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September 23, 2017

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Will Trump Jr. be tossed under the bus?

Sometimes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Sometimes, the apple is also considerably dimmer than the tree. And sometimes the apple must be thrown under the bus so that the tree and a few of its most crucial limbs don’t tumble to the forest floor, where they’ll be chopped up and used as firewood by Democrats.

Is that the fruity fate of Donald Trump Jr.?

On Tuesday morning, he released a chain of emails from June of last year that prove that he was eager to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from a representative of Russia, that the information was indeed characterized as “part of Russia and its government’s support” for his father’s presidential bid and that he held a meeting in the hopes of learning more.

It was, for my money, the most jaw-dropping development yet in an already-surreal presidency, and making sense of it requires some conjecture.

But evaluating the damage doesn’t. This erodes whatever credibility President Donald Trump and those in his inner circle had left (which wasn’t much). Adamantly and incessantly, they have characterized questions about the Trump campaign’s possible cooperation with Russia as ludicrous — a “witch hunt,” in their preferred parlance.

And yet here is a document showing that the notion of such a concerted effort was dangled before the eyes of Trump’s eldest son, who responded with glee — “I love it,” he wrote — and hauled his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, who was then the campaign’s chairman, into a meeting about it.

With the walls now closing in around Donald Jr., I wouldn’t be surprised if he says that he didn’t really believe the written claim that this was “very high level and sensitive information” from the Russian government itself.

But evaluate any and all spin from him through the lens of his evasions and empty grandstanding to date.

When The New York Times first disclosed the meeting in an article on Saturday, he released a statement implying that the meeting’s purpose was to discuss Russian adoptions.

A day later, he significantly changed his story, admitting in a new statement that he had been led to expect material “helpful to the campaign” and that he cut the meeting off when the Russian lawyer who came to Trump Tower diverted the discussion toward adoptions.

Read the statement: Bizarrely and hilariously, it’s so focused on the lawyer’s bait-and-switch and Donald Jr.’s disappointment that it boldly confirms how badly he’d craved dirt and how misleading his initial response to the Times was.

Like I said: dim.

The emails released Tuesday make clear how incomplete both of those versions were, and they appeared to contradict his insistence in the second statement that Kushner and Manafort knew nothing about the meeting’s intent.

The release of the emails, at least, is no head scratcher: Donald Jr. apparently believed that the Times was about to publish them anyway and figured that if he beat us to the punch, he’d make it look as if he had nothing to hide. He tweeted that he wanted “to be totally transparent.”

Right. “Transparent” has as much to do with his last four days as “modest” does with his father’s entire 71 years.

And flash back to July 24 of last summer, which was just a month and a half after the meeting with the Russian lawyer, and Donald Jr.’s response when CNN anchor Jake Tapper asked him about the Clinton campaign’s assertion that Russians could be engaged in “a plot to help Donald Trump.”

“It just goes to show you their exact moral compass,” Donald Jr. said, in what will go down as one of the most priceless instances ever of the psychological phenomenon of projection.

He railed to Tapper about “lie after lie” from the Clinton camp, said they’d “do anything to win,” and — my favorite part — claimed that if a Republican were making the kinds of wild allegations of Russian meddling that they were, there’d be a call “to bring out the electric chair” for that person. The electric chair, no less!

Well, Donald Jr. is on the hot seat now, and the days when we were all worked up about Ivanka Trump’s presumptuous place at the G-20 table suddenly seem quaint. That actually is a nothingburger in the context of this whopper.

Of course Papa poo-poo’ed it, releasing a statement Tuesday afternoon that vouched, “My son is a high-quality person.” I can buy that Donald Jr. is too low-wattage a political operative to have understood that his Russia hugging was extraordinary and possibly treasonous, but not that he considered it virtuous.

I wonder whether Ivanka actually factors into this. Among the Trump children, she always sopped up the most lavish praise from Dad and drew the most media fascination. She was cast as his secret weapon. Such a designation eluded Donald Jr. When he met with the Russian lawyer, was he clumsily trying to maneuver his way to greater utility, favor and relevance?

Instead, in the grand tradition of ne’er-do-well namesakes, he brought his sire grief, and it will be interesting to watch the president’s next moves.

Enamored of loyalty and deaf to charges of nepotism and conflict of interest, he has kept his kids in a tight circle around him. But to survive, he may have to push this bad apple away.

Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.

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