The president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., is now at the center of the Russia scandal.
A stunning series of New York Times reports have revealed that in June of last year, Trump Jr. was tipped off that the Russian government had information that could help his father’s presidential candidacy — and that he agreed to take a meeting to try to get that information.
According to the latest Times report by Matt Apuzzo, Jo Becker, Adam Goldman, and Maggie Haberman, Trump Jr. “was informed in an email” by an acquaintance of his that the information would be “part of a Russian government effort to aid his father’s candidacy, according to three people with knowledge of the email.” However, the email’s exact wording remains unknown.
The meeting, with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, took place on June 9, 2016, in Trump Tower. Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Trump’s then-campaign chair Paul Manafort all attended it.
Trump Jr. has claimed in a statement that he was given no useful information at the meeting and that the matter went no further. Yet previous accounts he’s given of the meeting keep leaving out relevant details that emerge later on. (This is the Times’s third scoop in three days about the meeting, with each one adding new and more damaging information.) The White House has said the president himself first heard of this meeting just days ago.
Overall, this story provides our first real, solid evidence that high-level people on Trump’s team attempted to work with people tied to the Russian government to get information that could impact the campaign and hurt Clinton’s chances. And while Trump Jr. appears to have had the lead role in arranging the meeting, Kushner and Manafort’s roles also deserve serious examination.
However, there is still no outright proof that these efforts progressed beyond initial inquiries and resulted in some type of mutual coordination or collaboration. And the role of Donald Trump himself remains unclear.
The big picture is that the president’s dismissals of the very idea that his campaign coordinated with Russians look ever tougher to take at face value. These stories suggest that at least some on his team were ready and willing to collude with the Russian government on some sort of anti-Clinton shenanigans.
What, if anything, Trump’s team actually ended up doing, though — particularly whether they had knowledge of the hacks of prominent Democrats’ emails or other Russian influence operations — remains unknown.
What we know about Trump Jr.’s meeting
In early May, Donald Trump drove his two remaining opponents out of the Republican presidential nomination contest, setting him up to advance to the general election, where he was near certain to face Hillary Clinton.
Then at some point, Donald Trump Jr. received an email from an acquaintance — a publicist named Rob Goldstone whom he met in connection with the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.
Goldstone asked if Trump Jr. would be willing to take a meeting to get derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, and indicated the information was part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign, according to three sources interviewed by the Times.
Goldstone said in a statement Monday that he was acting at the behest of a client named Emin Agalarov — a singer and real estate developer who works with his wealthy father, Aras Agalarov. The Agalarovs were involved in that 2013 Miss Universe pageant with Trump. But it doesn’t seem that Goldstone was entirely forthcoming, because he outright denied that the Russian government was involved in this, but went silent after the Times described the email to him and sought further comment.
Trump Jr. seems to have told then campaign chair Paul Manafort and campaign adviser (and Trump son-in-law) Jared Kushner about the meeting and asked them to attend with him.
So on June 9, 2016, the trio met at Trump Tower with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer. Veselnitskaya has represented state-owned businesses, and the Times characterizes her as “a formidable operator with a history of pushing the Kremlin’s agenda.”
Donald Trump Jr. keeps changing his story about the meeting
The only account we have of what actually happened inside the meeting comes from Trump Jr. — Manafort and Kushner aren’t commenting.
The problem is that Trump Jr.’s story about the meeting keeps changing.
Back in March, the president’s son told the Times that he’d never had a meeting with Russians that was set up or in which he was representing the campaign:
Did I meet with people that were Russian? I’m sure, I’m sure I did. ... But none that were set up. None that I can think of at the moment. And certainly none that I was representing the campaign in any way, shape or form.
Then in the Times’s Saturday report revealing the meeting, Donald Jr. was quoted suddenly remembering the meeting — but in his telling, it was “primarily” about adoption policy:
It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up. ... I was asked to attend the meeting by an acquaintance, but was not told the name of the person I would be meeting with beforehand.
But when the Times obtained additional information suggesting that the purpose of the meeting was to obtain information that could damage Hillary Clinton, Donald Jr. gave a lengthier statement Sunday essentially admitting that that was true, but that no useful information emerged and that there was no follow-up.
