|YURY MARTYANOV / AFP-GETTY IMAGES|
It was an odd group that assembled on that unseasonably cool late spring afternoon around a table in a conference room on an upper floor of a glass and marble skyscraper on New York's Fifth Avenue. On one side of the table were three Russians. On the other side were Donald Trump's eldest son, son-in-law and the man who was about to become manager and chief strategist of the billionaire's improbable campaign to become president.
With one of the three members of the Trump campaign brain trust who attended the June 9, 2016 sitdown at Trump Tower already under indictment and the other two likely to be, the meeting has taken on an outsized importance to Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller's investigation.
This is because the events surrounding the meeting -- both before and after -- suggest that Trump not only encouraged members of his campaign team to collude with Russians working for Vladimir Putin to interfere in the forthcoming election, but expected the meeting to pay dividends for his long-shot bid for the presidency because it would provide new ammunition with which to assail the chief target of his incendiary stump speeches -- Hillary Clinton.
Prior to the meeting, there already had been several attempts by Russians to find entry points into the Trump campaign, an effort that accelerated after he clinched the Republican nomination on May 26, 2016 amidst a flurry of media reports that his campaign had no agenda, was disorganized and several key positions had been left unfilled.§
Then Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge overseeing the Trump University case, unsealed court documents detailing explosive fraud allegations, triggering an outburst from Trump that Curiel was biased by his "Mexican heritage" despite being born in Indiana.
After railing against Curiel for several days, Trump returned to a familiar theme on June 2 in a speech in San Diego five days before the California primary, hammering Clinton over emails deleted from her personal server while she was secretary of state.
"By the way, Hillary Clinton is missing 30,000 emails," he said. "They've been deleted. 30,000. 30,000."
When eldest son Donald Trump Jr. scrolled through his email in-box the next day, there was a message from Rob Goldstone, a publicist whose musician clients included Emin Agaralov, the son of a Russian oligarch and former Trump Sr. business partner who was close to Putin. Goldstone did not equivocate in the June 3 message:
The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning, and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump -- helped along by Aras and Emin.
Donald Jr. responded not by refusing the offer or alerting the FBI, but by replying with the now infamous words, "If it's what you say I love it."
It is likely that Trump Sr. was informed of the enticing news and approved of the meeting. But had his son not already briefed him, Trump almost certainly would have known after he reportedly spoke by phone with Emin Agalarov on June 6. In any event, on June 7 he tweeted the promise of "big news" on Clinton's "crimes" in a forthcoming "major speech."
Trump amplified on the promise that night after winning the California and New Jersey primaries.
"I'm going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week," he declared in a victory speech in Briarcliff Manor, New York. "And we're going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you're going to find it very informative and very, very interesting. I wonder if the press will want to attend. Who knows?"
Meanwhile, Donald Jr. had invited two other important campaign players to the meeting -- Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort.§
Kushner, the husband of his kid sister Ivanka, was in some ways a mirror image of Trump Sr. He had a reputation for shady and occasionally disastrous business practices as a real estate developer and was a manipulator, blame shifter and liar for whom everything was about money.
Several days after the meeting, Kushner was named head of the campaign's digital team and in all likelihood was responsible for helping Russian hackers identify voters to target with cyber onslaughts of fake anti-Clinton news in the Kremlin's successful effort to sabotage her campaign. He also was to pop up with uncanny regularity at many of the meetings with the very Russians being investigated by Mueller.
Manafort was a longtime associate of Trump who was sometimes referred to as his consigliere. He had made his nut through financial wheeling and dealing with shadowy Russian figures abroad and corporate shell games and money laundering at home, and 11 days after the meeting was promoted to run the campaign, a job that gave him control over day-to-day operations.
It seemed to be an unusual choice since Manafort had no experience running a national political campaign, but what he did have was connections. He had lobbied on behalf of a rogue's gallery of corrupt foreign leaders and had developed an image-enhancement campaign for Putin puppet Viktor Yanukovych, who served as Ukrainian president from 2010-2014 before fleeing to Moscow after being deposed in a popular uprising.
The meeting commenced at 4 p.m. and lasted 20 to 30 minutes. Trump himself had attended a Trump Victory Fund fundraising lunch at the Four Seasons before returning to his Trump Tower penthouse, where he remained for the rest of the afternoon.§
The three Russians on the other side of the table were lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, Ike Kaveladze, an official in Agalarov's real estate company, and lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who has continually lied about who she is, who she was representing, and the real reason for her being at the meeting.
