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Trump’s new tweet on Don Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting, explained

It’s getting attention for the wrong reasons.

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

A new tweet by President Trump about the infamous Trump Tower meeting his son took with a Russian lawyer has gotten an enormous amount of media attention — partly for the wrong reasons.

In response to a Washington Post report claiming the president had privately expressed concern that his son could be in legal jeopardy over the meeting, Trump tweeted:

The tweet once again conflicts with the original highly misleading explanation put out by Don Jr. (at Trump’s behest) when the meeting first came to light — that it “primarily” concerned “a program about the adoption of Russian children.”

But no, this tweet is not some shocking, sudden new admission that the meeting was set up “to get information on an opponent,” as much media coverage would have you believe.

That’s because both Don Jr. and Trump himself admitted long ago — all the way back in July 2017 — that the meeting was indeed an attempt to get information on Hillary Clinton. (They basically had to, because the Times obtained the email thread in which Don Jr. agrees to take the meeting, which flat-out says that.)

So Trump’s new tweet was merely reiterating what he and his son have said several times since July 2017.

Still, there are questions about whether it’s legally problematic to seek valuable campaign information from a foreign government, and those questions have lingered for a year. The bigger question lingers, too, about why exactly the president and Don Jr. lied about the meeting in the first place — and whether there’s still more to the story of what happened during and after the meeting than we know. (Everyone involves claims there was no useful dirt on offer and there was no follow-up.)

Team Trump’s false claim that the meeting was about Russian adoptions held up for barely a day

To understand what happened here, let’s revisit how the public learned about the meeting in the first place.

The New York Times had learned of the meeting’s existence by early July 2017, and asked the White House about it while Trump was attending the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. On July 8, as Air Force One was flying back to the US, Trump and several of his top aides strategized about how Don Jr. should respond. And eventually, Don Jr. sent the Times these comments:

It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared [Kushner] and Paul [Manafort] 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 that 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.

This statement was highly misleading — it left out that the purpose of the meeting was to get dirt on Hillary Clinton that was said to be coming directly from the Russian government. And this misleading statement, we now know, was crafted by President Trump himself.

But the story fell apart almost immediately. The very next day after the “adoption” statement — July 9, 2017 — the Times reported that the meeting was truly about getting “damaging information” on Clinton.

What many appear to have forgotten, though, is that Don Jr. and President Trump changed their story in response. They admitted the meeting was an attempt to get information on Clinton — but claimed that no useful information turned out to be on offer, and so nothing resulted from the meeting.

Trump and Don Jr. have been saying for more than a year that the meeting was about getting information

In response to the new Times story, Don Jr. released a new statement on July 9 that began with:

I was asked to have a meeting by an acquaintance I knew from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant with an individual who I was told might have information helpful to the campaign.

Two days later, on July 11, the Times had obtained the email thread in which Don Jr. had agreed to take the meeting, so he preemptively tweeted it out in two parts. The emails clearly showed that publicist Rob Goldstone offered Don Jr. “information that would incriminate Hillary” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” and that Don Jr. responded enthusiastically (“if it’s what you say I love it”). Don Jr. accompanied the email tweets with a statement that included the following:

The information they suggested they had about Hillary Clinton I thought was Political Opposition Research.

That evening, Don Jr. was interviewed on Hannity. In the interview, he said several times that, yes, he took the meeting in hopes of getting information about Clinton:

Honestly, my takeaway when all of this is going on? Someone has information on our opponent. ... And, hey, wait a minute. I’ve heard about all these things, but maybe this is something. I should hear him out.

... Listen, I’d been reading about scandals that people were probably underreporting for a long time. So maybe it was something that had to do with one of those things. I mean this was her, perhaps, involvement with the Russian government. Again, I didn’t know there was any credibility, I didn’t know there was anything behind it. I can’t vouch for the information.

... But, obviously, I want to hear the information. That’s what we do in business. If there’s information out there we want it, and then we make what we do with it.

On July 13, 2017, President Trump was asked about the matter in a press conference. He said, again, it was about getting information.

My son is a wonderful young man. He took a meeting with a Russian lawyer, not a government lawyer but a Russian lawyer ... I think from a practical standpoint most people would have taken that meeting. It’s called opposition research, or even research into your opponent.

I’ve had many people —I have only been in politics for two years, but I’ve had many people call up — “Oh, gee, we have information on this factor or this person, or, frankly, Hillary.” That’s very standard in politics. Politics is not the nicest business in the world, but it’s very standard where they have information and you take the information.

A few days later, on July 17, 2017, Trump tweeted a similar thing:

Then on September 7, 2017, Don Jr. testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee:

In his e-mail to me Rob suggested that someone had official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary Clinton and her dealings with Russia and that the information would be very useful to the campaign...

... At the time I thought I should listen to what Rob and his colleagues had to say. To the extent that they had information concerning the fitness, character, or qualifications of any presidential candidates, I believed that I should at least hear them out.

With all that in mind, take a look at the new tweet again.

When considered in context with the statements above, nothing about Trump’s claim appears to be new. This has been Trump and his son’s story about the meeting for more than a year. They abandoned the claim that it was mostly about adoptions long ago.

Many questions remain about the Trump Tower meeting

Even though Trump’s tweet isn’t as new or revelatory as many are portraying it, it has revived questions about the meeting itself — a focus of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

First, there is the question about whether the now-admitted, undisputed facts about the meeting are enough to make it illegal. The email thread plainly states that the Russian government was offering information that could be useful to Trump’s campaign, and that Don Jr. said he’d “love it.”

Some legal experts have opined that that could violate laws prohibiting a campaign from soliciting anything “of value” from a foreign national. Others have responded that if the law is interpreted so broadly, Hillary Clinton’s campaign could have violated it too, by paying the opposition research firm that got British ex-spy Christopher Steele to assemble his dossier.

Second, there is the question of whether Trump himself knew about the meeting beforehand. Don Jr. has testified that he did not tell his father in advance. Yet while setting up the meeting, Don Jr. exchanged calls with a blocked phone number. Additionally, there have lately been some leaks that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen is saying Trump did know about the meeting. Trump, though, is reiterating his claim that he wasn’t told.

Third, there’s the question about why President Trump dictated that false statement for his son about a meeting he supposedly didn’t even know about. Mueller has reportedly been investigating that as part of his obstruction of justice probe. And the New York Times reported that Hope Hicks suggested to Trump’s then-legal spokesperson Mark Corallo that the emails revealing the truth about the meeting “will never get out” — making him worried about potential obstruction of justice.

Finally, and most important of all in my view, is the question of whether there’s still more to the story of what actually happened during and after the meeting.

The story from the meeting’s participants has been more or less consistent since last July. They claim the meeting was a bit of a mess and a disappointment, that no useful dirt was offered, and that there was no follow-up afterward. No one has yet claimed otherwise, and if the meeting truly was so inconsequential, it’s difficult to see it having major new ramifications for Trump’s presidency.

Perhaps this new story is part of an ongoing cover-up among the meeting’s participants — or perhaps it’s the simple truth. Whatever the case, it’s Mueller who is best positioned to find out.