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11 July 2017updated 12 Jul 2017 8:51am

Watergate for dummies: what do Donald Trump Jr’s emails mean?

Is this the smoking gun?

By Nicky Woolf

What the hell is happening?

Donald Trump Jr, one of the sons of the current US president, has tweeted out screenshots of a series of emails between himself and an associate confirming that the Russian government operative offered him dirt on Hillary Clinton.

In the email chain, a business associate of Trump with links to the Kremlin offered “to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father”.

Trump Jr responds: “I love it”.

That seems like a big deal….

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Yes. Even by the standards of this administration, this is pretty huge, and could have serious legal ramifications for the president.

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Who are the emails between?

The emails are between Trump Jr and a business associate of the Trump organisation called Rob Goldstone, a Moscow-based British former tabloid reporter and general shady fixer type.

Goldstone says that he is writing on behalf of Emin Agalarov, a Russian pop star and the son of a close Putin associate, Aras Agalarov.

Remember this tweet?

Well, it was Aras Agalarov who helped Trump bring the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow.

What do the emails tell us?

The exchange contextualises a meeting, reported over the weekend by the New York Times, that Trump’s “brain trust”, including then-campaign chair Paul Manafort and senior adviser Jared Kushner, had last June with a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya. Most importantly, they tell us that senior figures in the campaign knew in plain terms that Russia was directly offering to assist them.

In one key email in particular, Trump Jr was told that he was being offered “very high level and sensitive information” which was “part of Russia and it’s government’s support for Mr. Trump”.

What’s different to previous allegations of collusion?

Nothing so far has pointed in such stark terms to discussions between Russian representatives and member of Trump’s inner circle about influencing the election.

Trump’s admission in an interview that he fired his FBI director, James Comey, because Comey was investigating his campaign’s links to Russia was probably the closest so far.

Then, as now, it turns out that pronouncements by people with the last name Trump have caused more legal headaches for the president than anything his opponents have ever done.

Why on *earth* would he tweet this out?

We can’t rule out the possibility that this is happening purely because Trump Jr is not very smart.

He may have thought he would get out ahead of the story by tweeting the emails, but this was a massive unforced error. Trump can’t exactly claim that his son is “fake news”, and it will certainly increase the legal impetus of the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia. It pretty much settles that question.

In a statement accompanying the screenshots, Trump Jr said that he was releasing the tweets “in order to be totally transparent”, reportedly soon after the New York Times contacted him for comment on their story about the exchange.

Others under the investigation – especially senior white house adviser Jared Kushner and former campaign chair Paul Manafort – have stayed very quiet on the issue, presumably because they’re getting better legal advice. But Trump Jr appears to have confirmed their presence at the meeting with Veselnitskaya, which will make things very difficult for them in the long run.

The sheer insanity of it appears to have broken one reporter:

Did Trump Jr break the law?

Very possibly. The Washington Post is reporting that the emails could constitute a “smoking gun” for collusion. Experts have told Vox that he could have committed a federal crime, pointing out that his defence – he said in a statement that Veselnitskaya didn’t give him anything useful, so it couldn’t have been collusion – pretty clearly doesn’t have any legal standing.

Ron Wyden, an influential senator who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that there was “no longer a question of whether this campaign sought to collude with a foreign power”.

Collusion is a slightly vague term. According to the Post, the big part of Mueller’s investigation is the crime of conspiracy to commit election fraud, but there are a whole host of other laws that may have been broken here, including whether officials may have committed perjury when testifying before congress on the matter last month. And then there’s the possible obstruction of justice charge that arises from Trump’s firing of Comey.

We don’t know exactly, if anything, what was agreed at the Trump Tower meeting that came from these emails – though taking the meeting at all likely violated campaign laws. But remember too that it happened almost exactly one month before Wikileaks released the hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee at the very worst possible time for Clinton, on the eve of her party’s convention. If it comes out that the campaign coordinated with the Russians on that hack and leak, well, someone is probably going to jail.

How have people been reacting?

In a briefing on Tuesday, deputy white house press secretary Sarah Sanders delivered a brief but nonetheless bizarre statement from the president: “M y son is a high quality person and I applaud his transparency.” She denied that the emails constituted evidence of collusion.

However, senior Republican figures, such as vice-president Mike Pence, are distancing themselves:

Meanwhile, Trump’s base – especially the more febrile online supporters and the alt-right – are losing their minds a little bit.

What does this mean for Trump? Is this a step toward impeachment?

It could be. Trump’s campaign is being investigated by the department of justice over its possible links with Russia. The investigation is being led by special counsel Bob Mueller, a former FBI director known for his thoroughness and integrity. This evidence is hard to ignore, especially coming, as it does, straight from the source.

Trump Jr, Manafort, and Kushner will all likely be interviewed by Mueller during his investigation – and the fact that these emails are now in the public domain will make it very difficult for them to wriggle out of his questions.

And then there’s the question of a cover-up. Now that we know for sure that senior campaign officials and Trump family members were involved in meetings where Kremlin-linked operatives were pitching them dirt (potentially illegally obtained) on their political opponents, it’s possible that the campaign’s simple failure to report the approach to the FBI could constitute a criminal act.

One key question for Mueller will be what president Trump knew, and when. He’s painted himself into a corner with public statements like this:

So what happens next?

The road towards criminal procedings or even impeachment is a long one. Mueller’s investigation likely will take months to report its findings, and that’s the investigation with real teeth.

For the moment, Trump’s position is protected by Republican majorities in the House and the Senate. But with midterm elections coming up, and saddled by not just a hugely unpopular healthcare bill but also growing talk of collusion with Russia, Republicans could turn on Trump if they think he’s going to prevent them from getting reelected.

In the meantime, you can expect talk of impeachment to continue to increase in volume with each drip of new information.

So, anyway: