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Trump does himself no favors with new comments on Russia scandal

Donald Trump's latest comments about Natalia Veselnitskaya and the 2016 Trump Tower meeting were more interesting than he probably realizes.
A doorman stands as people walk past the Trump Tower in N.Y. on May 23, 2016. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
A doorman stands as people walk past the Trump Tower in N.Y. on May 23, 2016.

Donald Trump's performance at his Michigan rally on Saturday night was largely what Americans have come to expect from this president. Trump lashed out wildly at his perceived foes; he lied repeatedly; he explained how impressed he is with himself; he continued to obsess over random details about his 2016 victory; he attacked Democrats' patriotism; he threatened another government shutdown over border-wall funding; and he warned of his looming impeachment in the event of a Democratic Congress.

None of this, however, was especially interesting. On the contrary, it was the kind of garden-variety nonsense that everyone knew to expect before the event even began.

One part of his remarks, however, stood out as notable:

"I guarantee you, I'm tougher on Russia. Nobody ever thought. In fact, have you heard about the lawyer? For a year, a woman lawyer, she was like, 'Oh, I know nothing.' Now all of a sudden she supposedly is involved with [Vladimir Putin's] government."You know why? If she did that, because Putin and the groups said, 'You know this Trump is killing us. Why don't you say that you're involved with government so that we could go and make their life in the United States even more chaotic.'"

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess this wasn't on the president's teleprompter -- because whether he understands this or not, the comments didn't do Trump any favors.

Let's back up and explain what "woman lawyer" he was referring to. As much of the country no doubt knows by now, in June 2016, top members of the Trump campaign hosted a private meeting in Trump Tower with a group of Russians. The intended point of the gathering was for Team Trump to acquire anti-Clinton intelligence from Russia, which the Republican campaign was eager to receive, bolstering allegations of cooperation between Trump's campaign and its benefactors in Moscow.

Among the leading participants at the meeting was Natalia Veselnitskaya -- whose story about her connections with the Russian government very recently changed.

Veselnitskaya had previously maintained that she was simply a private Russian attorney who operated independently from the Putin government. NBC News' Richard Engel reported on Friday, however, that her original claims no longer appear credible.

Engel's report pointed to court documents that showed Veselnitskaya doing legal work for Russia's intelligence agency, the FSB. He also interviewed Veselnitskaya and she described herself as an "informant" for the Russian government.

The same report also showed Veselnitskaya working closely with Russia's chief legal office to disrupt a major fraud case launched by the U.S. Justice Department against a Russian firm.

Which brings us back to Donald Trump's new conspiracy theory. As the American president now sees it, Veselnitskaya -- who, again, claims to be a private attorney operating independently from Putin's government -- is only saying she's an "informant" because she received instructions from the Kremlin as part of a Russian plot to sow the seeds of political chaos in the United States.

That's interesting for a couple of reasons. First, Trump is hurting his own argument. According to the president's new version of events, top members of his own campaign team -- including his campaign chairman, his son, and his son-in-law -- met with a Russian lawyer who takes orders from Putin and the Russian government.

The less independent Veselnitskaya is, the worse the Trump Tower meeting appears. I'm not sure Trump understands that -- because if he did, he wouldn't have publicly linked Veselnitskaya and Putin.

Second, the fact that the Republican brought this up at all at his Michigan pep rally suggests Trump recognizes the dangers posed by Richard Engel's report. The president seemed to suggest that the latest revelations may make his political operation look bad, but we should disregard the news because, in Trump's mind, it's all a Putin-inspired public-relations scheme.

Implicit in that argument is the fact that the controversy surrounding the Trump campaign's 2016 meeting is suddenly intensifying -- and the president's baseless conspiracy theories won't make that controversy go away.