President Donald Trump and his team are casting it as absurdly conspiratorial to suggest there was anything odd about his oldest son accepting a meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer last June, noting that Russia was not a major campaign issue at the time.
But a close look at the timeline suggests that Donald Trump, Jr. took a meeting billed as an opportunity to learn information obtained as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump” at a moment when his father was taking heat from his opponent for his sunny view of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and shortly before the Kremlin’s disinformation and targeted leaking campaign against the Democrats began in earnest.
“You have to understand, when that took place, this was before Russia fever,” Trump told Reuters on Wednesday. “There was no Russia fever back then, that was at the beginning of the campaign, more or less.”
Trump Jr. took a similar tack on Tuesday when he took the surprise step of releasing the email chain leading up to his June 2016 meeting with a woman described to him as a “Russian government lawyer” who was said to have “information that would incriminate Hillary” Clinton. “To put this in context, this occurred before the current Russian fever was in vogue,” Trump Jr. said in a statement accompanying the email release.
This version of events does not tell the whole story. The campaign had already been underway for a year, and the news was full of articles about Trump’s “bromance” with Putin prior to the Trump Tower meeting between Trump Jr., his brother-in-law Jared Kushner, then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, and lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin. Headlines declared that Putin had ordered state-owned U.S. media outlets like RT to promote Trump’s candidacy and tear down Clinton’s, and questions swirled about Trump advisers’ business connections in Russia.
On June 2, 2016 Clinton gave her first major speech on national security—in effect, a speech about Trump. The presumptive Democratic nominee repeatedly invoked Trump’s bond with Russia’s leader, accusing him of praising “dictators like Vladimir Putin” and having a “bizarre fascination with dictators and strongmen who have no love for America.”
“He said if he were grading Vladimir Putin as a leader, he’d give him an A,” Clinton told the San Diego, California crowd of Trump, warning that such an unsavvy stance would allow a leader like Putin to “eat your lunch.”
The very next day, Rob Goldstone, a British publicist and family friend of the Trumps, first contacted Trump Jr. about the “very interesting” information a client of his had on Clinton.
“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” Trump Jr. replied to the promise for dirt in Clinton, days after his father had clinched the presidential nomination for the Republican Party.
While Goldstone and Trump Jr. worked out the details of the meeting in a series of back-and-forth emails, then-candidate Trump hinted at a June 7 campaign rally that he would soon give a “major speech” about Clinton.
“I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week, and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons,” Trump said at the time, promising information on their “corrupt dealings” to give “favorable treatment” to “the Russians” and other foreign governments. “I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.”
At the same time, the apparatus for publishing stolen emails and documents involving Democratic Party leaders and operatives—later determined to have been hacked by Russian operatives—was being put into place. On June 8, DC Leaks, a site established to publish some of the stolen documents, posted its first tweet.
The Trump Tower meeting between Trump Jr., the campaign associates and the Russians came on June 9; both sides have said it was inconsequential, with Trump Jr. insisting he did not receive the damaging information he came for and the Russian participants claiming the conversation focused only on a defunct program enabling the adoption of Russian children by Americans.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a longtime Clinton critic, hinted in a June 12 interview that his site had a “very big year ahead,” promising the imminent release of emails “related to Hillary Clinton.”
Those emails wouldn’t drop until just before the Democratic National Convention in late July, but the public learned about the DNC breach at around this time via a June 14 Washington Post article that attributed it to hackers working on behalf of the Russian government. “Guccifer 2.0,” later determined by computer experts and U.S. officials to be a persona invented by Russian intelligence officials, began contacting U.S. news sites to claim credit for the hack and to offer stolen Democratic Party documents.
Putin praised Trump as a “bright” person at the Russian Economic Forum in St. Petersburg on June 17.
Amid this background and other major news events, Trump delayed his promised “major speech” on Clinton. After postponing it to account for the mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Trump promised in a June 21 tweet that a “big speech” about Clinton would come the next day.
From a stage in New York, Trump held forth about Clinton’s handling of the Benghazi attacks, her support for free trade and her “temperament.” None of these criticisms were new, but Trump added what would later seem a prescient warning: emails Clinton deleted from her private server could make her vulnerable to “blackmail” from countries hostile to the United States, he said.
As Trump cautioned, “We can’t hand over our government to someone whose deepest, darkest secrets may be in the hands of our enemies.”