Is Donald Trump Jr.’s Meeting the First Hard Evidence of Collusion With Russia?
The president’s son admits a Kremlin-aligned lawyer offered dirt on Hillary Clinton last year, and he reportedly took the meeting with the offer in mind.
For the past seven months, President Donald Trump and his campaign have been dogged by allegations that they colluded with the Russian government during the presidential election.
Now there appears to be some evidence supporting the thrust of the allegation.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, was offered “damaging information about Hillary Clinton before agreeing to meet with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign,” The New York Times reported Sunday.
On Saturday, Trump Jr., presidential son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort confirmed that they met with lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya in Trump Tower on June 9, 2016—two days after Clinton clinched the Democratic presidential nomination.
Trump Jr. said in a statement Sunday that Veselnitskaya claimed “she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton.” Trump Jr. said she did not provide additional information.
After Veselnitskaya’s “vague” statement about Clinton, Trump Jr. said, the conversation turned to Russia’s freeze of adoptions to the U.S. in retaliation for sanctions against individual Russians under the Magnitsky Act.
The report is the first public account that people associated with the Kremlin offered damaging information on Clinton to Trump—and that Trump’s campaign entertained the offer.
A dossier compiled by ex-British spy Christopher Steele alleged the existence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the election, which alleged, among other things, that Russia sent damaging information on Clinton to the Trump campaign.
The dossier was published in January 2017, days before Trump was inaugurated. Then as now, Trump and members of his campaign denied any involvement with Russia.
The admission by the president’s eldest son comes less than 24 hours after the Trump legal team downplayed the meeting as a courtesy for a friend—and then proposed that the meeting was the result of a Democratic plot to entangle Trump with the Russians.
“It was a short introductory meeting,” Trump Jr. said in a statement on Saturday, in response to the initial story about the meeting with Veselnitskaya. “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.”
According to the president’s son, he “was asked to attend the meeting by an acquaintance, but was not told the name of the person I would be meeting with beforehand.”
The Washington Post reported on Sunday that the friend in question is music publicist Rob Goldstone, manager of would-be Russian pop star Emin Agalarov, whose developer father was the sponsor of the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, which took place in Moscow.
“Once she presented what she had to say, it was like, ‘Can you keep an eye on it? Should [Trump] be in power, maybe that’s a conversation that he may have in the future?’” Goldstone told The Washington Post. Goldstone did not identify the client who requested the meeting’s arrangement.
The Trump team’s initial strategy of dismissing the Veselnitskaya meeting switched to claiming it was a setup by Democrats apparently using Kremlin operatives to sink the Trump campaign.
“We have learned from both our own investigation and public reports that the participants in the meeting misrepresented who they were and who they worked for,” Mark Corallo, spokesman for Trump’s outside counsel, said in a statement released a few hours after the original New York Times story published.
“Specifically, we have learned that the person who sought the meeting is associated with Fusion GPS, a firm which according to public reports, was retained by Democratic operatives to develop opposition research on the president and which commissioned the phony Steele dossier,” Corallo continued, referring to the political intelligence firm that hired Steele to compile the dossier on Trump.
“These developments raise serious issues as to exactly who authorized and participated in any effort by Russian nationals to influence our election in any manner,” Corallo concluded.
Poking a hole in Corallo’s supposition is the fact that Fusion GPS had been hired by the law firm to undermine the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law intended to punish Russian officials allegedly responsible for the death of Russian tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered a $230 million tax scam involving senior Russian government officials. Magnitsky was later arrested on the pretext that he was the perpetrator of a separate tax fraud himself, and died under mysterious circumstances.
The Magnitsky Act’s passage in 2012, in addition to other sanctions, helped prompt Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to halt the adoption of Russian orphans by American parents—what Trump Jr. has characterized as the “primary” subject of discussion at the Trump Tower meeting.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee and has been an aggressive questioner during public hearings on Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, was incredulous in response to the report.
“Donald Trump and his team had an extraordinary & unprecedented amount of personal, political, financial ties with Russia, at the time Russia was helping his campaign and undermining our democracy,” Swalwell said in a text to The Daily Beast. “Each of those ties, including recently learned meetings between Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort with Russians who wanted to damage Hillary Clinton, must be fully investigated.”
Swalwell continued, saying that Trump Jr.’s own claims prove that the Trump team “was willing to work with a foreign adversary to beat an American political opponent. That’s a level of betrayal of our country we have never seen in politics.”
Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, echoed Swalwell’s comments.
“We crossed a line today,” Mook told The Daily Beast. “Congress has to step in and remove Russian influence from the White House. The president’s financial and personal conflicts must be revealed. Staff who have lied about meetings with Russians or hidden financial ties to Russian oligarchs should be barred from seeing classified information or participating in policymaking until Congress can determine whether they will act in the public interest. This isn't just another partisan issue. Russia has compromised the core of our executive branch, and this is precisely why the separation of powers was created. It’s up to them to clean house.”
Three months after the meeting in Trump Tower, a Republican operative implied he was working Trump campaign adviser Michael Flynn to obtain Clinton’s emails from Russian hackers. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Peter W. Smith told recruits for his project that he was in contact with Flynn and his son.
Flynn and the White House did not respond to requests for comment about the article.
—With additional reporting by Noah Shachtman and Sam Stein