What really happened at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016?
The answer to this question could be the key to understanding whether Trump’s team colluded with the Russians — or whether the whole Trump-Russia scandal really is, as participants claim, a nothingburger.
On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee posted hundreds of pages of transcripts and documents related to the meeting. This includes sworn testimony from five meeting attendees, including Donald Trump Jr., as well as documentary evidence like emails and text exchanges.
Beyond that, multiple reports have indicated that Robert Mueller’s investigators are still keenly focused on trying to figure out just what happened at that infamous sit-down — and why, exactly, President Donald Trump tried to mislead the public about it. Mueller’s team told Trump’s lawyers in March that they’d like to question the president about several topics related to the meeting.
That focus is warranted. The Trump Tower meeting may be the most suspicious single event we’ve learned of in more than a year of coverage of the Russia scandal.
After receiving a promise of incriminating information about Hillary Clinton plainly said to be from the Russian government, two of Trump’s close family members and his campaign chief agreed to take a meeting to discuss it. Donald Trump Jr. even wrote, “If it’s what you say I love it.” Viewed on its face, it looks a whole lot like smoking-gun evidence of collusion.
Yet still, many months after we learned about the meeting, the facts of what actually happened remain murky. Little documentary evidence has emerged, and those involved maintain that what ended up happening was inconsequential. Team Trump’s account is that it was a tremendously strange screw-up that, by sheer happenstance and bad luck, ended up looking far more incriminating than it in fact was.
Another possibility, though, is that the known story about the meeting is at least in part a cover-up — one that’s been coordinated by all the meetings’ participants, their attorneys, and perhaps the president himself, to hide some more damning truth. (If you think that’s far-fetched, remember that even Steve Bannon thinks that’s likely, saying, “The chance that Don Jr. did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor is zero” and “they’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV.”)
No one at the meeting is known to have “flipped” and become a cooperator for Mueller. Yet one attendee, Paul Manafort, has already been indicted on a litany of serious unrelated charges that could put him into prison for the rest of his life. And Manafort will face even greater pressure to cooperate now that his longtime business partner Rick Gates has flipped.
So let’s review what we know about what happened on that June day — and what still remains murky. The truth could be crucial to Mueller’s investigation.
On June 9, 2016, Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner took a meeting in Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer and four other people with Russian ties, in hopes of getting incriminating information on Hillary Clinton.
The meeting had been arranged days earlier by a publicist, Rob Goldstone, at the behest of his clients the Agalarovs, a wealthy Azeri-Russian father-son pair of real estate developers who had worked with the Trumps before. The information he’d provide, Goldstone wrote in an email to Don Jr., would be “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
After the meeting took place, the public didn’t know about it until more than a year later — after Trump had already become president. The New York Times revealed the meeting happened in a series of reports over last July that kept adding more details.
Eventually, Don Jr. tweeted out his email thread with Goldstone — and it sure looked damning. There, flying in the face of so many denials of collusion, was an indisputable offer of “documents and information that would incriminate Hillary,” as part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump” — an offer Don Jr. eagerly accepted.
But those emails were all sent before the meeting, giving us little insight into what actually happened during and after it.
And the participants soon came forward to say that, really, nothing much did happen. They claim it was an inconsequential and unproductive discussion that led nowhere, that no dirt on Clinton changed hands, that there was no evident connection to the Russian government, and that, in Don Jr.’s words, it was “such a nothing.”
Per Goldstone’s email, the driving forces behind the meeting (despite not actually attending) were Aras and Emin Agalarov, a wealthy Azeri-Russian father-son pair of real estate developers who’d financed Trump’s Moscow Miss Universe pageant in 2013. (Emin is also a pop music star in Russia.)
Rob Goldstone, the Brit who arranged the meeting (and who did attend), was Emin’s publicist, and he and Emin were acquaintances of Don Jr.
On the day of the meeting itself, the Trump delegation was made up of:
In addition to Goldstone, the Russian delegation was composed of:
Goldstone’s email also refers to an unnamed “crown prosecutor of Russia” who worked with the Russian government and was the ultimate source of the anti-Clinton dirt. “Crown prosecutor” is a British term and that exact position doesn’t exist in Russia, but Russia’s prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika, has “a long and storied background in kompromat,” according to the New York Times. However, Goldstone and Veselnitskaya both say Chaika had no involvement in the meeting and claim the term was just a reference to Veselnitskaya herself.
First, here’s the June 3, 2016, email Goldstone sent Don Jr. to arrange the meeting, under the subject line “Russia – Clinton – private and confidential”:
Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting. 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.
