Anybody who’s ever sat through one of the movies in the Rocky franchise knows how you’re supposed to prepare for the fight of your life. If you’re going up against the toughest opponent you’ve ever faced, you get ready by testing yourself against other tough guys in the sparring ring. You pound your fists into sides of beef in a freezer. You do pushups in the Siberian snow.
You don’t hire some washed-up palooka to go easy on you for a few rounds and then wait for your father to send out a tweet proclaiming that you’re the new champ.
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But that seems to be the strategy that Donald Trump Jr. and his father, the president, are adopting in the wake of junior’s admission that he eagerly accepted a meeting with a Russian attorney last year, after he was promised that she would provide him with information gathered by the Kremlin to help his father win the US presidential election last fall.
It’s a questionable decision, given that the younger Trump is, almost certainly, in the fight of his life.
After The New York Times obtained copies of an email exchange in which Trump Jr. agreed to meet with Kremlin-connected attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya with the expectation that she would provide Kremlin-sourced dirt on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, the obvious course was to hunker down, find some serious legal representation, and above all, to shut up.
After all, Trump Jr. already knows that Congressional committees, backed up by small armies of smart lawyers and cunning political operatives are planning to summon him to testify about the meeting. Worse, the former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation has assembled a formidable team of attorneys and investigators in his role as the Department of Justice’s special counsel in charge of investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence services. It’s likely they’ll want to chat, too.
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At this point, if Trump Jr. were to answer any questions at all about his interactions with Veselnitskaya, they ought to be posed by one of his own attorneys, preferably, with the aim of helping him hone some non-incriminating answers.
Instead, Trump Jr. appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program on Tuesday night.
In this version of the story, to be clear, Hannity is the palooka, sent into the ring to make The Kid look good.
At the outset of the show Tuesday night, Hannity promised to ask Trump Jr. “every single question I can think of on this topic.” These included some real haymakers, like “What’s your reaction to the double standard?” that Hannity insists Trump faces from the news media. And “Did you even know what the Magnitsky Act was?” (The latter refers to a US law imposing sanctions on Russian officials accused of human rights violations, which Veselnitskaya has been very publicly fighting to overturn.)
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It’s a safe bet that “every single question” Sean Hannity can come up with is a much shorter list than those currently being assembled by Congressional investigators and Mueller’s veteran prosecutors.
And unlike Hannity, they’ll want to ask some follow-up questions.
For example, early in the interview, Trump Jr. explained to Hannity his thinking about accepting the meeting with Veselnitskaya. He had received an email from Rob Goldstone, a British talent promoter he had met in connection with the 2013 Miss Universe pageant held in Moscow, he said.
“This was just basic information that was going to be possibly there,” he said. “I didn’t know if this talent manager from Miss Universe had this kind of thing. So, I wanted to hear him out and play it out and see what happens.”
Unlike Hannity, a serious interviewer might have pushed back by asking, for instance, “Weren’t you well aware that this ‘talent manager’ was actually closely connected to Aras Agalarov, an Azerbaijani-Russian oligarch who in turn has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin? In fact, didn’t Goldstone mention Agalarov’s son Emin -- by first name only -- in the first line of his email?”
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And perhaps, “If you weren’t sure this meeting was important, why did you, in one of the most heated moments of the presidential campaign, immediately loop in both your father’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his campaign chairman Paul Manafort, asking them to join the meeting?”
Also unlike Hannity, a serious questioner wouldn’t have let Trump Jr. get away with this one:
“Someone sent me an email. I can’t help what someone sends me. I read it, I responded accordingly...I think it’s pretty common.”
You can imagine a veteran prosecutor practically salivating at this sort of answer.
“You were offered damaging intelligence about a US presidential candidate from the Kremlin, and your idea of responding ‘accordingly’ was to reply ‘I love it’ and rush to set up a meeting?”
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On Wednesday morning, unsurprisingly, President Trump used Twitter to declare his son’s half-hour in the ring with Hannity a major victory. “My son Donald did a good job last night. He was open, transparent and innocent. This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political history. Sad!”
But when Junior steps into the ring with a real opponent, it will take much more than a tweet from his father to convince anybody that he came out a winner.