The White House and its allies are turning to a familiar boogeyman to defend Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower in the heart of the 2016 campaign: Hillary Clinton.
Several White House aides and backers of President Donald Trump have in the days since the Trump Jr. bombshell dropped have pointed to a story involving a Democratic operative to claim that the Democratic presidential nominee was the beneficiary of information that originated in Ukraine.
The story: a Politico report from January.
The report detailed how veteran Democratic operative Alexandra Chalupa, a former Clinton administration staffer who maintained “strong ties to the Ukrainian-American diaspora and the US Embassy in Ukraine,” met with Ukrainian ambassador Valeriy Chaly and Oksara Shulyar, one of his aides, at the Ukrainian embassy in March 2016 to discuss revealing information on Paul Manafort’s connections to Russia. The conversation happened just days before Manafort, a former adviser to ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, was brought on as Trump’s campaign chairman.
“The day after Manafort’s hiring was revealed, she briefed the DNC’s communications staff on Manafort, Trump and their ties to Russia, according to an operative familiar with the situation,” Politico reported.
The report said Chalupa attempted to arrange an interview with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to discuss Manafort, but the embassy did not arrange such an interview.
But Chalupa told Politico the embassy was still “helpful.”
“If I asked a question, they would provide guidance, or if there was someone I needed to follow up with,” she said, but added that “there were no documents given, nothing like that.”
White House push
White House rapid response director Andy Hemming blasted out the story to a press email list on Monday.
This, he said, was “active coordination” with a foreign government.
“Given the news that has been swirling today, I just wanted to remind everyone that the DNC explicitly worked with the Ukrainian government to undermine then-candidate Trump,” he said of the Politico report. “This constitutes clear, active coordination between the DNC and a foreign government.”
Trump Jr. himself voiced his opinion on the story, sharing The Daily Caller’s write-up on Twitter.
“No outrage???” he wrote Tuesday morning, just hours before he self-published an email exchange that suggested he was promised damaging information on Clinton as part of the Russian government’s support for Trump’s candidacy.
Trump backers in and out of the White House repeated that sentiment in a number of settings.
Fox News host Sean Hannity asked on his Monday program “why” media outlets and Democrats didn’t “freak out in January at a story that had real evidence.”
“None of them will talk about” the Politico story, he said.
During an interview with NBC News host Stephanie Ruhle on Tuesday, Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to Trump, cited the Politico story to deflect questions about Trump Jr.
After being asked about comments the Russian lawyer made about Trump Jr. hoping to glean damaging information on Clinton, Gorka said he could not speak to it. But what he did “know for a fact” was “that Democratic Party operatives went to the Ukrainian Embassy to coordinate oppositional research and attacks against our campaign.”
“So that’s a story that’s not somebody meeting under false pretenses to talk about another issue,” he continued. “That is Democratic operatives meeting with representatives of another government not people.”
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also pointed to the story on Monday and Tuesday.
“I’ve been on several campaigns and people call offering information,” she said in Monday’s press briefing. “As I know many of you receive similar calls of people offering information. Don Jr. took a very short meeting from which there was absolutely no follow-up. Frankly, I think something that may make sense is looking at the Democrat National Committee coordinated opposition research directly with the Ukrainian Embassy.”
“This is not an accusation, that’s an on-the-record action that they took,” she said. “So if you’re looking for an example of a campaign coordinating with a foreign country or a foreign source, look no further than the DNC who actually coordinated opposition research with the Ukrainian Embassy. And no one in this room to my knowledge really had a big problem with that.”
On Tuesday, when pressed deeper about her comments, she said she was “talking about simply the process and nothing beyond that.”
‘I don’t even want to justify it with a response’
While multiple White House sources did not respond to requests for further comment from Business Insider, Democrats were quick to shoot down the comparisons.
“Meeting with Russians during the peak of their interference campaign is a betrayal of our country, and it should be fully investigated by the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees,” Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, told Business Insider. “I don’t even want to justify it with a response because the order of magnitude of what the Trump campaign is alleged to have done and what he is using as a defence — there’s such a difference there.”
One Clinton campaign veteran said “there is just no equivalence whatsoever,” calling the latest defence a “haphazard attempt to muddy the waters.”
The former Clinton staffer said he was unaware of any coordination between Clinton aides and Ukrainian officials on anti-Trump efforts. He said Clinton herself met with Poroshenko once in New York at the United Nations General Assembly last September, “the one contact I know the campaign had with Ukrainian officials.”
“Separately, it’s worth noting that unlike Russia, Ukraine is an American ally — and it’s not surprising that they would have preferred Hillary Clinton win the presidency rather than a man who constantly praised Putin and whose campaign manager had an unsavoury history in Ukraine,” the former staffer added.
Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic staffer who was a top spokesperson for the Clinton campaign, told Business Insider in an email that “it’s honestly just sad” the Trump team “can’t explain partnering with a hostile foreign power to win the White House, so they’re trying to distract with conspiracy theories about someone who isn’t in the White House.”
“Can you imagine if Nixon defended himself during Watergate by talking about how the McGovern campaign visited offices?” he continued. “Not only don’t the American people buy it, but it confirms for everyone that the Trump administration has no defence for recruiting the aide and comfort from our enemies to help get elected.”
It was that last point on which Liz Mair, a Republican communications consultant who has been critical of Trump, zeroed in as important in this debate.
“The big difference between Clinton/Ukraine and Trump/Russia is that Ukraine is not our enemy; Russia pretty obviously is, per common sense,” she tweeted.
Maxwell Tani contributed to this report.