Since his presidential campaign was first alleged by critics to have colluded with the Russian government to undermine Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump has been consistent—and unusually so—in steadfastly denying it. Now it seems clear that if his denials are true, it isn’t because Trump’s advisers were unwilling to collude. And that confirmation comes, surprisingly, from Trump’s own son and namesake, Donald Trump Jr.
On Saturday, The New York Times reported that Trump Jr. met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer at Trump Tower in early June 2016. Trump Jr. initially told the paper that the meeting had covered only a dispute over adoption related to the Magnitsky Act, an American law meant to punish the current Russian regime for human-rights abuses. But three unnamed White House aides briefed on the meeting later told the Times that Trump Jr. had taken the meeting after being promised damaging information about Clinton.
Trump Jr. then changed his story, claiming he’d been promised only information relevant to the campaign, by an intermediary he met at the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, owned by his father and hosted in Moscow. (The Washington Post later identified him as Rob Goldstone, a music publicist who said he was working on behalf of an unnamed Russian client.) Trump Jr. brought his brother-in-law Jared Kushner and then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to the meeting. He said that attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya offered him damaging information about Hillary Clinton, but that when it became clear she did not have the goods, he ended the meeting.
“The woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Mrs. Clinton,” Trump Jr. said in a statement. “Her statements were vague, ambiguous, and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered.” Instead, he complained, she just railed against the Magnitsky Act.
In other words, Trump Jr. admitted (while acknowledging a prior lie) that he was open to receiving damaging information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian lawyer; he was just frustrated that she didn’t seem to have it. If there was no collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump inner circle, it was not because top Trump aides were against it.
Trump Jr.’s admission here is remarkable. Donald Trump’s tendency to speak unwisely remains one of his greatest weaknesses—his threat to release apparently fictive tapes resulted in a special-counsel investigation that has rocked his still-young presidency—and his children are a chip off the old block. (Eric Trump has admitted, contra claims of separation, that he continues to talk business with his father.)
It is possible that, as Trump Jr. says, he did not know the identity or background of the lawyer with whom he was meeting. The Trump family has a history of failing (or simply declining) to do due diligence in its business projects. Trump Jr. got into hot water during the campaign when he appeared on a white supremacist’s radio show; he claimed he did not know the man’s views. The president has also posted material from social-media users who espouse abhorrent views, apparently without vetting them, as recently as last week. Manafort, who has extensive connections to Kremlin-tied politicians and businessmen, might have been more likely to be aware of who Veselnitskaya was.
Trump Jr. claims that Veselnitskaya provided no actual incriminating information about Clinton, but it’s impossible at this point to know whether this is true, especially given Trump Jr.’s unreliable accounts.
In any case, Wikileaks began dumping a cache of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee on July 22, a month and a half after the June 9 meeting. The top U.S. intelligence agencies have all concluded that Kremlin-connected hackers were responsible. On July 24, Trump Jr. appeared on CNN’s State of the Union and said that the suggestion that Russia was trying to hurt Clinton was “disgusting” and “so phony.” On July 27, Donald Trump publicly pleaded with Russia to hack and release Clinton’s personal emails.
The revelation about the meeting with Veselnitskaya is the first concrete evidence of attempts at collusion during the presidential campaign. But it is also, crucially, an instance of the scandal reaching into Trump’s family—his closest ring of advisers. Previous stories showed that Michael Flynn, the fired national-security adviser, had lied to the public, the vice president, and probably the FBI about his conversations with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States and that Attorney General Jeff Sessions failed to disclose meetings with Russian officials during the campaign. Kushner failed to disclose meetings with Russians after the election when applying for security clearance. Manafort faces several investigations. (Another, lower-level aide, Carter Page, is under investigation for questionable ties to Russia as well.)
The family tie becomes important if Trump Jr.’s second account of his meeting is taken at face value, which is admittedly challenging. He wants the public to believe that he, Kushner, and Manafort met with a Russian who claimed to have damaging information about Trump’s opponent, but did not tell the candidate himself; that this happened even though Trump Jr. and Kushner are close to Trump Sr., and that Trump was at Trump Tower, the site of the meeting, that day, where he lunched with Manafort. In other words, it is difficult to believe that Donald Trump did not learn about the meeting soon after it happened. The president continues to question whether Russia really interfered in the election, so either he’s being disingenuous or his son and son-in-law have kept him in the dark. Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the president’s lawyer, said on Sunday that “the president was not aware of and did not attend the meeting.” (On Monday morning, the Kremlin also denied knowledge of the meeting.)