When news of the meeting was first reported by The New York Times on July 8, 2017, Veselnitskaya described herself as a private attorney who wanted Trump to roll back the Magnitsky Act if he became president.
The act, passed by Congress in 2012, was named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer and auditor who uncovered a $230 million web of corruption and fraud involving law enforcement, tax officials and the Russian mafia. He died in a Moscow prison in 2009 where he had been held without trial after allegedly being beaten and tortured by government officials.
The Magnitsky Act, which was aggressively supported by Clinton, prohibited the Russian officials believed to be responsible for Magnitsky's death from entering the U.S. or using its banking system, and preceded by 15 months the first of three rounds of increasingly broad Obama administration sanctions on Russia in response to its takeover of Crimea. The Magnitsky Act so outraged Putin that he retaliated by banning the adoption of Russian children by Americans.
Contacted by The Times, Donald Jr. also stated that the meeting was about adoptions, but that explanation lasted barely 24 hours.
On July 9, The Times reported that Donald Jr. had agreed to the meeting on the premise that damaging information on Clinton would be provided. Donald Jr. confirmed that, but asserted the information was not useful and was merely a pretext to discuss adoption.
On July 10, The Times published the pre-meeting email exchange between Goldstone and Donald Jr.
On July 11, Donald Jr. posted on Twitter screenshots of all the emails between he and Goldstone with an accompanying statement saying he believed the meeting would be about "Political Opposition Research." "To put this in context," he stated, "this occurred before the current Russian fever was in vogue."
On July 12, President Trump, returning from a G20 meeting in Germany aboard Air Force One, told reporters, "Don is -- as many of you know Don -- he's a good boy. He's a good kid. And he had a meeting, nothing happened at the meeting. . . . [which] I only heard about two or three days ago" but nothing came of it.
On July 31, The Washington Post reported Trump had overruled his aides to personally direct that misleading statements be issued regarding the meeting.
Trump never gave his "major speech" on Clinton, and it is easy to understand why. The "dirt" Veselnitskaya brought to the meeting was small beer, a convoluted tale in which Clinton played a peripheral role, at best.
Meanwhile, it turned out Veselnitskaya was not exactly a babe in the woods. She had an intelligence background, was hard-wired to Putin and had discussed the "dirt" with one of Russia's most powerful officials, prosecutor general Yuri Y. Chaika.
A memo Veselnitskaya brought to the meeting was nearly identical to one Chaika's office had given a U.S. congressman in April 2016, The Times reported late last month. It alleged that Ziff Brothers Investments, an American firm, had illegally purchased shares in a Russian company and evaded tens of millions of dollars of Russian taxes, two of the brothers were major donors to Democratic candidates, including Clinton, and by implication the donations were tainted by "stolen" money.
Veselnitskaya embellished on the story in an interview with a Russian media outlet in Moscow last weekend, saying Trump Jr. had asked for financial documents showing that money that was from the alleged evasion of taxes had gone to Clinton's campaign but she did not have any.
The Trump campaign officials at the meeting felt let down and even baffled by Veselnitskaya's presentation about the Democratic donors.
"Some DNC [Democratic National Committee] donors may have done something in Russia and they didn't pay taxes," Donald Jr. was to say later. "I was like, 'What does this have to do with anything?' "
That, of course, misses the point.
The Trumps, anxious if not desperate to climb into bed with the Russians, were duped. Donald Jr, took their bait and shared it with his father, who with his trademark impetuosity and the knowledge that his attacks on Clinton were working at a time when little else in his campaign was, went public and promised major revelations.
Donald Jr., Kushner and Manafort have all testified behind closed doors to congressional investigators about the meeting. Manafort has been indicted by Mueller's grand jury for conspiring against the U.S. by money laundering and tax and foreign lobbying violations. Donald Jr. and Kushner also are in the special prosecutor's crosshairs.
So was the Trump Tower sitdown an attempt by Russian intelligence to gauge how willing the campaign was to accept assistance from Moscow? You bet it was.
But the larger questions are whether a future Trump administration would ease off on U.S. sanctions in return for real evidence on Clinton and the reason, when confronted with questions about the meeting, both father and son lied despite describing it as innocuous and uneventful.
Which is why it has taken on such importance to Robert Mueller.
Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal.