(Permanent musical accompaniment to this post, Whoomp! There It Is)
With the New York Times report Trump’s Son Met With Russian Lawyer After Being Promised Damaging Information on Clinton, we have the first direct public admission against interest that the Trump campaign attempted to collude with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer in an effort to obtain damaging information against Hillary Clinton.
The most interesting point of the Times story is that it is sourced to five advisors inside the White House, after Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner updated his national security clearance forms to reveal yet another meeting that he “forgot” to disclose on his initial form. The Sunday Afternoon of the Long Knives.
Donald Trump Jr. has recanted his earlier denials about any such meetings, saying that he did agree to the meeting to see what dirt the Russians had on Clinton, but that they didn’t deliver anything useful–instead using it as a pretext to lobby for changes to the Magnitsky Act (sanctions against Russia). When the Kremlin Says ‘Adoptions,’ It Means ‘Sanctions’.
This was not just any Russian lawyer. As Martin Longman explains in detail at the Political Animal blog, Trump’s Inner Circle Met With No Ordinary Russian Lawyer. Natalia Veselnitskaya is the lawyer for the Russian mafia:
More than that, though, she should have been seen as an attorney for murderous Russian mobsters with high-level connections to the Russian Ministry of the Interior. Simple prudence should have prevented them [Trump campaign] from getting entangled with such a person, and not just for political reasons. The potential for blackmail or violence were too high to be acceptable to a rational person.
The New York Times followed up with a third installment in its Donny Jr. series on Monday evening. Trump Jr. Was Told in Email of Russian Effort to Aid Campaign:
Before arranging a meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer he believed would offer him compromising information about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump Jr. was informed in an email that the material was part of a Russian government effort to aid his father’s candidacy, according to three people with knowledge of the email.
The email to the younger Mr. Trump was sent by Rob Goldstone, a publicist and former British tabloid reporter who helped broker the June 2016 meeting. In a statement on Sunday, Mr. Trump acknowledged that he was interested in receiving damaging information about Mrs. Clinton, but gave no indication that he thought the lawyer might have been a Kremlin proxy.
Mr. Goldstone’s message, as described to The New York Times by the three people, indicates that the Russian government was the source of the potentially damaging information. It does not elaborate on the wider effort by Moscow to help the Trump campaign.
There is no evidence to suggest that the promised damaging information was related to Russian government computer hacking that led to the release of thousands of Democratic National Committee emails. The meeting took place less than a week before it was widely reported that Russian hackers had infiltrated the committee’s servers.
But the email is likely to be of keen interest to the Justice Department and congressional investigators, who are examining whether any of President Trump’s associates colluded with the Russian government to disrupt last year’s election. American intelligence agencies have determined that the Russian government tried to sway the election in favor of Mr. Trump.
UPDATE: The Times now has a copy of the email. Russian Dirt on Clinton? ‘I Love It’ Donald Trump Jr. Said:
The June 3, 2016, email sent to Donald Trump Jr. could hardly have been more explicit: One of his father’s former Russian business partners had been contacted by a senior Russian government official and was offering to provide the Trump campaign with dirt on Hillary Clinton.
The documents “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father,” read the email, written by a trusted intermediary, who added, “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
If the future president’s elder son was surprised or disturbed by the provenance of the promised material — or the notion that it was part of an ongoing effort by the Russian government to aid his father’s campaign — he gave no indication.
He replied within minutes: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
Four days later, after a flurry of emails, the intermediary wrote back, proposing a meeting in New York on Thursday with a “Russian government attorney.”
Donald Trump Jr. agreed, adding that he would likely bring along “Paul Manafort (campaign boss)” and “my brother-in-law,” Jared Kushner, now one of the president’s closest White House advisers.
This email raises the possibility that Donald Trump Jr. knew what it took the U.S. intelligence community months to publicly declare: Vladimir Putin’s government sought to elect Donald Trump. The Trump campaign may have been the first to know. Did Team Trump Know Russia Hacked DNC Before Anyone Else?
