In May 1895, Ohio’s Republican Governor William McKinley, a presidential aspirant for the forthcoming presidential campaign year, dispatched his trusted lieutenant, Mark Hanna, to New York to solicit support from the big Northeastern GOP bosses. These men—New York’s Thomas Platt, Pennsylvania’s Matthew Quay, and a number of lesser lights—controlled enough patronage power to hold major sway over party decisions. McKinley figured that, if he could get their support, he might lock up the Republican nomination before the campaign even began.
During a post-dinner cigar session at his elegant Cleveland mansion, Hanna reported back to McKinley on the results of his mission. Another participant recalled that the excited Hanna seemed “as keen as a razor blade.’’
“Now, Major,” said the political operative, addressing the governor by his Civil War title, “it’s all over but the shouting. You can get both New York and Pennsylvania, but there are certain conditions.” He didn’t show any discomfort with the conditions, but McKinley was wary.
“What are they?” he asked. Hanna explained that Quay wanted control of all federal patronage in Pennsylvania, while others wanted to dominate government jobs in New England and Maine. But Platt wanted a bigger prize—the job of secretary of the Treasury—and he wanted a promise in writing.
McKinley stared ahead, puffing on his cigar. Then he rose from his chair, paced the room a few moments, and turned to Hanna.
“Mark,” he said, “there are some things in this world that come too high. If I were to accept the nomination on those terms, the place would be worth nothing to me, and less to the people. If those are the terms, I am out of it.’’
Hanna was taken aback. “Not so fast,” he protested, explaining that, while it would be “damned hard” to prevail over the powerful bosses, who would surely not take kindly to a rebuff, Hanna thought it could be done and he welcomed the challenge. The men in the room pondered the situation and came up with a slogan: “The People Against the Bosses.’’
McKinley ultimately beat the bosses, stirring a Washington Post reporter to write that “the big three of the Republican Party…hoped to find McKinley as putty in their hands. When they failed, they vowed war on him.” But now, said the reporter, their war was sputtering. “And over in the Ohio city by the lake, one Mark Hanna is laughing in his sleeve.’’
This little vignette from the mists of the political past comes to mind with the latest development in the ongoing saga involving suspected Russian interference in last year’s presidential campaign and the search for evidence that President Trump or his top campaign officials “colluded” with Russians to influence the electoral outcome. Now it turns out that the president’s son, Donald Jr., met with a Russian lawyer, at the behest of a friend with Russian connections, with an understanding beforehand that the lawyer could provide “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary [Clinton] and her dealings with Russia and be very useful to your father.” For good measure, Donald Jr. took along his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, a top Trump adviser, and his father’s campaign manager at the time, Paul Manafort.
This is no small matter, and it is certain to roil the waters of the ongoing investigations. More significantly, it will roil the political scene, contributing mightily to the deadlock crisis that has America in its grip. White House officials and Trump supporters are defending young Trump with pronouncements that nothing was amiss here; every campaign collects dirt on opponents; nothing done was against the law; we must get beyond these “gotcha” political witch hunts, etc., etc.
Meanwhile. Trump opponents see skulky tendencies, nefarious intent, moral turpitude, and likely illegality. Both sides are trotting out criminal lawyers declaring, based on their prior political proclivities, that no laws were broken—or that laws were clearly broken. The cable channels are crackling with competition over who can be more definitive and sanctimonious on the air—Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity at Fox in defending the president; or Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews in attacking him on MSNBC.
Meanwhile, the country will continue to struggle with the question of what all this Sturm und Drang actually means. What to think? Whom to believe?
Let’s stipulate, for purposes of analysis, that what we see is what there is, that what we know is not a harbinger of worse to come. How should we assess what we know thus far? What should we make of that meeting with the Russian lawyer?
That it was, yes, ethically promiscuous—but, worse, incredibly stupid. One recalls the line, often incorrectly attributed to Talleyrand, in response to a burgeoning scandal at the French court: “It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder.’’
Consider that, after months of investigation, with leaks all over the place from those conducting the probe, no serious evidence emerged of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. The collusion story was receding in the national consciousness, and even in the Washington consciousness, with questions of “obstruction of justice” supplanting collusion as the more significant avenue of inquiry. Now the question of collusion is once again in the air.
The fate of Donald Trump Jr. is a puny matter in the scheme of things, but the state of the union is a huge matter. And the young man’s stupidity of a year ago will have—indeed, is already having—a significant impact on the president’s leadership. He campaigned on a pledge to improve relations with Russia, with an implicit acknowledgment that the West was probably equally responsible, along with Moscow, for the growing tensions between the two nations. He was right about that. Then came the evidence of Russian meddling in the U.S. election and the allegations of collusion, and Trump’s effort at improving relations was killed in the crib.
But he didn’t give up. At last week’s G-20 Summit in Hamburg, in a long meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump sought to get beyond the matter of Russia’s U.S. political interference and take up other serious matters of mutual interest to the two countries, with a hope of easing tensions. It was an important development in a crucial area of U.S. foreign policy.
Now the president is back on the defensive, his back to the wall, with his opponents positioned to immobilize him on his Russian policy.
Now let’s set aside, for just a moment, the previous stipulation that what we see is all there is. It’s possible, of course, that this unfortunate meeting actually was part of a much bigger conspiracy that, if disclosed in full, could engulf the administration in revelations of such magnitude as to bring down the president. It’s possible, but not likely.
But, in terms of Trump’s command of his policy toward Russia, it almost doesn’t matter because the new revelations will constrict his range of action irrespective of what may lie behind them. The forces that have wanted to destroy the president, or at least destroy his ability to bring about a détente with Putin, are once again in the saddle. One has to wonder at, perhaps even marvel at, the timing in all this.
Actions, even more than ideas, have consequences. That’s what Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort ignored when they accepted an invitation to meet with a Russian representative with “official documents” that could harm the candidacy of the Democratic contender.
And that’s precisely what William McKinley had in mind when he said he wouldn’t enter into unsavory bargains with the Eastern bosses even if it meant giving up his presidential dream. Of course, McKinley was thinking in part about his own personal code of conduct—his inability to live with a decision that was beneath his concept of rectitude. But note that he also invoked the American people when he recoiled at the thought. He wouldn’t take an action that he considered inconsistent with his duty to the electorate.
That was a long time ago—and a world away. Today we have the likes of the Trumps—and, for that matter, the Clintons, who leave nearly everyone in their wake when it comes to moral and ethical laxity in matters of public policy. And so it must have seemed perfectly normal for those three men, part of Donald Trump’s inner circle of campaign confidantes, to accept the idea of sitting down with someone from a foreign power and talk about how official documents from that power could help upend their opponent. Did Trump himself know about all this as it was unfolding? We don’t know, but probably. In any event, it probably wasn’t a crime, but it was a hell of a blunder.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century , is due out from Simon & Schuster in November.