By Niall Stanage - 07-12-17 06:00 AM EDT
The White House is facing its gravest crisis yet in the wake of the publication of emails between the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., and a go-between for a Russian lawyer.
The emails, which date to June 2016, call into question the main pillars of the White House's defense against allegations of Russian involvement in the 2016 election.
Team Trump has repeatedly said that while Russia may indeed have meddled in the election, there was no coordination or communication between Moscow and their campaign.
However, the newly published emails show music publicist Rob Goldstone writing to Trump Jr. suggesting that a Russian lawyer could share damaging information on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
"This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump," Goldstone wrote.
Trump Jr. replied 17 minutes later, writing in part, "If it's what you say I love it."
Trump Jr. published the emails on Twitter moments before The New York Times also published them. In an accompanying statement, the president's son said he was releasing the emails "in order to be totally transparent."
Even some Republicans were taken aback by the startling twist in the long-running Russia story.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters at the Capitol that "anytime you're in a campaign and you get an offer from a foreign government to help your campaign, the answer is no." Graham added that he found the emails "disturbing" and that Trump Jr. needed to testify before Congress about the matter.
Critics of Trump in the broader conservative world were outraged.
"I think it's devastating for the Trump presidency, I think it's devastating for Donald Trump Jr. and I think it's devastating to everybody within the Trump orbit, because it is beginning to confirm the worst suspicions and gravest concerns about the Trump campaign," said Peter Wehner, who worked in the administrations of past Republican Presidents George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.
"It is clear that we were misled and that everything the Trump campaign said in relation to Russia has to be taken with a grain of salt," Wehner added.
The atmosphere of crisis was apparent at the White House itself and in the broader Trump orbit, where hatches were battened down amid the storm.
At a press briefing that was conducted off camera and lasted 22 minutes, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeatedly parried reporters' questions on the emails by saying their queries should be directed to the personal lawyers of the people involved.
On Monday, attorney Alan Futerfas confirmed that he had been retained by Trump Jr. in relation to the Russia controversy.
Sanders read a brief statement from the president during the briefing. "My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency," the statement read in full.
The president's Twitter feed remained free of any mention of the controversy enveloping his son, though he did tweet about his efforts to bring the Olympics to the U.S. and about "big wins against ISIS!"
Those Trump loyalists who were willing to speak with the media sought to put on a brave face when discussing the matter, even as they acknowledged the emails posed a problem.
Sam Nunberg, who worked as an aide in the early days of the Trump campaign, admitted that the furor would give ammunition to "the media and the White House's adversaries."
But he insisted that the story would burn itself out within days, pointing to the fact that the promised information on Clinton was apparently not forthcoming when Trump Jr., along with then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner, met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya on June 9, 2016.
"There is no more to the story," Nunberg said. "Everyone admits they didn't get anything. The lawyer is not connected with the Kremlin. She doesn't work for the Russian government."
Nunberg also pushed back against the idea that the email from Goldstone alluding to a Russian government effort was suggestive of collusion.
"No, I just think it's some sycophant who wrote something stupid to Don," he said. "The guy seems to be a grade-A moron."
Democrats see it very differently. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who was Clinton's running mate, told reporters, "We're now beyond obstruction of justice. ... This is moving into perjury, false statements, and even into potentially treason."
Joe Sandler, a attorney who specializes in election law and who represents Democratic and progressive clients, said that the email from Trump to Goldstone was "direct evidence that [Trump Jr.] solicited something of value, which counts as a contribution from a foreign national" - a potential violation of campaign law.
That interpretation is a source of dispute among legal experts. But Sandler also poured scorn on the idea that the kind of exchange represented in the emails is commonplace on political campaigns.
"It is very common for people on campaigns and people on committees to talk to people who claim to have damaging information about the opponent. But that is not foreign governments," he said. "That is the key."
Late on Tuesday afternoon, CNN reported that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigators would look at the newly revealed emails as part of their broader probe into Russian meddling.
The storm is deepening for the White House - and no one can predict when it might end.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump's presidency.