The calendar rolled back to June 9, 2016, this week and stuck there.
Testifying in a closed-door session with the Senate Judiciary Committee investigators, Donald J. Trump Jr. reprised the now famous day he met in Trump Tower with a gaggle of Russians and his wingmen, Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller wore his own June 9, 2016, throwback jersey. He informed the White House his legal team would be interviewing staffers who were on Air Force One the day the president dictated (or helped write) Junior’s original statement about the Russian meeting, which alleged that the subject of the gathering was adoption.
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The promised subject of the meeting wasn’t adoption, of course. As we know from the email sent to Junior by his go-between, a Russian government lawyer was supposed to bring him incriminating dirt on Hillary Clinton, an offer that Junior gleefully accepted. “I love it!” he wrote back to his go-between. It was only when lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and her posse visited the Trump Tower that she segued to a discussion about adoption, urging Junior and his father to help repeal the sanction-bearing Magnitsky Act so that Vladimir Putin would, in turn, allow Americans once again to adopt Russian orphans.
The June 9, 2016, meeting has become ground zero for the Trump Tower scandal not just for what happened there—a gang of Russian fixers meeting with the top officials of the Trump campaign—but for the damage control measures President Donald Trump took to conceal the meeting’s true nature when the New York Times broke the story a year later. When composing Junior’s statement in reaction to the Times scoop, why did President Trump characterize the meeting as an adoption chat, when its expressed purpose was to move Hillary dirt? In his Capitol Hill testimony, why is Junior remaining so cagey? When did Jared Kushner not originally disclose the meeting on his security clearance application? What is the Trump family hiding? Does it amount to obstruction of justice?
By winding the clock back to 2016 and replaying June 9 and all of its repercussions, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the special prosecutor hope to answer those questions.
Junior’s statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday was meticulously constructed, most likely by his lawyers, wrote former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti in a revealing annotation published late in the week. As Mariotti explains, by using vague and narrow language, Junior calculated at almost every utterance to diminish his legal exposure and reveal the minimum about his actions.
For instance, Junior denied having committed “collusion” with a foreign government. Collusion is a term that has no legal significance, as Mariotti puts it. “What matters legally is whether he agreed to commit a crime with someone else, whether he knew about a crime and helped make it succeed, or whether he actively concealed a crime,” he writes. What’s apparent from examining the roster of the meeting is that Junior met with Russians who are well-connected to a foreign government. And the law prohibits foreign governments from contributing to political candidates.
Junior downplays his connections to Russia in the statement, discussing them against a backdrop in which the Trump Organization does many global deals. But he acknowledges that the company had explored Russian deals before, contradicting the president’s long-time insistence that he has no dealings there—and confirming the recent news that as recently as January 2016 his father was trying to build a Trump Tower Moscow.
The most laughable passage in the statement comes when Junior says he agreed to view the incriminating information of Clinton to help vet her fitness for office when it’s much more likely he was hoping for rich campaign oppo to use against her. Remember, the Rob Goldstone email to Junior, which set up the meeting, explicitly promised “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia,” information from a “very high level…part of Russia and its governments’ support for Mr. Trump.” As Mariotti writes, receiving intelligence from the Russian government can be problematic. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., ridiculed Junior’s sworn testimony by citing the statute that makes it unlawful to lie to Congress. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., was less oblique in his critique. “There are a lot of gaps that will need to be filled,” Blumenthal told reporters. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who also sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, promised that the scion will be re-grilled in a public hearing.
Mueller wants to know, for obvious reasons, why Junior’s statement, composed on the president’s airplane as he returned from the G-20 summit from Europe in July, clashes with what really happened on June 9. (Mueller’s grand jury may have made progress on this front late last month when it heard from Rinat Akhmetshin, the Russian-American fixer and suspected spy who attended the Trump Tower meeting.) Who determined what to include in the statement and what to delete, Mueller will be asking. At week’s end, Mueller’s White House casting call had extended to six current and former top advisers to the president—Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, Hope Hicks, Don McGahn, McGahn’s deputy James Burnham, and Josh Raffel, a White House spokesman who has serviced Javanka.—to grill them on what they knew about Trump’s May decision to sack FBI Director James B. Comey. Those who weren’t previously lawyered up are now. Also of interest to Mueller, the Washington Post reported, was the “White House’s initial inaction” after being warned about Michael Flynn’s talks with the Russian ambassador.
“Mueller’s probe is seeking to determine whether any Trump associates may have coordinated with Russia to influence the election. That investigation is also examining whether the president or others at the White House may have attempted to obstruct justice leading up to the firing of Comey,” the Post reports.
The theory that Russia sought to turn the election gained ground this week as Facebook disclosed that fake Russian accounts had purchased for more than $150,000 at least 5,000 political ads on the social media site between June 2015 and May 2017. This prompted Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., to speculate on whether the Trump campaign’s data team worked with Russian operators to bombard voters with fake news. The campaign’s digital director Brad Parscale, who denies any such cooperation, has agreed to speak with the House Intelligence Committee about just that.
Nobody thinks that $150,000 worth of ads could sway an election, even though the Daily Beast estimates that even such a modest buy could have reached up to 70 million Americans. The important element in the equation, said Lawfare’s Susan Hennessey on Twitter, wasn’t that Russia tried to influence voter thought, but where it acquired its targeting data. The $150,000 ad buy could have helped the Russians to test their fake news campaigns, optimize the message and then tee up larger ad buys made through legitimate, non-Russian covers.
Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum theorized late in the week that the table has now been set with all the elements to prove Trump-Russia collusion. Motive: Russia sought to disrupt the election and roll back the Magnitsky Act. Dupes: Donald Trump, who has long curried Putin’s favor, and other aspiring Russophiles in his orbit (Junior, Flynn, Kushner, Manafort, et al.). Methods: Russian Internet operatives hacked the DNC’s and John Podesta’s emails and released them to the public to destabilize Clinton and the Democrats. Other trolls injected disinformation into the campaign stream. “How did Trump happen to use the same conspiracy theories that were proliferating on Russian media, both real and fake?” Applebaum asks. Coincidence or coordination?
Like June 17, 1972, the date of the Watergate break-in, Junior’s June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting has become the load-bearing date upon which the greater scandal rests. It may not turn out to be the most revelatory of all the Trump Tower shockers, but like the break-in it tells our story in miniature. Get to know its details. In the coming months, you’ll be reliving it again and again and again.