In an off-and-then-on-the-record conversation with reporters on the flight to Paris on Wednesday, President Trump discussed the question of the week: His son Donald Trump jnr’s meeting with a Russian lawyer who Trump Jr. believed could provide him with negative information about Hillary Clinton.
“Don is – as many of you know Don – he’s a good boy,” Trump began. “He’s a good kid. And he had a meeting, nothing happened with the meeting. It was a short meeting as he told me — because I only heard about it two or three days ago.”
Trump’s defence appears to have rested on how useless that meeting was, much as his son’s defence did.
“As he told me,” the President continued, “the meeting went – and it was attended by a couple of other people who – one of them left after a few minutes — which is Jared. The other one was playing with his iPhone. Don listened, out of politeness, and realised it wasn’t.”
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that this portrayal of events is accurate. It’s what Trump jnr said happened and it’s what the Russian lawyer with whom he met, Natalia Veselnitskaya, said happened, too. Unless one of the other attendees says something different – a group of people that extends to the president’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort (the one “playing with his iPhone”) and music promoter Rob Goldstone — that’s the story that we have to go with.
And, for now, it doesn’t matter. Once Trump jnr (and Manafort and Kushner) walked through the door of the office or conference room where the meeting was happened, the damage was already done.
Consider what happened.
Trump jnr received an email from Goldstone that said, in part:
“Emin [Agalarov, a musician and Goldstone’s client] just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting.
“The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras [Agalarov, a prominent Moscow businessman] this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.
“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and it’s government’s support for Mr Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin.”
Trump jnr replied, in part: “I am on the road at the moment but perhaps I just speak to Emin first. Seems we have some time and if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
That, by itself, is Trump jnr expressing that he would “love” to have “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia” that were provided by “The Crown prosecutor of Russia” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump”.” That’s Trump jnr giving a thumbs-up, in theory, to Russian meddling in the election.
But that’s not where it stopped.
Three days later, Goldstone emails again to ask about setting up that call with Emin Agalarov that Trump jnr said he wanted. The two go back and forth, with Goldstone eventually saying he can have Agalarov call Trump jnr on his mobile when he gets offstage from a concert at which he’s performing in Moscow 20 minutes later. A little less than an hour after that, Trump jnr emails to thank Goldstone for his help. The next morning, Goldstone emails to say that “Emin asked that I schedule a meeting with you” and that he believed Trump jnr was “aware of the meeting.”
The implication? That Trump jnr and Agalarov spoke, and, further, that Agalarov convinced Trump jnr that it was worth his time to take the meeting with the “Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow”.
The meeting is set up, and Trump jnr informs Goldstone that “[i]t will likely be Paul Manafort [campaign boss] my brother in law and me” who attend as well.
Consider that, by itself. On the day of the California and New Jersey primaries, June 7, Trump jnr informs Goldstone that the meeting won’t just include him – it will also include the “campaign boss” and one of Donald Trump’s closest confidants. For a meeting two days after Trump formally clinched the Republican Party nomination.
A spokesman for Manafort told (US website) Politico that he agreed to the meeting without reading the whole email chain, implying that he didn’t know that it was predicated on dirt being offered by the Russian government. That the subject line – “Russia – Clinton – private and confidential” – didn’t inspire more curiosity from a man who himself had links to Russian political interests is itself surprising.
If that’s true, though, it also implies a shocking lack of attention to time management from a guy who had 154 days to get Trump past the general election finish line. Or, given Manafort’s ostensible role in the campaign at that time, only about a month and a half to ensure that Trump wasn’t facing a contested convention. We’re asked to believe that both he and Kushner agreed to take the meeting without knowing what it was about; that each of them was willing to set aside 30 minutes or an hour with the convention looming and while trailing in general election polling to meet with an unspecified person on an unspecified topic.
We’re also asked to believe that the candidate’s remarks during his victory speech that evening were merely coincidental.
“I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week,” Trump said, “and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.”
You may evaluate those purported coincidences as you wish.
The best case scenario for Trump, then, is that his son was aware only that what was being offered was some unspecified dirt from the Russian government, and that he then roped Kushner and Manafort into the meeting without telling them what it was about and only then discovered that nothing useful was going to be offered. That scenario requires that you accept that:
▪ Trump jnr never received any more information from Emin Agalarov in a phone call.
▪ Manafort had no idea what the point of the meeting was going to be.
▪ Kushner didn’t either.
The candidate himself wasn’t informed about a meeting determined to be important enough that his son, campaign chairman and close adviser were going to attend.
But even if you do, you still land on the fact that Trump jnr believed that he was about to get negative information about a political opponent from a hostile foreign government which hoped that his father was elected president. And that in itself is problematic for Trump’s denial of the “collusion” speculation – even before his son, his campaign chairman and his son-in-law walk in the door to the meeting. What happened once inside is irrelevant to that.
It is not irrelevant, though. The best-case scenario above also demands that you take Trump jnr and Veselnitskaya – who, despite her protestations, is linked to powerful figures in the Russian government – at their word that nothing of substance emerged from the meeting. If that depiction of events is also inaccurate, then what happened once the Trump team entered the room becomes significant.
Even without such a development, though, this is not the non-issue that the president would like to suggest.
The Washington Post