After all of the negative Trump news that’s been pouring over us, it’s time somebody in my biz said a good word or two about Donald Trump. In fact, both Donalds — senior and junior.
Because in one sense, I’m convinced they’ve got to be smarter than they appear. Of course, Donald Sr. and Donald Jr. are prone to say and do things that make them look goofy, inept, untruthful or maybe even worse to all of us outsiders. But I’m operating now on the assumption that, most of the time, they sure must have their reasons for doing what they do.
In recent days, the Donalds both managed to separately launch themselves into the news in incidents that involved Russia’s elites. Both cases prompted the cognoscenti to scoff at them. But I’m thinking they no doubt had what they considered were good reasons for looking bad.
Washington just discovered what many world leaders knew a week earlier: At the Group of 20 summit in Germany, President Trump had a reportedly hour-long second meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that no one reported about at the time. It seems Trump just walked around the table and started talking with Putin, using only the Russian president’s interpreter. Then he reportedly stayed for one hour. U.S. talking heads tsk-tsked that Trump had no U.S. witness or note-taker there; they call it diplomatically dangerous. True enough. But I’m thinking that was precisely the way Trump wanted it. For reasons he knows and we don’t, he wanted no witnesses of what he really wanted to tell Putin.
Now consider Donald Jr. — and the mess he just got into about disclosures of a meeting he held more than a year ago, in his Trump Tower office, with a Russian attorney with Kremlin connections. It turned out that Donald Jr. had been told the attorney wanted to pass along Russian government info damaging to Hillary Clinton — and he was elated to get the info. Clearly caught, Donald Jr. smartly released meeting-related emails himself — and went on Fox News’ ever-friendly Sean Hannity Show to add his carefully spun perspective.
“It turns out it was nothing,” Donald Jr. said, insisting the meeting instead was just about U.S. adoptions of Russian kids. ” … It was literally just a wasted 20 minutes, which was a shame.”
And when Hannity asked if that was all of it, Trump Jr. assured: “This is everything. This is everything.”
But it wasn’t everything. In daily drips and dribbles, news leaked about other controversial attendees. Don Jr. hadn’t mentioned a Russian who formerly had intelligence ties. And finally a fellow named Irakly Kaveladze, who, years earlier, had attracted considerable attention from U.S. government investigators:
“SUSPICIOUS BANKING ACTIVITIES: Possible Money Laundering by U.S. Corporations formed for Russian Entities.”
The October 2000 report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office (now Government Accountability Office) detailed the activities by which Kaveladze had been involved in an enterprise that reportedly worked with “30 to 50 brokers in Moscow for whom it had formed about 2,000 corporations” in Delaware. They opened bank accounts for those corporations with Citibank and Commercial Bank and moved Russian money through those accounts to other international locations in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Kaveladze works for the Russian oligarch Aras Agalarov, who, with his rock star son, Emin, had helped Trump bring the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013. Of course, this latest kerfuffle over Kaveladze’s appearance at Donald Jr.’s is hardly proof that the former Russian money laundering facilitator hoped to open a laundromat in Trump Tower. But it makes this much clear: The session that swelled from three to eight, including several Kremlin-connected insiders, sure wasn’t a forgettable, Seinfeldian meeting about “nothing,” as Donald Jr. tried to con Fox’s Hannity viewers into believing.
So why would Donald Jr. choose to look like he’s hiding something? He must have known admitting to the other meeting attendees would lead you to think something improper was discussed.
The latest revelations of meetings with Putin and other Russian elites — and independent witnesses — leads me to dig up the oldest and most vexing piece of the Trump puzzle: His refusal to disclose his income tax records.
All other modern presidents revealed their taxes to assure us they had no conflicts of interest. They all agreed to make sure you knew they had no unknown domestic business partners — and especially, no global oligarchs who had invested foreign funds in their business ventures, perhaps hoping to reap a geopolitical profit.
But Trump won’t give us similar assurances about his business entanglements. He insists on keeping his income taxes secret. Even if it means he’ll look like he may be hiding a huge, terrible secret.
All we can do is continue to take our president at his word. And keep trying to follow his money.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.