Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Donald Trump Jr., who worked on his father's campaign and currently helps run the Trump Organization, met with a Russian lawyer tied to the Kremlin because he was told that lawyer had damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Importantly, he was also "informed in an email that the material was part of a Russian government effort to aid his father's candidacy," according to a second Times story published late Monday.
Given that the major question hanging over the country right now is whether the Trump campaign actively colluded with the Russian government to damage Clinton's candidacy or was merely the passive beneficiary of Russian efforts, this is a big deal. Donald Trump, Jr. is Donald Trump's second- or third-most important adult child (after Ivanka), and this meeting indicates his offspring was seeking information proffered by a once-hostile foreign government.
But before we get out ahead of ourselves, we should ask whether there is a normal, rational, perfectly regular explanation for Junior's behavior. And there is! Here is how Junior and his new, allegedly mafia-friendly lawyer have (so far) broken down what happened:
- "Late May and early June was an intensely busy time for Don, Jr," his lawyer said in a statement late Monday. Amid the flurry of his father's campaign for president and the day-to-day business of the Trump Organization, Junior got an email from Robert Goldstone, a British PR guy with connections to numerous Russians. One of those connections was to Emin Agalarov, the son of Russian oligarch Aras Agalarov, who like many Russian billionaires has at least publicly been friendly with Vladimir Putin. Donald Trump, for what it's worth, has been linked to the Agalarov clan for years and once appeared in a music video Emin made:
- Anyway, Junior gets an email from Goldstone, who was apparently asked by this pop singer to set a meeting between Junior and the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. You know how pop singers help arrange meetings between political campaigns and lawyers? In the regular course of things? Cool.
- "The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting 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," Goldstone wrote, according to screenshots of the email Junior tweeted on Tuesday just before they were published by the Times. "This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."
- (Sidebar: Goldstone refers to Veselnitskaya as a "Russian government attorney" even though she doesn't officially work for the Russian government.)
- "If it's what you say I love it," Junior fires back.
- So Junior agrees to the meeting even though he doesn't know the name of the person he's meeting with. Also, via his lawyer, "Don Jr. had no knowledge as to what specific information, if any, would be discussed. Further, at no time was there ever any understanding or commitment that he, or anyone else, would find the information to be reliable, credible, or of interest."
- Junior knows at this point is that a lawyer is offering some sort of dirt on Clinton as part of a Russian government effort. Still, dude goes to the meeting and apparently doesn't tell any US authorities about it. He also brings campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner—again, a normal and sensible thing to do when you are meeting with random Russians for no particular reason.
- From a statement Junior issued on Sunday: "After pleasantries were exchanged, the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information. She then changed subjects and began discussing the adoption of Russian children and mentioned the Magnitsky Act."
- (That's a US law that allows America to not issue visas to and freeze the assets of Russian officials who have violated human rights. Russia responded by refusing to allow American couples to adopt Russian children. The Magnitsky Act is a bone of contention for many Russians, including Veselnitskaya, who has lobbied against it.)
- (Another sidebar: Veselnitskaya now says she never had any information on Clinton but just wanted to talk about the Manitsky Act to anyone who would listen. So why did Goldstone tell Junior that she did? Weird.)
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- Everyone at the meeting says it lasted about half an hour. According to Veselnitskaya, Kushner left after about ten minutes, and as for Manafort, "All the time he was looking at his phone. He was reading something. He never took any active part in the conversation." Rude!
- So Junior wanted to get some information from someone he'd been told was connected to the Russian government—which may have all by itself violated a law against soliciting things of electoral value from foreign nationals. But he says he didn't get anything that could have helped his dad, and (according to the White House) never mentioned the meeting or the email or anything to Donald Trump, senior.
- Months pass. Donald Trump is elected president in a squeaker of an election influenced partly by Russian hacking efforts that according to US intelligence agencies led to emails from Democrats being circulated widely. It's the biggest story in the political press. Eventually, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is forced to resign because of undisclosed contacts he had with the Russian ambassador. This, too, is a huge story.
- Junior still does not tell his dad about the time he took a meeting with a Russian lawyer to get anti-Clinton info.
- Or the email that said the Russian government was trying to help his dad win.
- Kushner also more or less forgets to mention the meeting—or at least he leaves that meeting, along with several others with Russians, off of disclosure forms he is required to fill out to work as a White House adviser to Trump. That's a totally understandable mistake.
- When asked about the meeting initially on Saturday, Junior doesn't mention the whole thing about it being arranged as an opportunity to collect ammunition against Clinton. Then on Sunday, when more details about the meeting come out, he admits that it was in fact supposed to be about Clinton. He doesn't mention the email—or the connection with the Russian government—at all before the Times runs its story about the email Monday.
- Kushner revised his forms to include the Veselnitskaya meeting, so some people in the White House knew about it for "several days," according to the Times. But the president didn't know about it until the end of his most recent trip to Europe, which wrapped up a few days ago. It isn't the type of thing that he needed to urgently know about, probably because it's so normal and unremarkable.
- That's the whole story, probably.
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