With a cast of characters like Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and Carter Page, it seemed like only a matter of time before at least one of them had to explain a paper trail describing suspicious contact—whether through naïveté or malice—with Russian agents trying to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
It just didn’t seem very likely that the person in question would announce that he had taken a meeting because he had been promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton as part of an explicit Russian government effort to help Donald Trump’s campaign. Or that this person would post the paper trail on Twitter. Or that he would be the President’s eldest son.
On Tuesday at 11 a.m. ET on the nose, Donald Trump, Jr. posted to his public Twitter account a one-paragraph statement followed by four pages of emails between himself and Rob Goldstone, a British music publicist and acquaintance of the Trump family. The emails were whited-out in a few places and described in frank terms what a “Russian government attorney”—Goldstone’s words—had to offer: damaging information about Trump’s presumptive opponent in the general election, Hillary Clinton, that was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” That effort was “helped along” by Aras Agalarov, the 51st-richest man in Russia and a close ally of both the Russian government and Trump himself, as well as his son Emin Agalarov, a singer and Goldstone’s client.
Goldstone told Trump Jr. the offer came to the Agalarovs through “the Crown Prosecutor of Russia,” an apparent reference to Russia’s Prosecutor General, Putin appointee Yury Chaika, who is known to be close to Veselnitskaya. Goldstone told reporters the reference in the damning email was meant to refer to Veselnitskaya herself when asked to clarify. Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, and Manafort, the former campaign chairman, were forwarded that entire email chain, according to the New York Times.
Trump Jr. seemed to believe that releasing those emails on Twitter put the matter to rest, and spent a couple of hours subsequent to the revelations retweeting support from conservative media figures like Mike Huckabee and Bill O’Reilly.
Trump, Jr. smart to release emails. Tabloid guy set him up w Russian lawyer who promised Hillary dirt. She didn't deliver. That's the story.
— Bill O'Reilly (@billoreilly) July 11, 2017
Liberal media in a frenzy because Donald Trump Jr released all his emails. Should've just deleted them. We know that's fine with them!
— Gov. Mike Huckabee (@GovMikeHuckabee) July 11, 2017
But the revelations didn’t just surprise the media, they reportedly caught even special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with proxies for the Russian government, unawares. And Mueller already had his hands full.
Until this week, the figure most central to that speculation had been Michael Flynn, the ousted national security adviser whose failure to disclose conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. about sanctions cost him his job. It was recently reported that the late GOP operative Peter W. Smith had claimed to have a line to Flynn when he sought out hackers, including two groups he believed to be Russian, that he hoped had stolen information from Clinton’s private email server before she deleted the much-discussed 30,000 emails.
Kushner, too, had become a focus of the investigation on multiple fronts. Mueller reportedly was digging into his finances, especially where his interests with those of Russian state-owned Vnesheconombank. And the President’s son-in-law had come under scrutiny for his work with the Trump campaign’s data machine, part of it run by Cambridge Analytica, a government contractor run by Trump-supporting billionaire Robert Mercer, whose board includes Steve Bannon and has reported business ties to Brietbart. Mueller is reportedly probing both operations for ties to Russia. Kushner also met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, alongside Flynn, about how to “establish a line of communication” between the Russian and American governments—presumably a backchannel that would have excluded American intelligence.
Then there’s Manafort, who had helped to install Viktor Yanukovych, a politician sympathetic to Vladimir Putin, as president of Ukraine. The Trump campaign had removed hawkish language on the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula—formerly controlled by Ukraine—from the Republican Party platform, and public perception of Manafort’s involvement in the policy shift and the subsequent reporting on his work in Ukraine was negative enough that he was ousted from the campaign in favor of Steve Bannon. Manafort has been conspicuous by his silence since his ouster last year, but the spotlight was swinging back in his direction as he retroactively registered as a foreign agent in June.
Page, also long gone from the Trump inner circle, had his own clear and direct ties to Russia, having spoken to Russian businessmen often and worked in the country as an investment banker. He, too, took an unusual meeting with Kislyak. And he also had been a target for recruitment by an agent of the Russian SVR security service named Victor Podobnyy, who contacted Page on the pretext of a deal with Page’s firm, Global Energy Capital. Page never agreed to work on behalf of Podobnyy, but was investigated for his “extensive” contacts in Russia.
Comparatively, the only hint that Trump Jr. may have had dealings with Russians before this week came from remarks he gave at a real estate conference way back in 2008, where he declared that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” His brother, Eric, once made a similar statement to golf reporter James Dodson and later denied making the remark.
Trump Jr. seems to believe he has nothing to hide. He tweeted the emails, he said, in order “to be as transparent as possible.” That much, at least, he has certainly achieved. And if the whole truth isn’t enough, he has a very expensive lawyer.