Political News

Documents Show Promise, and Letdown, Around Trump Tower Meeting

Posted May 16, 2018 6:16 p.m. EDT
Updated May 16, 2018 6:20 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump Jr. got straight to the point during the now-famous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016.

“So I believe you have some information for us,” he said, directing his attention across a large conference table to the Russian lawyer who was there, he thought, to deliver incriminating information on Hillary Clinton.

But if Trump expected a campaign-changing bombshell, he was quickly disappointed. The disparaging information about Clinton amounted to no more than allegations of fraud in Russia by several obscure Democratic donors. The Trump campaign officials reacted with dissatisfaction, not eagerness. Both sides left disappointed.

The chasm between expectation and reality surrounding the meeting was one of the dominant themes running through more than 2,500 pages of testimony and documents released by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. The committee has been conducting one of the investigations into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians, and the documents revealed new details about the run-up and the aftermath of what is thought to be one of the key episodes of the campaign’s interactions with Russia.

The release came on the same day that another Senate panel, the Intelligence Committee, gave bipartisan validation to a more than year-old assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies about the Russian effort, announcing that after careful review, it agreed that President Vladimir Putin of Russia ordered an influence campaign designed to sow discord, harm Clinton and elevate Donald Trump’s candidacy.

By contrast, the disclosures by the Judiciary Committee showed just how far Republicans and Democrats have diverged since they began the bipartisan inquiry last summer.

Republicans, who control the committee, declined to draw conclusions from their work, but described the documents as “the most complete public picture” yet that would allow Americans to determine what happened based on “unfiltered information.”

Democrats offered a starkly different assessment, repeatedly asserting that the investigation had been “limited” by Republicans more interested in accusations of FBI misconduct than Russian interference. Too many questions remain unanswered to draw conclusions, they said, vowing to continue to pursue promising investigative threads.

“We still do not know the full story about the June 9 meeting at Trump Tower or, more broadly, the degree to which the campaign cooperated or communicated with Russia,” they wrote in a summary of preliminary findings also made public.

Most of the participants in the meeting have already publicly described their version of events. Nonetheless, the records reveal some new details about the players involved and what happened after the meeting was reported by The New York Times last summer.

Among them: Six months after the Trump Tower meeting, an intermediary contacted Donald Trump’s office asking for a follow-up, the newly released documents showed.

The intermediary, Rob Goldstone, told the committee that he proposed a second meeting between the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and members of Trump’s team in November 2016. He said he contacted Trump’s longtime executive assistant at the behest of Aras Agalarov, a Russia-based billionaire who knows Putin.

The second session never took place. But the invitation shows the determination of Russians with close Kremlin connections to convince the Trump team that the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on a host of Russian officials for human rights abuses, was a mistake. The 2012 law, which froze the bank accounts of some Russian officials and barred them from entering the United States, infuriated Putin.

In a late November 2016 email to Trump’s assistant, Goldstone, a British music promoter, attached a three-page document marked “confidential” that called for “the launch of a congressional investigation into the circumstances of passing the Magnitsky Act.” He wrote that Agalarov hoped the document would be delivered to “the appropriate team.” Veselnitskaya also attacked the law in the June meeting.

The transcripts also highlight how lawyers for the Trump Organization tried to manage the fallout by coordinating the statements of Goldstone and others.

In testimony, Donald Trump Jr. acknowledged that his father may have helped draft the statement that he put out to the press after the meeting became public, but he said that had not discussed the meeting when it happened.

But on a number of other questions, he drew a blank, including whether his father uses a blocked phone number. Phone records show that Donald Trump Jr. called a blocked number before and after calls with Agalarov’s son, Emin, arranging the meeting, and again on the night of the meeting.

“I don’t,” Trump said when asked if he remembered who was on the other end of the calls. “I don’t know,” he said when asked whether his father used a blocked number. He gave the same answer when asked if the initial offer of documents and information that would “incriminate” Clinton had alarmed him.

“I don’t know that it alarmed me, but like I said, I don’t know and I don’t know that I was all that focused on it at the time,” he said.

Whatever Trump expected from the meeting, he and his colleagues were roundly let down.

Goldstone, who said he expected Veselnitskaya to deliver a “smoking gun,” testified that on his way out the door, he told Trump, “This was hugely embarrassing.”

Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman at the time, was so bored by Veselnitskaya’s presentation that he declared it uninteresting and spent much of the meeting tapping on his phone, according to testimony by Veselnitskaya’s translator, Anatoli Samochornov. The committee released a single page of notes that Manafort took during the meeting. They consisted of a cryptic list of 11 topics, including an incomplete word, “Illici.” Manafort also noted “Offshore — Cyprus,” “133m shares,” “Companies,” “Not invest — loan” and “Active sponsors of RNC.”

Veselnitskaya appeared unhappy that her message about the Magnitsky Act seemed to fall on deaf ears. “I know she was expecting something else from the meeting, something bigger,” Samochornov said.

Veselnitskaya, who is close to Agalarov, initially insisted that she acted independently of the Russian government when she visited Trump Tower. But more recently, she has described herself as an informant for a top Kremlin official, Yuri Y. Chaika, Russia’s prosecutor general.

The transcripts also underscore how Agalarov previously tried to act as a bridge between the Kremlin and Donald Trump. When Trump hosted the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow in 2013, Agalarov sought to organize a meeting with Putin. But a top Kremlin aide called Trump to apologize, saying Putin could not see him because a tardy foreign leader had disrupted the Russian president’s schedule.

In July 2015, Goldstone emailed Trump’s longtime executive assistant, Rhona Graff, with an invitation to come to Moscow for Agalarov’s birthday.

Graff replied that it would be difficult for Trump to make the party. Goldstone responded that same day, “I totally understand re: Moscow, unless maybe he would welcome a meeting with President Putin, which Emin would set up.”

The next January, Goldstone reached out again, this time trumpeting his connection to a Russian social media platform, VK, and suggesting that Trump use it to appeal to Russian-American voters. In follow-up emails, Goldstone shared a mock-up of a VK page that he had the company create for Trump.

The committee tried to interview all the participants of the Trump Tower meeting. But Manafort declined to testify. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, gave the committee a statement but would not sit for an interview.

Two other congressional committees have also mounted investigations into Russia’s interference in the electoral process, in addition to the Justice Department’s special counsel inquiry. The House Intelligence Committee ended its inquiry last month deeply divided along partisan lines over the meaning of the evidence it had gathered.