The story of how this meeting was arranged is being contradicted this morning by the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya: the Trump campaign contacted her, not the other way around. US News & World Report reports Russian Lawyer Describes Being Summoned to Trump Tower:
A Russian lawyer said she was summoned to Trump Tower during last year’s presidential campaign to meet with Donald Trump Jr. and asked if she had damaging information on Hillary Clinton, according to an interview aired Tuesday by NBC’s “Today” show.
The lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, told NBC she received a phone call from a man she didn’t know and was told to meet with Trump Jr. She says she didn’t have information on the Clinton campaign and has never worked for the Russian government. [The last point is a lie.]
“All I knew was that Donald Trump Jr. was willing to meet with me,” she said through a translator.
On Clinton, she said: “It’s quite possible that maybe they were looking for information. They wanted it so badly.”
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According to the NBC interview, Veselnitskaya suggested she didn’t initiate the meeting; she says she was lobbying against U.S. sanctions affecting Moscow but wasn’t acting on behalf of the Kremlin. [Also a lie.]
She said Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, also attended the meeting but left after a few minutes. Paul Manafort, then Trump’s campaign chairman, was there too but never participated and spent much of the meeting on his phone, she said. It wasn’t clear from the NBC report who in the meeting asked her for information on Clinton.
The fact that the participants to this meeting claim that no information damaging to Hillary Clinton was exchanged (and can anyone really take the word of these people who ar all lacking any credibility?) is irrelevant. Zack Beauchamp explains at Vox.com, Donald Trump Jr. may well have committed a federal crime, experts say:
Trump had already admitted in a statement that he took the meeting with the attorney, named Natalia Veselnitskaya, to get useful information on Hillary Clinton. His defense of his actions was that the meeting didn’t bear fruit: that “it quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.” In other words, there’s no way this constituted meaningful collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia because Veselnitskaya didn’t provide him with anything useful.
But experts on national security and election law say there’s a good case that this “defense” is, legally speaking, no defense at all — especially in light of the Times report.
Trump Jr.’s decision to meet with the Russian attorney to see what information she might have may well have violated campaign finance law. You don’t have to actually get useful help from foreigners, according to this law. The mere fact that Trump Jr. asked for information from a Russian national about Clinton might have constituted a federal crime.
If the Times report is right, then at least one expert is willing to go further — and say outright that Donald Trump Jr. likely committed a crime.
“The law states that no person shall knowingly solicit or accept from a foreign national any contribution to a campaign of an item of value,” explains Ryan Goodman, a former Defense Department special counsel and current editor of the legal site Just Security. “There is now a clear case that Donald Trump Jr. has met all the elements of the law, which is a criminally enforced federal statute.”
The statute in question is 52 USC 30121, 36 USC 510 — the law governing foreign contributions to US campaigns. There are two key passages that apply here. This is the first:
A foreign national shall not, directly or indirectly, make a contribution or a donation of money or other thing of value, or expressly or impliedly promise to make a contribution or a donation, in connection with any Federal, State, or local election.
The crucial phrase here is “other thing of value,” legal experts tell me. It means that the law extends beyond just cash donations. Foreigners are also banned from providing other kinds of contributions that would be the functional equivalent of a campaign donation, just provided in the form of services rather than goods. Like, say, damaging information the Russian government collected about Hillary Clinton.
“To the extent you’re using the resources of a foreign country to run your campaign — that’s an illegal campaign contribution,” Akerman explains.
Here’s the second important passage of the statute: “No person shall knowingly solicit, accept, or receive from a foreign national any contribution or donation prohibited by [this law].”
The key word from Trump Jr., according to University of California Irvine election law expert Rick Hasen, is “solicit,” which has a very specific meaning in this context. To quote the relevant statute:
A solicitation is an oral or written communication that, construed as reasonably understood in the context in which it is made, contains a clear message asking, requesting, or recommending that another person make a contribution, donation, transfer of funds, or otherwise provide anything of value.
In short? If Trump Jr. asked Veselnitskaya, in person, to provide “anything of value” on Clinton then there’s a real case that he illegally solicited a campaign contribution from a foreign national.
POLITICO similarly reports that Donny Jr.’s statements put him in the legal cross hairs for violating federal criminal statutes prohibiting solicitation or acceptance of anything of value from a foreign national, as well as a conspiracy to defraud the United States. Donald Trump Jr. in legal danger for Russia meeting about Clinton dirt.
