In his June 2016 email exchange about getting Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump Jr. comes across as an unscrupulous fool.* He compounded that impression by shifting his explanations for the email exchange and what it led to: a secret meeting between Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and an emissary from the Russian government. On Tuesday night, Trump Jr. went on Fox News to show the world what’s really in his head and heart. The answer is: nothing.
What stood out most in the interview was the moral emptiness of the president’s son. He told his interviewer, Sean Hannity, that his decision to arrange the 2016 meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a lawyer with deep ties to the Russian regime, was a no-brainer because it might have yielded useful material against Clinton. “That’s what we do in business,” said Trump Jr. “If there’s information out there, you want it. And then you [decide] what you do with it.” Running for president, in the Trump family’s view, was like running a company: You do what serves your advantage.
That’s why, according to his story, Trump Jr. lost patience during the meeting when Veselnitskaya started talking about kids. She “went on to, you know, a story about a Russian adoption, and how we could possibly help,” he told Hannity. And “that’s where we shut it down,” he recalled, because, “What does this have to do with what we were talking about?” If the lawyer didn’t have dirt on Hillary Clinton supplied by the Russian government, as advertised, he didn’t want to talk to her. That’s not a confession. That’s his defense.
Jr. expressed no interest in the national loyalty of the person who was ostensibly bringing him information on Clinton. Several times, Hannity asked Trump Jr. what he had thought when he saw, in the 2016 email exchange, explicit advance notice that the meeting would involve a “Russian government attorney” working on behalf of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. responded blankly, as though the question meant nothing. All he cared about, he told Hannity, was “that someone has information on our opponent.” The president’s son went on: “Someone sent me an email. I can’t help what someone sends me.” Later, he shrugged, “People are trying to reach out to you all the time.” To him, the loyalties of these people, these interchangeable “someones,” hardly mattered.
Since Trump Jr. didn’t care about the identity of the dirt supplier, he did nothing to vet her. Hannity asked him: “Did anyone on your team … research the lawyer or anybody involved in this?” “No,” said the president’s son. “We didn’t know who she was before the meeting.” He presented this as an alibi, as though his ostensible ignorance of her Kremlin connections reflected innocence rather than negligence. In the Trump administration, extreme vetting is for Muslim refugees, not Russian conspirators.
Another excuse for the meeting, he argued, was that it took place before the Russian collusion story blew up. It was “pre-Russia mania,” he told Hannity. “This is 13 months ago, before … the world was talking about that, trying to build up this narrative about Russia. So I don’t even think my sirens, you know, went up.” Absent a media narrative, Trump Jr. had no sense that there was anything untoward about facilitating a Russian government effort to influence an American election. And even after Russian interference became the biggest story in America, he kept silent, confirming the meeting only as the press was about to report it.
The president’s son did show passion about one thing: his piety. If the meeting with Veselnitskaya had raised any idea that was illegal or “a danger to national security,” he assured Hannity, “I would bring it to the proper authorities. There’s nothing that I would do to ever endanger this country.” Trump Jr. said this was true of the whole Trump campaign: “We’d do anything for this country. So we’re never going to put that in jeopardy.” This is how President Trump thinks, too: I can’t do anything unpatriotic, because I’m inherently patriotic. And this faith—that the loyalty of one’s acts can be judged by self-image, rather than by factual assessment of the acts themselves—blinds the traitor to his treachery. An amoral president declares his son a “high-quality person” who “loves our country,” and is praised by his son in turn, as together they sell out their democracy.
It may turn out, as Trump Jr.’s explanations evolve, that his attempted collusion was more deliberate than we know today. But my bet is that he’s exactly as he presented himself on Hannity’s show—and that’s why he had no compunction about doing business with an authoritarian government in an American election. Yes, there was a secret meeting. But deep down, there is no secret Donald Trump Jr. Deep down, there’s nothing at all.
*Correction, July 12, 2017: This article originally misstated when the Donald Trump Jr. emails were from. They were from June 2016, not July 2016. (Return.)