After the election, Kushner was named a senior aide to the president, and his wife Ivanka has since joined the administration as well. Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump were tapped to take over the family business in their father and sister’s absence, though there’s little indication Trump has actually withdrawn from his business.
The president seems likely to face a difficult choice in the near future. Trump will have to either cut loose family members, including his own son and his son-in-law, a White House senior adviser; or else he will have to take his chances by sticking with them. It is one thing for Trump to distance himself from Manafort (even if it’s laughable to claim, as Sean Spicer did, that the campaign manager “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time”). For Trump, who values both his status as president and his family, that is a nearly impossible dilemma. Kushner’s financial dealings are already one subject of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. The fact that three White House advisers spoke about the Veselnitskaya investigation to the Times suggests some of the president’s associates have few compunctions about throwing his son under the bus. (Having failed to do so before, both Kushner and Manafort recently disclosed the meeting, as well as Trump Jr.’s organizing role, according to the Times.)
Trump has been willing to coldly cut out some relations in the past. He tried to cut off insurance for an 18-month-old nephew amid a family legal dispute, and Ivanka Trump wrote in a memoir about watching Trump refuse to delay a takeoff when his second wife, Marla Maples, was late for a flight, instead leaving her on the tarmac. Neither of these was his son and namesake, nor the husband of his beloved eldest daughter. Meanwhile, Eric Trump’s comments make clear that his father can’t resist communicating with his sons about business even after promising not to.
How Kushner reacted to the meeting is as yet unknown. Veselnitskaya said that either Manafort or Kushner left 10 minutes into the meeting. (Confusing the babyfaced 36-year-old Kushner and the dapper 68-year-old Manafort is odd.) But if he was disappointed or bemused by the encounter, it didn’t stop him from meeting with other Kremlin-linked Russians later. In December, Kushner met with a chief executive of a state-owned bank with deep intelligence ties. He also raised the idea of creating a secret back channel between the Trump team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities so as to avoid U.S. equipment, though the channel was never established.
Despite Trump Jr.’s suggestion that Veselnitskaya’s focus on the Magnitsky Act was a red herring, it seems plausible that the Russian government would have raised scrapping the law as part of a quid pro quo for information that would damage Clinton. Veselnitskaya raised adoption because Putin cut off all American adoption of Russian children as retribution for the law.
Trump’s modus operandi throughout his life has been to break rules and then beg forgiveness. His first brush with the spotlight came when the U.S. Department of Justice sued him for excluding black tenants from housing developments; Trump eventually settled, agreeing not to discriminate. He has followed this pattern ever since: When caught using junk bonds to finance a project he swore wouldn’t employ them; when his father gave him an illegal $3.5 million loan by buying chips at his casino; when he was caught committing securities violations and fined; when he employed unauthorized Polish immigrants to construct Trump Tower; and so on. If backed into a corner, Trump will litigate and, failing that, simply settle by paying money.
The president, a political newcomer, seems to be under the impression that he can do the same in his new line of work. But as I have written before, there’s no option to declare bankruptcy in politics. Nor will Robert Mueller agree to an out-of-court settlement if he decides the president (or his family members) have committed crimes.
It is, of course, entirely possible that Veselnitskaya was simply freelancing: Despite her extensive Kremlin ties, she has been a long-time campaigner against the Magnitsky Act, and maybe she was acting on her own, bluffing about the Clinton material. The problem for Trump is that this first suggestion of real collusion comes after a mountain of other circumstantial evidence, including the investigations into Kushner and Manafort; Flynn’s duplicity about his meetings; and Sessions’s failure to disclose meetings. It also comes after Trump tried to pressure then-FBI Director James Comey to drop an investigation into Flynn, and then fired Comey, citing the Russia investigation. That firing led to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel. Finally, the disclosure of the Veselnitskaya meeting comes as Trump refuses to concede Russian interference, and, according to the Russian foreign minister, accepted Russian denials during a meeting at the G20 on Friday.
This welter of circumstantial evidence, along with the possible weaknesses in the case, are why an independent investigation by Mueller is so important to understanding what happened. Instead of welcoming the inquiry as a chance to clear his name, though, Trump has criticized Mueller and mused about removing him. That, too, raises questions.