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Opinion

Opinion: Why can’t the Trumps get their stories straight?

Donald Trump Jr. has acknowledged meeting with a Russian lawyer to discuss potential "information helpful to the campaign" soon after his father clinched the Republican nomination. At first he only said the meeting was about adoptions.
(Kathy Willens / Associated Press)

Can’t anybody in the Trump family get their stories straight?

The president’s eldest son, Donald Jr., had another turn in the unflattering spotlight this weekend, and it took less than a day for Junior’s accounts to go all chameleon.

The New York Times started the process on Saturday when it published a piece that began, “Two weeks after Donald J. Trump clinched the Republican presidential nomination last year, his eldest son arranged a meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan with a Russian lawyer who has connections to the Kremlin, according to confidential government records described to The New York Times.”

(Editor’s note: This has got to be the leakiest administration ever in the history of civilization. Or rather, given that it’s Trump, Western civilization.)

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Junior explained to the NYT that the meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya was mainly about “a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up.”

‘What fresh hell can this be?’ must be the official motto of the Trump family these days.

Awww, adoptions! How heartwarming. So, one might wonder, why did Junior bring along Paul Manafort, who was then the chairman of Trump Sr.’s campaign, and Jared Kushner, noted Trump whisperer?

Further media reports offered an answer: Because Veselnitskaya had promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton to help the Trump campaign.

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Bear in mind who Veselnitskaya is: a leading advocate for eliminating the sanctions Congress slapped on Russian officials in the 2012 Magnitsky Act. It was those anti-corruption sanctions that led Russia to suspend the adoptions Junior showed such interest in. I won’t get into the back story of the Magnitsky Act here, other than to say it’s named after a Russian auditor who died in prison, beaten and possibly tortured, not long after uncovering an alleged $230-million fraud by Russian tax officials and police.

When pressed about the new details Sunday, Junior offered an alternative explanation. This time, he admitted that the meeting wasn’t called to discuss adoptions — it was to discuss potential “information helpful to the campaign.” That information turned out to be vague allegations about “individuals connected to Russia ... funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Hillary Clinton,” which Junior said “made no sense” and had no evidence to support them. Veselnitskaya then went on to raise adoptions and the Magnitsky Act, which Junior said was her real agenda. He also said he cut off discussions and said she should take up the matter with people who actually represent the U.S. government.

You know, that might be a plausible explanation if that’s all he’d said. But it wasn’t, and the conflicts with the earlier statement made it look as if Junior was hiding something. Also, one might wonder why Junior didn’t immediately call the FBI and say something to the effect of, “The Russians appear to be holding something on Hillary Clinton.” At that point in the campaign, news of an FBI investigation into Clinton might have helped Junior’s father. Oh, wait — never mind.

Regardless, “What fresh hell can this be?” must be the official motto of the Trump family these days. They have nourished the media’s feeding frenzy over Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election by regularly doling out nuggets of easily refutable half-truths — and worse — and by delivering wildly inconsistent accounts of actual events. (Via Twitter, of course, Junior insisted Monday that there was “no inconsistency” in his statements because the meeting “ended up primarily about adoptions.” Insert eye-rolling emoticon here.)

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This problem starts at the top, where the “modern” president feels free to change his position and his statements at the same pace that bootlegged DVDs travel from Russian hackers to U.S. teenagers.

After meeting Putin at the G-20 summit last week, President Trump announced with some fanfare a joint cybersecurity effort with Russia — in Trump’s words, “an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, and many other negative things, will be guarded and safe.” But after the idea drew the widespread derision it so richly deserved (sample tweet: “Partnering with Putin on a ‘Cyber Security Unit’ is akin to partnering with Assad on a ‘Chemical Weapons Unit,’” wrote Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida), Trump tweeted late Sunday that he was, evidently, bluffing:

Put another way, there will be no consolation prize for Trump accepting the word of Putin, a former Soviet foreign intelligence officer, that Russia had not meddled at all, not the least little bit, in the 2016 election, no matter what the FBI, CIA, NSA and DHS all concluded.

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And so it goes, on and on.

Perhaps the Trumps simply don’t see how much their public statements fuel the media fire. Or maybe they’ve developed such a bunker mentality in the face of the onslaught of hostile news coverage that they don’t see the point in just telling the whole truth from the get-go. Point taken — but the half truths and the shifts only encourage reporters to scrutinize every word and take nothing at face value.

Lawmakers may very well feel the same way, especially when Trump Sr. pulls stunts like calling for Obamacare to be repealed without a replacement in hand just months after putting the kibosh on a move by congressional Republicans to do that very thing. That spells trouble for Trump’s larger agenda in the long run. It’s easy to chip away at the accomplishments of one’s predecessor, as Trump (aided by the GOP-controlled Congress) has done relentlessly. It’s not so easy to record some of one’s own.

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jon.healey@latimes.com

Twitter: @jcahealey

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