The Case for a Trump-Russia Conspiracy Just Got a Little Stronger

If proven true, the president’s alleged role in the Trump Tower meeting could help prosecutors make judgments about his “character, truthfulness, and culpability.”

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018.

CNN’s bombshell scoop Thursday night shined a bright light yet again on the June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan and raised the specter that President Donald Trump and his surrogates may have been lying about one of the most significant Russia-related episodes of the 2016 election.

According to CNN, the former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen is willing to testify that Trump approved the meeting between his son, son-in-law, campaign chairman, and a Russian lawyer—despite Trump and Don Trump Jr.’s denials that the president knew about the meeting in advance. As my colleague Adam Serwer pointed out, it’s not clear whether Cohen’s word would stand up in court without corroboration. But legal experts say it could certainly influence prosecutors’ perceptions of Trump—and whether he intended to conspire with Russia and then cover it up.

“There are definite legal consequences to Cohen’s statement,” said Jens David Ohlin, a law professor and vice dean at Cornell Law School. “This reeks of a criminal conspiracy. It doesn’t even matter if nothing came of the meeting [although that’s far from clear]. If Trump knew about the meeting and was okay with it, Trump and those around him could be guilty of an inchoate conspiracy.”

The timeline is intriguing: On June 3, 2016, Donald Trump Jr. received the first email from Rob Goldstone, a music publicist who had helped the Trump organization bring the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant to Moscow on behalf of the Russian-Azerbaijani billionaire Aras Agalarov. Goldstone offered the campaign dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government’s “crown prosecutor”—a reference to Yuri Chaika, Russia’s current prosecutor general. The information “is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Goldstone wrote. “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” Trump Jr. replied, according to an email chain he released last summer only after The New York Times exposed the meeting. He forwarded the email chain to Trump’s campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, both of whom had also attended the Trump Tower meeting.

It could have been around that time that Trump Jr. told his father about the offer, if Cohen’s accusation is to be believed. Which makes the speech Trump gave on June 7—the day the June 9 Trump Tower meeting was finalized—all the more interesting. “I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons,” Trump told a crowd at a campaign rally. “I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.”

But Trump never gave that speech. Trump Jr., Manafort, and Kushner have all claimed the meeting produced nothing of immediate value. (In an interview with NBC News earlier this year, the Russian lawyer tasked with bringing the information, Natalia Veselnitskaya, said Trump Jr., Manafort, and Kushner “wanted” the damaging information “so badly” that they seemed to tune her out once she began discussing Magnitsky Act sanctions. The sanctions were implemented to punish Russian nationals accused of corruption and human-rights abuses in 2012.)

Democrats have suggested that three phone calls Trump Jr. placed to blocked telephone numbers before and after the meeting could have been to his father, but Trump Jr. told the Senate Judiciary Committee last year that he couldn’t recall. “So you don’t know whether or not this might have been your father?” congressional investigators asked during his interview, according to the transcript released by the committee earlier this year. “I don’t,” Trump Jr. responded.

Sam Nunberg, a Republican operative who worked on Trump’s campaign in its early stages, said he thinks it’s likely Trump was told about the meeting beforehand primarily because of his prior relationship with the Russian billionaire who proposed it to begin with—Agalarov. Trump first met Agalarov in 2013 in Las Vegas, where they discussed bringing Trump’s Miss Universe Pageant to Moscow and holding it at a mall complex Agalarov owned on the outskirts of the city. But Nunberg said he still believes that the meeting “was ultimately harmless” because “there was no discussion about Clinton’s emails.” Veselnitskaya “exploited that relationship to get a meeting on her niche issue,” Nunberg said.

Still, if Trump approved a meeting with foreign nationals in the hopes of obtaining something of value—i.e., opposition research at the height of the presidential election—the intent alone could provide prosecutors with an important piece in understanding the campaign’s willingness to conspire with Russia, legal experts told me.

“It’s certainly one of the more relevant data points that we’ve had,” said the former federal prosecutor Jeff Cramer. If Trump approved the meeting, it was “clearly a violation of criminal law”—specifically, the campaign-finance laws that prohibit campaigns from soliciting things of value from foreign nationals. “And it gives color to all the cover-ups,” Cramer said.  Trump and his surrogates have denied that the president knew about the meeting approximately 20 times over the last year. Trump also personally dictated a misleading statement about the meeting on his son’s behalf, which left out the fact that the Russians had offered the campaign dirt on Clinton.

Michael Zeldin, a former federal prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and a former special counsel to then–Assistant Attorney General Robert Mueller, said that if prosecutors “could establish that Trump approved the meeting with foreign nationals to receive derogatory information about his opponent—a thing of value—it would fall squarely within the black letter of campaign-finance laws. It would be difficult to dispute that the campaign received a thing of value when the candidate knew of the purpose and approved of the meeting.”

It also could be “one tile in the larger mosaic” of the alleged conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, Cramer noted, given the discussion of sanctions at the Trump Tower meeting and Russia’s subsequent efforts to undermine the Clinton campaign through hacks and disinformation. “Did the meeting overlap somehow with the Russian hacking? These could have been separate events within the same criminal conspiracy,” Cramer said. Just one day before the Trump Tower meeting, Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, set up a website called DCLeaks with the purpose of disseminating Democrats’ stolen emails, according to court documents filed by Mueller earlier this month. Mueller  revealed in those same court filings that Russian hackers began trying to access Clinton staffers’ emails just hours after Trump asked them to. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said in public remarks in July 2016, referring to emails Clinton had deleted from her private server that she’d said were private in nature. It is also worth remembering that, two months before the Trump Tower meeting occurred, a Russia-linked national offered a junior campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, dirt on Clinton from Russia in the form of thousands of stolen emails.

Cohen’s apparent willingness to share information with prosecutors raises questions about what else he could tell them with regard to Trump’s coordination with Russian nationals. Though Cohen has vehemently denied it, the dossier compiled by the former British-intelligence officer Christopher Steele outlining the campaign’s alleged ties to Russia says that Cohen was dispatched to Prague at the tail end of the campaign to pay off Russian hackers in an attempt to keep them quiet. The dossier also alleges a conspiracy between Trump and Russia was managed by Manafort, using the campaign foreign-policy adviser Carter Page as an intermediary. Cohen told me months ago, and has said publicly, that he believes the dossier is a farce. But Mueller is still examining its claims, a person familiar with the investigation told me on the condition of anonymity, making any corroborating information Cohen may have about a possible larger conspiracy incredibly valuable.

A person with knowledge of the White House’s strategy when news of the Trump Tower meeting broke in 2017, who requested anonymity to discuss it freely, said he didn’t think Trump and his family members and associates were capable of colluding with Russia “in the proactive sense” at that point in the campaign. “Do I think they would have told Trump about the meeting?” this source asked. “Yeah. Do I think he would’ve understood the significance? No.” This person added that while his impression last year was that Trump “did not know” about the meeting beforehand, “my antennae was definitely up. In a professional operation, you’d never let the candidate know about these kinds of offers because it would preserve plausible deniability. But these guys were all amateurs.”

Ultimately, if prosecutors can prove that Trump signed off on the meeting, contrary to his repeated denials, it will make it easier for them to make judgments about Trump’s “character, truthfulness, and culpability,” said Andy Wright, a former associate counsel to Barack Obama. “President Trump’s track record of dishonesty will cast all of the hard evidence in the most negative light in the minds of the prosecutors who decide whether the interests of justice call for charges to be brought.”