Figures in politics get caught lying frequently, but seldom do they get caught so quickly, and with as much panache, as Donald Trump Jr. has been caught by The New York Times over the last three days. Twice now, the businessman has offered an account of a June 9 meeting at Trump Tower, only to see the paper quickly return with reporting that suggests his account was incomplete, inaccurate, or untruthful.
Here’s the first version: On Saturday, the Times reported that the president’s eldest son had met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer at Trump Tower in June. Trump Jr. said he did not know the name of the person he was meeting ahead of time, and that the meeting had been arranged by a friend (later revealed to be the music publicist Rob Goldstone).
“We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up,” Trump Jr. said in a statement. That left unanswered why he would have included both his brother-in-law Jared Kushner and then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort in such a casual (and apparently pointless) meeting.
But the Times quickly found three advisers to the White House who countered that, no, Trump Jr. had been informed ahead of time that the person he was meeting had information that could be damaging to the campaign of Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent in the election.
Thus Trump Jr.’s second story: Stunningly, he admitted that he was open to receiving damaging information about Clinton (and thus colluding with Russia), but said his contact simply couldn’t deliver the goods. Trump Jr. said in a fresh statement that he hadn’t been informed who he was meeting, but had been told that she would have information relevant to his father’s campaign. Once in the meeting, the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, dangled evidence that Russians were funding the Democratic National Committee and helping Clinton, but didn’t provide proof and instead talked about adoptions, frustrating Trump Jr.
This was, on its own, a landmark moment in the story of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials to influence the election, as Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating. If entirely true, it is the first example of someone in the Trump inner orbit at least trying to collude prior to Election Day. He had denied that he knew what was going on ahead of time, but in the process, apparently conceded the central accusation about willingness to collude.
Thus story 2A: Donald Trump Jr. tweeted Monday sarcastically suggesting that overtures like the one he received are common on campaigns. In other words, collusion is perfectly normal.
But what if it wasn’t the end of the story? Monday night, the Times struck again: Prior to the meeting, “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 sourcing for this article is subtly, but perhaps consequentially, different. Rather than citing three advisers to the White House, it attributes the information to “three people with knowledge of the email,” a broader category (though one that could take in sources inside the law-enforcement or intelligence community).
It’s almost beyond belief, as Stringer Bell would note, that anyone would put such a conversation in writing, given how embarrassing such a communication could be. Can the Times’s sources really be correct? Despite Trump Jr.’s sarcastic tweet, campaign veterans told HuffPost that being approached by a foreign agent was unheard of and would have led them to contact law enforcement. Trump Jr. and Kushner were campaign amateurs, on their first rodeo, but Manafort, a veteran operator in both U.S. and foreign politics would, or should, have know better. (If the email existed, it will be a piercing irony: Trump’s repeated impeachment of Clinton’s judgment and honesty during the campaign, based on her careless handling of emails, was a central pillar of his upset victory.)
Thus Trump Jr.’s third version, this time offered through Alan Futerfas, a veteran lawyer whose hiring he announced on Monday. The new story: Nothing to see here, folks.
In my view, this is much ado about nothing. During this busy period, Robert Goldstone contacted Don Jr. in an email and suggested that people had information concerning alleged wrongdoing by Democratic Party front-runner, Hillary Clinton, in her dealings with Russia ... Don Jr.’s takeaway from this communication was that someone had information potentially helpful to the campaign and it was coming from someone he knew. Don Jr. had no knowledge as to what specific information, if any, would be discussed.
Will this version prove to be more complete and truthful than the earlier ones? Earlier Monday, Goldstone told the Times he did not know the origin of the information, and that he was told that Veselnitskaya had information about illegal contributions to the DNC, despite the Times’s reporting that the Russian-government origin was discussed. When the paper attempted to contact him to comment on its latest report, which contradicts those assertions, it was not successful.
Several weeks after the meeting with Veselnitskaya, Trump Jr. insisted on CNN that the accusation that Russia wanted to hurt Clinton was “phony” and “disgusting.”
If Trump Jr. did know that he was receiving information from the Russian government, a crucial question is whether he thought he was receiving emails or other materials that had been illegally hacked, which could deepen his legal jeopardy. Trump Jr. also says he did not receive any damaging information at the meeting—as does Veselnitskaya—but with his story changing so rapidly, it’s difficult to extend that claim the benefit of the doubt.
Trump Jr. also says that his father was unaware of the meeting, a surprising detail given that both Kushner and Manafort were present, the fact that Trump Sr. was also at Trump Tower that day (where he lunched with Manafort), and the close-knit relationship among Trump family members. Trump’s lawyer maintains he did not know about the meeting, as did a White House spokeswoman on Monday. (Trump Sr.’s denial of knowledge, terse, straightforward, and unchanging, has stood in unusual contrast to Trump Jr.’s rapidly evolving story line, and to the president’s typical, improvisatory approach.) The Times reports the president was informed of the meeting as he prepared to return to the U.S. from his trip to the G20 summit in Germany last week. If Kushner kept the meeting from Trump, he also kept it from federal officials, failing to disclose it on an application for security clearance. He recently disclosed the meeting, as did Manafort.
As always, it is possible that the meeting with Veselnitskaya was innocent, in both Trump Jr.’s intention and legality. But his contradictory accounts of the meeting, along with Kushner and Manafort’s failure to disclose it, create a political problem for the White House, because they offer the impression that President Trump’s son and son-in-law have something to hide. At some point in the future, it will become clear how serious a legal problem they create, too.