I’ve just read through Donald Trump Jr’s account of the now-notorious June 2016 meeting with that Russian lawyer in Trump Tower. Here are my thoughts.
Big picture, this is pretty much the same as the comments Don Jr. made earlier in the summer. He insists he in no way colluded with Russia or any foreign government to affect the 2016 presidential election and then, in the same breath, describes what sounds pretty clearly like an attempt to collude with the Russia government. It’s almost an insult to our collective intelligence. But that’s the entire Trump era. What’s new? He also repeats the general explanation that he was a political neophyte and (by implication though not stated explicitly) wasn’t sophisticated enough to know that taking the meeting would be a problem. Again, this is pretty much the sum and substance of what he said a couple months ago.
But there are nonetheless some new details and some key omissions which are notable.
Don Jr. says that he really had no idea what the meeting was about or more importantly who would attend the meeting in advance. In other words, someone said he might have dirt on Hillary, why not take a meeting?
This (no doubt intentionally) leaves out critical information that is in the plain text of the emails. In his emails Goldstone very conspicuously noted that this wasn’t just some information he could pass Trump’s way. He went out of his way to say explicitly that it came from the Russian government and was part of the Russian government’s support for and efforts to elect Donald Trump. He wrote: “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
That makes all the difference in the world.
The specific identity of just who Trump was going to meet with is beside the point. The name would have meant nothing to him. The relevant point is that Trump Jr was told in advance that he was dealing with the Russian government and that the Russian government was supporting and trying to elect his father. I don’t care how naive you are. Unless you were raised by ferrets in the Catskills, you’re going to know this is a problem. Trump Jr took the meeting. This is the critical omission. My recollection is that Don Jr also forwarded those emails to Kushner and Manafort. So they knew that information too, or could have. We will return to the significance of this in a moment.
The next key is that Don Jr. says his phone records show “three very short phone calls” between Don Jr. and Emin Agalarov (the pop star son of the oligarch) over the two days (June 6th and 7th) just prior to the meeting on June 9th. He says he doesn’t remember those calls and that they may have traded voicemails. That seems dubious. Voicemails leave recordings and records. I’m not sure if the phone records reflect when a call goes to voice mail or not. But how short were the calls? This seems quite significant. Why are we hearing this? Almost certainly because you can’t hide the records that the phone calls happened. I don’t think investigators even need a warrant for those. What was discussed if anything was is another matter. There may be no record of that at all. So Don Jr. would be in the clear saying he didn’t remember.
Don Jr. also says that Jared Kushner left not long after the meeting began. What about Paul Manafort? As I wrote earlier, Kushner was not an experienced professional either in politics or intelligence work. Don Jr. is a buffoon. I’m willing to believe that they didn’t get the full significance of what was happening in this meeting. That doesn’t apply to Manafort. He’s been in politics for four decades. His foreign work – even if you assume zero bad acts of any sort – would routinely bring him into contact with spies, both American and foreign ones. That’s how it works. There’s no question Manafort knew what was happening in this meeting and that it was a problem. When did he leave? What did he do and say? Big questions.
Don Jr. also says he has no recollection that any dossier was left in the office or given to him. Again, dubious. But is there proof?
Let’s assume for the moment that the meeting went down more or less as described. Many intelligence professionals have noted that this looks like a classic ‘dangle’. The Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, wasn’t there to do business or share information. She was there to test the campaign’s openness to doing business with the Russian government. Once Don Jr. and his colleagues showed they were very interested, her job was done. She is involved in the Magnitsky law lobbying. So she may have taken the opportunity to chat him up about that too. The point is that, as described, there’s nothing mysterious about the description of the meeting. Intelligence professionals say this is a standard gambit. The very specific reference to Russian government support in the original Goldstone email is likely part of the dangle. It’s too conspicuous and otherwise inexplicable.
There are other contradictions to Don Jr.’s story. The upshot is that it includes some tantalizingly new details (which likely had to be divulged) because there are records that investigators can easily access. The phone calls with Emin is the key example of that. The document also makes a number of misleading or even false statements, ones clearly contradicted by the emails themselves.