As to the conspiracy to defraud the United States, Randall Eliason at the Washington Post explains, The latest Russia revelations lay the groundwork for a conspiracy case:
Collusion is usually defined as a secret agreement to do something improper. In the criminal-law world, we call that conspiracy. If unlawful collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian nationals did take place, criminal conspiracy would be one of the most likely charges.
A conspiracy is a partnership in crime. The federal conspiracy statute prohibits conspiracies to defraud the United States, which includes conspiracies to impede the lawful functions of the federal government — such as administering a presidential election.
Conspiracy also prohibits agreements to commit another federal crime. This would include an agreement to violate the laws against hacking into someone else’s computer, or to violate federal election laws.
* * *
That’s why this latest news is a big deal. The meeting helps establish a few critical facts. The first is simply that contacts between Russians and campaign officials did take place. If you are seeking to prove a criminal partnership, evidence that the alleged partners had private meetings establishes the opportunity to reach an agreement.
The crucial new detail about this meeting is that campaign members now admit it took place after they were told that Veselnitskaya was offering compromising information about Clinton.
This fact is significant regardless of what happened at the meeting. Proving a defendant’s state of mind is key in any criminal case. This meeting provides critical evidence about the state of mind of Trump representatives: They were willing to hear what a Russian individual had to offer about their opponent.
The first line of defense against a conspiracy allegation typically would be: “That’s ridiculous — I’d never agree to meet with someone from Russia under those circumstances.” That line of defense appears to be gone. Members of the Trump campaign didn’t call the FBI to report a Russian national’s offer to dish dirt about the former U.S. secretary of state — they took the meeting.
As Ezra Klein says, We are past the point of innocent explanations on Trump and Russia:
The best defense of Trump’s associates, at this point, is they were too dumb to know what they’re doing — a defense that doesn’t work when it includes experienced international operators like campaign manager Paul Manafort and ex-Defense Intelligence Agency Director Michael Flynn. Donald Trump Jr.’s own defense of himself is that he attempted to collude with Russian agents but they didn’t have any useful information and so he didn’t. This is, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp notes, no defense at all — even if it is true, Trump Jr. may well have committed a crime.
What’s more, we know for a fact that the Russian hacking of Democratic files happened, that it was successful, and that Trump has stubbornly resisted efforts to admit or investigate Russia’s intervention into the campaign while repeatedly praising Putin. We also know Trump has, since taking office, undermined the NATO alliance while cozying up to Vladimir Putin — the two of them joked about their shared dislike for the American media at the G20 last week and pledged to work together on cybersecurity.
This isn’t just smoke. We can see the damage done by the fire. We are watching our president pal around with the suspected arsonists. And so we are past the point where innocent explanations on Trump and Russia remain credible.
The Washington Post editorializes today, The Trump campaign’s attempted collusion:
Top Trump officials met with a Kremlin-allied Russian lawyer in June 2016 — and they did so with the express hope of receiving compromising information about their Democratic rival. This represents a grave new set of facts in the ongoing investigation into possible Russian-Trump collusion.
* * *
It will be up to federal prosecutors to determine whether federal conspiracy laws or election laws barring campaigns from soliciting help from foreigners have been implicated. What we already can say is that the plausibility of the Trump camp’s narrative, in which any underhanded Russian assistance came without the campaign’s witting participation, is eroding. The president’s associates must now explain interactions with Russians that they previously insisted never took place.
What other undisclosed meetings are we going to come to light in the course of this investigation?
UPDATE: The New York Times reports that on Tuesday morning, after being told that The Times was about to publish the content of emails setting up a meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer, Donald J. Trump Jr. posted the email chain on Twitter, along with a comment.
The emails, from June 2016, are between Donald Trump Jr. and Rob Goldstone, a British-born former tabloid reporter and entertainment publicist. Mr. Goldstone told Donald J. Trump Jr. that he was writing on behalf of a mutual friend, one of Russia’s biggest pop music stars, Emin Agalarov.
The emails were posted as images and were not in the order that they were written. The text of the emails is presented here, in chronological order. Read the Emails on Donald Trump Jr.’s Russia Meeting.