Practically from the moment we learned of the infamous June 9, 2016 Trump Tower sitdown convened by Donald "Fredo" Trump Jr. to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from a lawyer with close Kremlin ties, it has been less a meeting than a big smoking gun and on its face ample proof that the Trump campaign was delighted to collude with Russia in its cybersabotage of the Hillary Clinton campaign.
"If what you say is true I love it," were Donald Jr.'s immortal words in response to an email from Rob Goldstone.
Goldstone, a British music promoter, has pushed Donald Jr. even deeper into the collusion cauldron -- one imagines that he's now pretty much up to his neck -- in 2,500 pages of testimony by Goldstone, Donald Jr. and four other individuals before the Senate Intelligence Committee released on Wednesday morning.
In conjunction with the release, the committee said it had determined that the U.S. intelligence community was correct in assessing that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the aim of helping Trump, an anti-climactic conclusion that nevertheless contradicts the findings reached last month by Vichy Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee. This sets up another inevitable flame war between a committee determined to get to the truth and a committee running from it.
"The Russian effort was extensive, sophisticated, and ordered by President Putin himself for the purpose of helping Donald Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton," said the Senate committee chairman, Republican Richard Burr, and vice chairman, Democrat Mark Warner.
Goldstone flat-out states in his testimony about the meeting that he had been assured the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was "well connected" and had "damaging material." He testified that he had warned his client, Russian pop star Emin Agalarov, that the meeting would be a bad idea.
"He said, 'it doesn’t matter. You just have to get the meeting,' " Goldstone testified.
(Goldstone, meanwhile, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he proposed a second meeting between Veselnitskaya and Trump's team at the behest of Emin's father, Aras, a billionaire developer and close associate of Putin, in November 2016, but it never took place.)
The intensity with which the Agalarovs sought the June 9 meeting is shot through the testimony.
When news of the meeting became public a year later, Trump, his aides and lawyers tried to lie and spin it away as a big nothing. In the process, they made matters far worse, and the meeting has taken on an outsized importance to Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller's investigation, which entered its second year on Thursday with the promise of dizzying new developments to come as Trump's sycophancy reaches new levels of "witch hunt" hysteria and the president continues to suck up to the Russian kleptocrat.
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 four Russians. On the other side were 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.
The events surrounding the June 6, 2016 meeting -- both before and after -- suggest that Trump not only encouraged members of his campaign team to assist 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.
In a June 2, 2016 speech in San Diego before the California primary, Trump had hammered 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 Donald Jr. scrolled through his email in-box the next day, there was a message from Goldstone, who got right to the point:
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, "If it's what you say I love it."
Despite denials by father and son, it is possible that Trump Sr. was informed of the enticing news and signed off on the meeting in a four-minute phone call Donald Jr. had with a blocked number -- his third of the day -- at 4:27 p.m. on the afternoon of June 6, according to Senate committee findings. Perhaps not coincidentally, the phone in his father's private Trump Tower residence utilized a blocked number.
At 4:31 p.m., Donald Jr. had a three-minute phone conversation with Agalarov and then at 4:38 p.m. emailed Goldstone, writing "Rob thanks for the help."
On June 7, Trump tweeted the promise of "big news" on Clinton's "crimes" in a forthcoming "major speech."
He 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."
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, possibly in conjunction with Cambridge Analytica, 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 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.
The meeting commenced at 4 p.m. and lasted 20 to 30 minutes.
The four Russians on the other side of the table were lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, a former Soviet soldier with ties to Russian spies; Ike Kaveladze, an official in Agalarov's real estate company; lawyer Veselnitskaya, who has continually lied about who she is, who she was representing, and the real reason for her being at the meeting, and her translator, Anatoli Samochornov.
Goldstone testified that Kushner was one of just three people who spoke during the meeting, interrupting Veselnitskaya at one point to ask her to refocus her presentation. Goldstone also said he recalled that Kushner stayed for the entire meeting, contradicting Veselnitskaya's public assertion the president's son-in-law left early and never came back.
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. stated that the meeting was about adoptions.
On June 26, 2017, Goldstone had written in an email to Emin Agalarov that "[Trump’s lawyers are] concerned because it links Don Jr. to officials from Russia, which he has always denied meeting.”
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 adoptions.
On July 10, The Times published the damaging 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, 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 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. Veselnitskaya acknowledged as much last month in an NBC News interview, saying that "I am an informant" who since 2013 has been "actively communicating" with Chaika to try to thwart a U.S. money-laundering case.
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. 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.
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 almost certainly 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.
Goldstone's testimony shows that relations between he and Emin Agalarov grew increasingly tense as publicity about the meeting grew. In a voicemail played aloud by the Senate committee to Goldstone, Agalarov urged the music promoter to decline comment about the meeting.
"Stay cool," Agalarov told him.
Goldstone testified that Agalarov also told him he should be pleased he had become so famous.
"You know, Jeffrey Dahmer was famous. I don’t think he got a lot of work out of it," Goldstone said he replied, referring to the serial killer, before hanging up.
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