Now that the Senate Judiciary Committee has released 2,500 pages of congressional testimony pertaining to Russiagate, it is time for President Donald Trump’s critics to admit something they may not want to hear: There is no smoking gun contained inside.
“I don’t know that there are going to be massive political implications,” Dr. Larry J. Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told Salon on Wednesday. “Any fair-minded person who reads a summary of what the testimony says understands that Donald Trump, Jr. really is a chip off the old block. That is: At best, he doesn’t tell the full truth. At worst, he’s lying.”
In terms of what is revealed in the testimony itself, one of the best summaries was written by The Washington Post. As Aaron Blake noted, key findings include that Trump, Jr. confirmed to Congress that he had been talking about opposition research when he wrote that he would “love it” if Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya could give him dirt on Hillary Clinton when they met at Trump Tower in June 2016; that other witnesses confirmed that Trump, Jr. had opened the meeting seeking dirt on Clinton; and that Trump had, at least in a small capacity, attempted to influence the public’s image of the meeting after it came to light.
Trump, Jr. claimed that nothing of value was gleaned from the meeting. If proven otherwise, the president’s eldest son could potentially face potential legal trouble, but there is no evidence right now to suggest otherwise. At the same time, there is nothing in the newly-released testimony that dismisses ongoing concerns about the numerous connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. In other words, today’s release does not change the narrative in any meaningful way.
That doesn’t mean that we cannot learn something from the Trump Jr. transcripts. Rather, we are learning more about ourselves than we are about the Russia scandal.
“We’re seeing what we want to see — all of us are — whatever our biases and prejudices may be about this,” Sabato told Salon. “There is no hard-core proof in this, but there are clues that would lead a real investigative team — which is what Mueller has — to ask further questions and maybe — just maybe — get some real answers.”
During our conversation, I observed to Sabato that we are living in a political climate where even hard facts would not necessarily change strong opinions. If a smoking gun is found, Trump’s supporters would possibly deny what is fuming right in front of them — or find a creative way of spinning it. If it is determined that there was no smoking gun, Trump’s critics might seemingly begin to see wisps of smoke everywhere they look.
“We don’t know what is ‘capital T’ truth,” Sabato said. “I mean, one side is closer to the truth, but neither side really knows it. They think they know it, but they don’t know it. But people are so dug in, they’re in their trenches, they’re not going to crawl out across No Man’s Land to get into the trench on the other side. They’re just not going to do it. Everybody has decided what they think — at least about Trump.”
And Trump, Jr.’s testimony, according to Sabato, had done little to clear things up.
“We’re going to get back to Bill Clinton, and ‘it depends on the meaning of ‘is,'” Sabato told Salon. “It depends on the meaning of ‘collusion.’ I’m not sure, because, as I read this, there’s contradictory information in there from people who are not necessarily lying. What actually did take place in that meeting that would produce collusion? I don’t know. Because if the ‘collusion’ is about that act regarding adopted children [the Magnitsky Act], nobody’s going to care.”
“Is it ‘collusion’ about providing negative information about Clinton or money that would be used in the campaign?” he continued. “Well, this really doesn’t address that or it doesn’t provide proof that that happened. Now Mueller may have gone well beyond this.”
And, as Sabato agreed, this writer’s “smoking gun” analogy works all too well in this situation.
“You’re asking a guy who, as you know, has spent a lot of time on the Kennedy assassination,” he said. “They will find a picket fence. They will find a puff of smoke. They will find a policeman who may be real or may be shadows cast by the sun through leaves.”
This article is not being written to dismiss Trump, Jr.’s testimony. It is certainly an important piece in a puzzle that has not yet fully started to form, and it may take on greater significance as additional pieces fall into place. At some point, though, it behooves the media to acknowledge not only what we know and what we do not know, but also how that knowledge will or will not impact the news cycle.
One thing remains certain: In our current hyper-partisan climate, it is exceptionally unlikely that the Trump, Jr. transcripts will change anyone’s mind.