Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway (JD, George Washington, ’92) has a new assignment. She has to explain away a smoking gun that Donald Trump Jr. has aimed at the 2016 election. For months, she and everyone else in the White House vehemently denied that the Trump campaign had any contacts with Russians about the election. With a tweet on July 11, 2017, Don Jr. destroyed that talking point forever.
Call the question
On December 18, 2016, CBS News’ John Dickerson had asked Conway directly: “Did anyone involved in the Trump campaign have any contact with Russians trying to meddle with the election?”
“Absolutely not,” she replied. “And I discussed that with the president-elect just last night. Those conversations never happened. I hear people saying it like it’s a fact on television. That is just not only inaccurate and false, but it’s dangerous. And—and it does undermine our democracy.”
Conway was resolute, indignant and wrong. Those conversations did happen. People are saying it’s a fact because it is. From June 3–8, 2016, Don Jr. received and wrote emails that prove it. But when Conway talks about undermining democracy, she knows whereof she speaks.
Don Jr.’s Russia troubles began on Saturday, July 8, 2017, when The New York Times told him it was going run a story about a June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower involving him, Jared Kushner, then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and a Russian lawyer with Kremlin ties. He responded with the first of his conflicting statements about that meeting. The participants discussed a program about the “adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago,” Don Jr. asserted. (Putin had suspended the program in retaliation for a 2012 American law punishing Russians thought to be responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax attorney who had uncovered a $230 million fraud scheme involving Putin allies.) “It was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up,” he wrote of the June 9 session.
That was iteration number one. On Sunday, July 9, The Times informed Don Jr. that five White House advisers contradicted his statement. In truth, the Russian lawyer with whom three of Trump’s top officials met on June 9 had promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton. The Times story prompted Don Jr. to issue a new statement: “After pleasantries were exchanged, the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Mrs. Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”
Then came Tuesday, July 11. The Times told Don Jr. that it now had the content of his June 3–8 email exchanges with Rob Goldstone, a music publicist who first contacted Don Jr. to request the meeting on behalf of his client—the son of a wealthy real estate developer and Putin ally sometimes referred to as the “Trump of Russia.” The emails said that Don Jr., Kushner and Manafort met with a “Russian government attorney” based on the promise of “some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful” to Trump. The Trump group thought it would receive “very high-level and sensitive information [that] is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
To get ahead of the imminent Times story, Don Jr. released his email exchange with Goldstone, along with his third statement on the June 9 meeting. With a newfound desire to be “totally transparent,” he said that he thought the Russian lawyer was going to give him “political opposition research” on Clinton, as if accepting any election assistance from a foreign government is somehow legal, much less acceptable.
“Don’t facts matter?”
Cue Kellyanne Conway. Even before her infamous post-inauguration one-liner about “alternative facts,” Conway was a leading promoter of Trump’s disinformation program. Representing a super PAC supporting Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Conway on Feb. 9, 2016 criticized Trump for insulting people, saying: “[D]o I want somebody who hurls personal insults or who goes and talks about philosophical differences?” But only six weeks after joining Trump’s campaign, she proclaimed: “He doesn’t hurl insults.”
On Aug. 24, 2016, just three days after Conway and former Fox News chief Roger Ailes attended Trump’s debate prep session, she told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that Ailes was “not a formal or informal adviser to the Trump campaign . . . He has no formal or informal role.”
On Sept. 16, 2016, when Trump retreated from his five-year lie about President Obama’s birthplace and floated a new falsehood—that Hillary Clinton had started the “birther” controversy—Conway backed him up on the Sunday morning talk shows. “This started with Hillary Clinton’s campaign,” she said. “No question.” Of course, PolitiFact—along with FactCheck.org and The Washington Post Fact-Checker—reported that it had “debunked this zombie claim multiple times.”
On Nov. 6, 2016, CNN’s Anderson Cooper finally asked Conway: “Don’t facts matter?”
The answer was no.
On Jan. 5, 2017, leaders of the US intelligence community testified unanimously before the Senate Armed Services Committee that Russia had used hacking and leaks to influence the presidential election. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) called the cyberattack an “act of war.” But the next morning, Conway appeared on CNN, asserting that “conclusive evidence” of Russian election interference still didn’t exist. “The Russians didn’t want him elected,” she declared.
On Feb. 2, 2017, Conway said Trump’s travel ban would prevent more events like the “Bowling Green Massacre”—which never happened.
On May 9, 2017—shortly after Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey—she led the charge in pushing the absurd White House cover-up that Comey’s pre-election statements about the Clinton email investigation led to his firing. Then Trump himself contradicted Conway’s story.
After that, she remained quiet for a few weeks. That is, until she returned to twist words for the newest and, perhaps, greatest scandal in American political history.
Now that Don Jr. has revealed the falsity of Conway’s December 2016 assurances that no one involved in the Trump campaign had any contact with Russians trying to meddle with the election, how will she respond? The new revelations about the June 9 meeting should be a breaking point. It doesn’t require Conway’s legal degree to realize that accepting help from an enemy state to win an American election undermines democracy.
But so far, the Russian assault on our republic hasn’t seemed to faze her. On Monday morning, July 10, she hit the airwaves to defend her boss’ son. After ABC’s George Stephanopoulos replayed Conway’s Dec. 16 denial of any contacts between Trump campaign members and Russian election meddlers, he asked, “Who misled you, and why did Don Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort allow those public denials to stand for so many months?”
Conway ducked the first question and responded to the second with a non-answer: Some disclosure forms had been amended to include certain meetings. And everyone should believe her when she says, “No information was received that was meaningful or helpful and no action was taken.” Similarly, in a longer session with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, she displayed mastery of her subtle approach to attacking democracy’s central core, which is an informed electorate.
Long ago, Conway left the world in which facts, truth and clarity matter. The future of the republic now depends on the answer to this question: How much of the country has she taken with her?
This post was first published on BillMoyers.com
Steven Harper blogs at The Belly of the Beast, is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, and contributes regularly to The American Lawyer. He is the author of several books, including The Lawyer Bubble—A Profession in Crisis and Crossing Hoffa—A Teamster’s Story (a Chicago Tribune “Best Book of the Year”). Follow him on Twitter: @StevenJHarper1.