POLITICS

Donald Trump Jr. committed a grave political sin - getting the optics wrong

Harry J. Kazianis

If Donald Trump Jr. did anything wrong in his "meeting" that the entire world is now seemingly debating - it was certainly not illegal. It was not well-thought out and shows that his political instincts still needed some mentoring, but breaking the law he was not. 

The last time I checked, meeting with someone, even someone from Russia (oh my god), is not a crime—despite what the media would tell you these days.

So if Don the Second has committed a crime, it was one he did not know he was committing in the first place.

Don’t forget, this is Washington, and we have our own way of judging right and wrong. Guilt and innocence is to be decided by the media, never the law.

The offense was one that you won’t find in any law book or one that any judge would lock you away for. No, this one is much, much worse—or so you would be led to believe.

Don Jr. did the one thing us political hacks here in Washington know never to do, ultimately the golden rule: don’t ever get the optics wrong. Don’t give your political opponents the ability to potentially destroy you with your lapse of judgment, even if it was truly innocent—as it could be fatal.

We all know it’s true. In American politics these days it's only the optics that matter—not intent or that something is a rookie mistake. It’s just all how it looks. The reality is that optics really can kill—at least in the blood sport that passes as governing these days.

And this is the lesson the Trump team needs to learn moving forward—or the damage could be incalculable. They need to get the optics right.

All. Of. The. Time. End. Of. Discussion.

But before we get to how to fix this whole so-called mess, let’s put our thinking caps on and take a common sense look at what supposedly was done - but from a non-Beltway, non-media, non-elitist perspective.

And god forbid, let’s look at this as a son, who has business connections around the world, trying to help his dad. Let’s try to see it from Don Jr’s worldview. Not some slick, connected Washington warrior who knows every move on the Dupont Circle political chessboard.

Here, context matters. Someone came to Don Jr. and said they had information that might be helpful to his father—who at the time was not exactly the leading candidate to win the election, with many fellow Republicans questioning if the whole Trump candidacy could turn the Grand Old Party into a historical footnote.

Don 2.0, at least at the time, was a political novice, not schooled to the game of presidential politics—or how every little move he or anyone with the last name Trump would be watched for the least bit of weakness. He is a businessman, someone who deals with foreign connections every day as something that is normal, trying to gain advantage where he can—likely not someone who was thinking through the potential ramifications of what such a meeting could mean later. And what is even more important: if there was any hard evidence and what he would actually do with it later.

In hindsight, the mistake is very clear—and I am sure he would agree—this was a meeting that he should not have taken.

But this is where the media mixes motive and intent. Don’s motive was most likely a son trying to help his dad win an election. There was no intent of a master plan to conspire with Russia to steal the election, no vast conspiracy to turn Washington into Putin’s private dacha on the Potomac. That much is clear.

The meeting, by all accounts, was a big waste-of-time-sandwich, with more talk about adoptions of Russian children than the election. It was likely just another person trying to gain favor with an important player in what could be a new administration coming to power—and they did not impress, according to Don 2.0.

However, the media just can’t accept the fact that there is no there-there.

Reading some of the articles printed Tuesday, you would have thought there was a live stream of Don Jr. doing 120 mph down Interstate 95 with police in hot pursuit as Vladimir Putin is riding shotgun, having just stolen America’s nuclear weapons launch codes. Seriously.

In fact, this meeting was one of what many meetings are in the game of politics here in D.C.—a complete waste of time.

But none of that matters now.

The media will have a field day, calling Don Jr. an agent of Russia and see this as the unicorn they have been dreaming of: the clearest evidence that President Trump is a traitor and that the Democrats only lost the election because Moscow won it for the GOP. They will of course forget the president knew nothing of the meeting and that there is not a shred of proof at all Russia turned one single vote last November.

But again, it's all about using optics as the most nuclear of political weapons—reality be damned. And the missiles have landed on target.

Don’t forget, this is Washington, and we have our own way of judging right and wrong. Guilt and innocence is to be decided by the media, never the law.

From here on in, though, the Trump team needs to make sure they understand the rules of the game. Looks may be deceiving, but they matter. And they can paralyze even a superpower.

Don Jr. did the right thing being fully transparent, screen shotting his conversations to take the steam out of a media gone wild. They might have shown his naivete, but it was the right thing to do, and likely headed off a much bigger crisis. He deserves credit for that.

Where this goes from here is now up to President Trump and his team. They need to make sure they have a consistent message on all matters—foreign and domestic—across the administration. They need to make sure they cross their t’s and dot their i's—no more unforced errors on statements or media gaggles. And let’s tone down the Tweets and slow their frequency—sometimes a softer touch and less volume can have a bigger impact.

And, most of all, they need to get the optics right—all the time. For they might not get another chance—and the Americans who voted for him would be the only ones to lose. And that would be the real tragedy.

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former President Richard M. Nixon. Click here, for more on Mr. Kazianis.