too. They were among the former Apprentice hosts biggest cheerleaders at rallies, in TV interviews and amid the raucous circus of the Republican national convention.
So it was that on 3 June 2016 Don Jr received a bombshell email from an acquaintance, Rob Goldstone, a British music publicist, dangling the promise of documents that'd incriminate Clinton and her dealings with Russia.
This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its governments support for Mr Trump, the email added.
Donald Jr should, by most independent opinion, have alerted the FBI to a potential assault on American democracy by a foreign adversary. Instead he wrote back gleefully: If its what you say I love it especially later in the summer.
On 7 June, Don Jr and Goldstone agreed to set up a meeting with a Russian government attorney flying in from Moscow. That nite, Trump swept Republican primaries in California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota, earning enough delegates to officially clinch the party nomination.
In a victory speech, with Ivanka and wife Melania standing behind him, Trump declared: I'm going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week and were going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think youre going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.
Two days later, on 9 June, Trump and Clinton were locking antlers on Twitter over Obamas endorsement. Goldstones Facebook account shows that he arrived at Trump Tower at 3.12pm. At 4pm, he joined the meeting that included Trump Jr, Kushner, then campaign manager Paul Manafort, Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin.
The following Monday, Trumps speech didn't deliver the promised goods on Clinton. But on 15 June, a hacker calling himself Guccifer 2.0 released files stolen from the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Later that summer, WikiLeaks published huge dumps of emails stolen from the DNC and Clinton campaign manager John Podesta.
US intelligence agencies concluded that Russian president Vladimir Putin was responsible for the hack. Ever since Trumps astonishing election victory in November, there has been a cloud of suspicion about whether he colluded with Moscow to pull it off. There were his past business dealings in Russia. There was his strange reluctance to criticize Putin, his associates failure to declare contacts with the Russian ambassador, his dismissal of the director of the FBI. A special counsel and two congressional committees are working on the giant jigsaw puzzle.
But a series of revelations led by the New York Times this week landed the biggest piece yet. Confronted with the fact of the meeting, Trump Jr first claimed it'd been about a block on American families adopting Russian children. Then he was forced to admit that dirt on Clinton had been offered, though he claimed it came to naught. Then he was forced to release his email correspondence with Goldstone. Then it emerged that Akhmetshin had also been in the room when it happened.
Donald Jr, 39, enjoys shooting big game in Africa. This weeks saga turned him from hunter to hunted. There was public humiliation as he made the cover of Time magazine, while the New York Post said bluntly: Donald Trump Jr is an idiot. Even his father was slow to take up his cause, remaining silent for nearly three days, then offering a 12-word statement. Eventually, he came through for his offspring, insisting that he's a wonderful young man and that most people in politics probably would've taken the meeting.
What Trump has said to his son behind closed doors is open to speculation. He learned from his ruthless mentor, Roy Cohn, never to leave a paper trail. That was the mistake Don Jr made in committing his thoughts to email, which could result in him having to testify under oath to Congress.