What a gift is an idiot who does not know he’s an idiot. This weekend, Donald Trump, Jr., one of the more colossally stupid individuals to touch the highest levels of our government, set some new records in the service of a president. First, in going public without the benefit of an attorney or media consultant, he admitted he had lied and did indeed meet with Russian operatives in June 2016 in hopes of using high-level Russian government intelligence against the Clinton campaign. Donnie the Younger, Donnie the Elder, and the Trump White House have repeatedly denied that any such sit-down took place. Yesterday, he topped even that, providing proof in the form of an email chain that put not only himself in the room with a Russian operative, but also Trump senior campaign staffers Paul Manafort and his own brother-in-law, Jared Kushner. DTJR said he did it for transparency, but that, too, was a lie. Even his transparency is a smoke screen. He did it because he knew the New York Times was already going to publish the emails, and the Times quickly outed him on even that simple lie.
American politics has so many sorts of lies. Political scientists love to talk about The Big Lie, the audacious one repeated so often and so matter-of-factly that people accept that it’s true. Two of the biggest in recent memory would be the Bush White House’s maniacal insistence that Iraq secretly masterminded 9/11 or the Sarah Palin–branded plot that the Affordable Care Act instituted government “death panels” to wipe out large swathes of the American population by fiat. There were the weasel lies Bill Clinton peddled over the word “is” breeding multiple interpretations, and drug use not counting on the grounds that “I didn’t inhale,” or the bald-faced Nixonian lie of looking into the camera and saying “I am not a crook.” There’s Obama’s telling us we could keep any doctor we want under the ACA when he knew that wasn’t true—the lie in the service of a supposed greater good. And then there’s simply convincing yourself that what you believe is true, like Reagan telling us “We did not—repeat—did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages [with Iran], nor will we.”
In the way the Kennedys loved touch football and the Roosevelts the vigorous life, the Trumps lie.
But the Trumps have taken the lie somewhere else. In the way the Kennedys loved touch football and the Roosevelts the vigorous life, the Trumps lie. Not just as the refuge of cowards, or opportunists, or the guilty evading punishment—they mastered all of these sub-genres of deceit long ago. For the Trumps, English is a second language, one you learn only after learning to lie. Under the most intense scrutiny imaginable, President Trump shrugs off lies and compulsively tweets lies that have already been proven false, whether they concern the provenance of Obama’s birth, the conviction of the Central Park Five, or the nonexistent sex tapes of erstwhile beauty queens. When his underlings lie for him, he undercuts them with another lie he prefers in the moment, like switching a dessert. Lying to investors made him wildly rich. Birtherism brought him a political base. Lying about his opponents—Ted Cruz’s father being an accessory to the Kennedy assassination, for example—brought him the nomination. And lying about Hillary Clinton brought him to the White House.
When your father is the master, why do anything different? Provided, that is, that you can. Like so many sons of powerful, wealthy men, especially those branded from birth as “junior,” Donald Jr. finds it hard to live in the shadows of his father’s greatest achievement, lying. To be fair, any of us would. And if you are named Babe Ruth, Jr., it must be tempting to pick up that bat. Donald, Jr. had one job, as they say—just one job. When challenged on facts, lie. Say “fake news!” and continue lying, just like dad would. Easier said than done.
After Donald, Jr. repeatedly lied about never meeting with any Russians about the campaign, he provided evidence to the public that he did just that, via his own email. It’s something only an idiot would think could help in any way. Trump, Sr. would have held out until the bitter end, evading everything, attacking everyone, until he was cornered, under oath, and facing jail time, before he would ever consider saying anything anywhere near the truth. That is the shameless stonewalling he engages in routinely, from national security matters to just denying that he wears a hairpiece. He’d readily create a whole new level of lying in order to save his presidency.
But Donald, Jr. isn’t his dad. He’s weak and stupid—and best of all for the republic, he has no idea just how weak and stupid he is. Up against Robert Mueller, the New York Times, his widely despised father’s millions of enemies, and a White House full of shifty, press-leaking weasels, DTJR actually thought to himself, “Chill. I got this.”
And why wouldn’t he? Having spent a life under the protection of a billionaire father in a New York real estate world where the Trumps have been players for three generations, Donald Jr. has been seamlessly and hermetically insulated from the consequences of his own actions. And so he made his Saturday statement, then panicked after making everything worse, and released the chain of emails himself.
For once, there’s a long line of people who gain much more from destroying the Trumps than working with them.
We can only guess at his motivations, but something spooked Trump, Jr. Yes, he still works for his father, the president of the United States, but he’s not in the obliging safe space of moneyed New York any more. Presidents don’t protect their advisers; it’s the other way around. The president’s people are supposed to stand between their presidents and their president’s enemies. Advisers, chiefs of staff, strategists—they are often unlikable, and when too many feuds convert them from political bodyguards into political baggage, they are eased out, indicted, or fired. Look over a roster of presidential fixers—your Haldemans, Bakers, Regans, Axelrods, Emanuels and Roves. Say what you will, but they were a tough, smart, ruthless bunch. And Donald Trump, Jr., say what you will, is not one of them. Not even for his dad.
Donald, Jr. incriminated himself and his father’s campaign in a big way, but we don’t really know why yet. Yes, stupidity allowed him to make that first statement. But was he stupid because he had no idea what he was actually saying (assuredly the Occam’s razor explanation for most of Donald, Jr.’s thoughts and actions)? Or was he stupid scared, in that he knows he’s a target of Mueller and top political reporters and there’s not a lot anyone can do for him? Did he stupidly try to save himself, no matter the cost to his father? Maybe he really thought he could explain it all away and that a collusive meeting with a group of bad foreign actors, which he claims resulted in no serious impact on the 2016 campaign, meant no harm, no foul. Certainly that’s how things have always played out for the Trumps in New York. Maybe in a worst-case scenario, they’d be fined. Sure, they’d lose some money, but they’re made of money. So, so what?
But they’re not in New York anymore. For once, there’s a long line of people who gain much more from destroying the Trumps than working with them. Whatever his real motivation, Donald Trump, Jr. ended up selling out his father’s presidency. There are many clamoring for Trump’s impeachment. And while he may deserve it, surrounding himself with dumb, massively incompetent people he trusts over people who will serve him well has kept his administration from accomplishing much of anything. That, more than his long line of enemies, is what’s destroying him.
Considering that a Pence presidency is the post-impeachment alternative, until 2020, I’m with stupid.