Two weeks after Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, his son met a Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnits at Trump Tower in Manhattan, the New York Times can reveal.
Present in the meeting were Donald Trump Jr, Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and the candidate’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
She had previously lobbied against a US law that sanctioned prominent Russians for human rights abuses.
The meeting came about via a backchannel. A Russian-Azeri businessman, Aras Agalarov, and his son, Emin, who hosted Trump for the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, got in touch with Rob Goldstone, a British publicist and former tabloid reporter, who in turn contacted the Trump campaign.
On Tuesday Donald Trump Jr published an exchange of emails with Goldstone. On 3 June 2016, Goldstone wrote that “Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting.” He said that Aras had met with Russia’s crown prosecutor and offered to provide “some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”
Goldstone added: “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.” Trump Jr seemed receptive. Seventeen minutes later he emailed back to say he appreciated the offer, adding: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer”.
Further emails from Goldstone fixed the meeting with Veselnitskaya for 9 June. He described her as a “Russian government attorney flying over from Moscow”.
Very. This looks like the first concrete proof of collusion. FBI special prosecutor Bob Mueller is currently investigating if the Trump campaign conspired with Russia during the 2016 US election. In late 2015 the British spy agency GCHQ noticed suspicious contacts between Trump associates and suspected Russian agents. These meetings took place in London and in Europe and continued in 2016. Meanwhile, in the US senior Trump figures saw or spoke with the Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak.
Trump has repeatedly insisted none of this amounts to collusion. But the details of the Trump Jr meeting and the Goldstone emails are excruciating for the White House: Trump Jr was explicitly told in the email that the lawyer would bring him “sensitive” and compromising material on Clinton. This may not have happened. But Trump Jr shows intent. He could have refused to meet. Or reported the approach to the FBI. He did neither. The fact that the meeting went ahead suggests that people in the Trump campaign believed the Kremlin held dirt on Clinton.
What about timing?
The timing of the meeting – 9 June 2016 – is critical. It took place after two Russian spy agencies had hacked the Democratic National Committee but before this was made public. Later that day Trump attacked Clinton over her emails, tweeting : “Where are your 33,000 emails that you deleted?”
In July, WikiLeaks released 20,000 DNC emails on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. On 22 July, Trump
told a press conference in Florida: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
Legally, this puts Trump in difficulty. If Mueller confirms evidence of active collusion with Moscow, the president could be looking at treason and espionage. If not, there are still mundane campaign law restrictions that preclude accepting assistance from foreigners. Normally, that would mean cash. But it might also include favours in kind, such as damaging information on a rival. There is the wider question of conspiracy. The Russian hackers who stole Democratic emails committed crimes. Anyone who dealt with them, and tried to secure benefit from these crimes, could be roped into a count of conspiracy.
In 2012 the Obama administration – with bipartisan support – passed the groundbreaking “Magnitsky act”. It sanctioned a group of corrupt Russian officials who were implicated in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison in 2009. The act infuriated Vladimir Putin who responded by banning the adoption of Russian children by US couples.
In 2014, the US and EU imposed further sanctions on Russia after Putin’s covert invasion of eastern Ukraine and his annexation of Crimea. As a result, many of Putin’s billionaire friends are unable to travel to the west. Nor can they hold US bank accounts. The Kremlin’s top foreign policy priority is to have the sanctions dumped. It has expended considerable effort on soft power lobbying. Veselnitskaya’s meeting with Trump Jr was part of this operation.
The Kremlin says it has no connection with Veselnitskaya. This claim has to be treated sceptically. Moscow typically subcontracts “influence operations” to oligarchs and third parties for reasons of deniability. It used WikiLeaks to distribute its DNC hack and in this case appears to have employed the Agalarovs. As a high-profile Kremlin lobbyist Veselnitskaya is likely to have been under US surveillance. The US had previously denied her a visa. Certainly, the FBI got hold of the email chain before Trump Jr published it. Three people who read it briefed the New York Times this week. Trump has accused GCHQ of spying on him at the behest of the Obama administration. The claim is untrue. The reason Trump’s associates may have been bugged is because they were meeting with known or suspected Russian intelligence operatives. The Russians were the targets.
Trump Jr has given different accounts of the meeting. At first he said its subject was the adoption of Russian children. Then, when confronted with more evidence, he admitted that he had been promised compromising information on Clinton. Now he had released the evidence. What exactly the Kremlin wanted from the meeting is unclear. The overall goal, we now know from the emails, was to help Trump. By this point, it was sitting on a heap of Democratic party emails that had been hacked or not released. We don’t know precisely what Veselnitskaya said. Nor do we know how Trump Jr and Manafort responded.
Lots. Before joining Trump’s campaign Manafort spent over a decade working in the former Soviet Union. His previous client was Viktor Yanukovych, the ex-president of Ukraine who fled to Russia in 2014. The FBI is investigating Manafort’s dealings with Russian oligarchs and his unusual cash purchases of New York real estate. He denies wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, Kushner met several prominent Russians in 2016 including Kislyak and Sergei Gorkov, a Russian banking executive and graduate of the FSB spy agency’s academy.