In any case, in Trump Jr.’s account Sunday, he asked Manafort and Kushner to attend the meeting but “told them nothing of the substance.” At the meeting itself, he stated, Veselnitskaya claimed to have “information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton,” but he felt “her statements were vague, ambiguous, and made no sense.”
Then, he claims, Veselnitskaya began discussing a controversy involving the Magnitsky Act — a US law attempting to penalize Russian human rights abusers — and the Russian government’s subsequent retaliatory decision to ban all US adoption of Russian children. (Veselnitskaya has lobbied for repeal of the Magnitsky Act for years.)
Trump Jr. then says he concluded that the promise of “helpful information” was merely a “pretext” to get him in the room to discuss the Magnitsky Act and the adoption controversy. And that, he claimed, was the end of the story.
Yet somehow Trump Jr. left out the fact that, if the Times’s reporting is correct, he was told beforehand that the meeting was part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign. In a statement after this new information was revealed Monday, Trump Jr.’s new lawyer didn’t deny this but essentially restated the previous claims that the meeting was no big deal and led nowhere.
Of course, given this shape-shifting story it is worth wondering whether there remains more we don’t know about what happened in or around the meeting, about Manafort and Kushner’s involvement, about what Trump himself may have known, and about whether any other collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government was attempted or actually occurred.
Donald Trump Jr. could be in legal trouble
We don’t yet know whether there’s more to this story, but the latest information reported by the Times may already be sufficient to place the president’s son in serious legal jeopardy.
As my colleague Zack Beauchamp wrote Monday, the problem is that federal campaign finance law states that it is illegal to receive or solicit anything of value from a foreign national to aid a campaign. And according to legal experts he interviewed, Trump Jr. may have run afoul of the law merely by soliciting this information from a foreign source — even if he didn’t get anything in the end. Beauchamp writes:
The solicitation bit is why it doesn’t matter if Trump Jr. actually got useful information. The part that’s illegal, according to the experts I spoke to, is trying to acquire dirt on Clinton from a foreign source, not successfully acquiring it. And his statement more or less admits that he did, in fact, solicit this information.
“The most recent [developments] are especially significant because they include specific statements on the record conceding the Trump campaign’s expressed interest in what the Russians could provide,” Bob Bauer, White House counsel for Barack Obama from 2010 to 2011, writes at Just Security. “Those statements show intent — a clear-cut willingness to have Russian support — and they reveal specific actions undertaken to obtain it.”
How this changes what we know about the broader Trump/Russia scandal
There’s long been a whole lot of evidence that several Trump associates had ties to Russian officials, and of course it was clear that Trump’s public policies were far more pro-Russia than the Republican norm.
But for a long while, there really wasn’t any hard evidence tying anyone in Trumpworld to any collusion or attempted collusion to influence the 2016 election — making it plausible that the Russian influence campaign and hackings were done without any involvement from Trump associates.
That changed, first, with a recent scoop from the Wall Street Journal’s Shane Harris that the now-late GOP operative Peter Smith had reached out to Russian hackers to try to get Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails from them — and that he had claimed to be working with Michael Flynn in that endeavor. (It’s not yet clear whether Flynn was involved, and he hasn’t commented on the matter one way or the other.)
Now we learn that the president’s son, son-in-law, and campaign chair took a meeting with a Russian lawyer in the hopes of dredging up some sort of dirt on Hillary Clinton — and that the president’s son was told in advance that the dirt would come from the Russian government.
So there are now more indications that many of Trump’s top people were at least open to collaborating with Russians on anti-Clinton shenanigans of some kind.
But there remains much about this matter that we still don’t know. For instance:
First, did any sort of collaborative effort between Trump advisers and the Russian government end up materializing in the end?
Second, did Trump’s people have knowledge of or involvement in the operation in which prominent Democrats’ hacked emails were leaked, reportedly by the Russian government?
Third, if anything did go on, what, exactly, did Donald Trump himself know?
Special counsel Robert Mueller will surely be looking into all of these questions.