Taking Stock of the Times Blockbuster

Donald Trump Jr., son of President-elect Donald Trump, looks out from an elevator as he arrives at Trump Tower, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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I want to share a few initial thoughts on this afternoon’s Times blockbuster. If you have not seen it yet, yesterday the Times reported that Donald Trump Jr., along with Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, met last year with a Russian lawyer with close ties to the Kremlin, Natalia Veselnitskaya, about something called the Magnitsky Act. Magnitsky is a sort of mini-sanctions law passed in 2012 which Russia has wanted overturned ever since. (The details of Magnitsky are important but we’ll discuss them later.) That in itself was a major story. This afternoon they followed up with additional details that made it a genuine blockbuster: according to the Times, Trump took the meeting because he was promised that he would receive damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

This is a very big story in that it gets quite close to the first evidence of collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign during the 2016 campaign. At a minimum, Trump Jr was open to receiving damaging information about Clinton from Russian nationals who a simple Google search would identify as being closely allied with the Kremlin.

Let me share a few thoughts.

1. What I suspect is the most important detail in this story is the sources. The Times reports that they got the information from “three advisers to the White House briefed on the meeting and two others with knowledge of it.” They apparently talked after the release of the first story. This is highly, highly significant. Needless to say, advisors to the White House are not in the business of taking highly damaging stories and volunteering new information which makes them catastrophically damaging. The only reason a President’s allies ever do something like that is either to get ahead of something much more damaging or get a first crack at shaping the public understanding of something much more damaging. There’s really no other explanation. We don’t know yet what drove them to volunteer such highly damaging information. Five of them did it. It wasn’t a matter of one person going rogue.

2. The Times story doesn’t say whether any damaging information was provided to Trump Jr. It will be interesting to find out whether Veselnitskaya did share any such information.

3. It is always revealing if someone’s explanation of damaging information is both damning in itself and absurd on its face. Here’s a statement that Donald Trump Jr released to multiple news organizations in response to the latest Times story.

While Trump Jr. does not say here that he met with Veselnitskaya to get damaging information about Clinton, he confirms that he was there for information that would help the campaign. Once that didn’t pan out, he concluded the meeting was a bust. Veselnitskaya’s claim that Russia was funding the Clinton campaign seems preposterous. Trump Jr. himself seems to suggest as much. But I’m not saying it is a preposterous accusation. I think it’s preposterous as part of Trump Jr.’s story. It’s true that the first Wikileaks email release came roughly six weeks after this meeting, which occurred on June 9th. The first report that Russian government operatives had hacked into the DNC servers came one week later on June 14th. But Trump’s disturbingly close ties to Russia and affinity for Putin was already a topic of active discussion. Meanwhile, Putin was known to be particularly hostile to Hillary Clinton. This whole story just doesn’t add up.

Again, yesterday Trump Jr. said he met with Veselnitskaya to discuss the Magnitsky Act and Russian adoptions. Today he says he was lured into the meeting on the pretext of getting campaign information and only later had the Magnitsky Act sprung on him. His story changed completely after one day.

4. Trump Jr. says in the statement that his father knew nothing about this. They know it’s bad and want to insulate the President.

5. May, June and July 2016 are critical months in the Russia story. A huge amount of stuff of consequence happened just in July. There are already suggestions, as yet unproven, that a top Trump associate was offered caches of email in the months or weeks just prior to the first Wikileaks release on July 22nd, 2016. This story sounds quite similar, or at least the opening gambit to such an offer.

We have a growing number of stories like these, each seemingly damning but which we are told are mere coincidences and misunderstandings with no connection to any of the other stories. It’s just not credible.

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