What do you think is the best way to handle this information and would you be able to speak to Emin about it directly? I can also send this info to your father via Rhona, but it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first.
Don Jr. responded, “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.” An exchange ensued which eventually led to two brief phone calls between Don Jr. and Emin Agalarov. In between those phone calls, Don Jr. called someone whose number was blocked.
The meeting was set up for a few days later. Before it, Don Jr. forwarded the email thread with Goldstone to Kushner and Manafort, who both attended the meeting.
Now, there isn’t much contemporaneous documentary evidence from the meeting itself — but there is some.
Manafort’s notes: During the meeting, Paul Manafort took notes on his phone, which have now been released in full by the Senate Judiciary Committee. They don’t say much, and are vague listings of topics that appear to have come up, rather than complete sentences.
They include the following phrases: “Bill Browder” (a financier and Putin critic the Russian regime has been feuding with), “Offshore – Cyprus,” “133m shares,” “Illici” (probably a misspelling of “illicit”), “active sponsors of RNC,” “Browder hired Joanna Glover” (probably a reference to lobbyist Juleanna Glover), and “Russian adoptions by American families.”
Jared Kushner’s email: During the meeting, Kushner says he emailed an assistant: “Can u pls call me on my cell? Need excuse to get out of meeting.” (The email hasn’t been released, but congressional investigators haven’t disputed that it exists.)
Rob Goldstone’s emails afterward: On June 14, 2016 — five days after the meeting — Rob Goldstone emailed his boss Emin Agalarov and fellow meeting attendee Ike Kaveladze a CNN story in which the DNC went public to claim that they’d been hacked by Russians. Goldstone wrote that the story was “eerily weird” given what they’d just discussed at the Trump Tower meeting.
Then on June 29, 2016, Goldstone emailed Dan Scavino, the Trump campaign’s director of social media. “I’m following up on an email [from] a while back of something I had mentioned to Don and Paul Manafort during a meeting recently,” Goldstone wrote. He said that Emin Agalarov and a contact at the Russian social media site VK wanted to create a “Vote Trump 2016” page. “At the time, Paul had said he would welcome it, and so I had the VK folks mock up a basic sample page, which I am resending for your approval now.”
For nearly 13 months, the Trump Tower meeting’s existence was entirely unknown to the public. But the New York Times learned that it happened and sent questions trying to nail down the specifics about it to the White House on July 7, 2017 — beginning a roller-coaster several days with shifting stories.
Day 1: The Times first asked the White House about the meeting when Trump and several of his aides were attending the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. In fact, it was on that very day that Trump had his first face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin. And later, toward the end of that same day, at a dinner with G20 leaders and spouses, Trump made the highly unusual move of ditching his own translator to talk again with Putin and the Russian government’s translator for about an hour, with no other US government officials present.
Day 2: The next day, July 8, Trump headed back to the US on Air Force One. By then, the Times had sent a more specific list of questions about the meeting, and it was during the eight-hour flight that the president and his team strategized about how to respond. By most accounts, it was the president himself who demanded that his son’s statement portray the meeting as being about “Russian adoptions” — omitting that it was set up to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. And that is what Don Jr. did, as the Times published its first report revealing the meeting.
Day 3: The following morning — July 9 — Trump’s then-legal team spokesperson Mark Corallo took a call with Trump and White House communications director Hope Hicks. Per a recent Times report, Corallo now says he warned that documents revealing the truth about the meeting would surface — but Hicks responded that the emails “will never get out.” Corallo says he quickly ended the conversation, worried about potential obstruction of justice.
Just hours later, the Times posted a follow-up story revealing that the meeting’s purpose was to get “damaging information about Hillary Clinton.” Trump Jr. then released a longer statement that’s mostly up to date with his current story but that still omitted the crucial fact that Goldstone had emailed him that this dirt would be coming from the Russian government.
Days 4-5: But the Times nailed down that detail on the night of July 10 and soon got the email thread itself, leading Trump Jr. to shock the world by preemptively tweeting out the email thread on the morning of July 11.
It was a truly astonishing revelation — that was then followed up with a flurry of protestations that what actually happened was far less impressive than that email thread might imply.
In the months since Don Jr.’s tweets, the various attendees of the meeting have put forward similar accounts about what actually happened during it — in Don Jr.’s testimony, in Jared Kushner’s public statement, in Natalia Veselnitskaya’s statements, in a Rob Goldstone interview, and in statements by Ike Kaveladze’s lawyer.
Their story is essentially that it was a tremendously strange screw-up — a comedy of errors, with misunderstandings and misrepresentations piled on top of each other that ended up looking far more incriminating than they truly were.
Let’s call this the “such a nothing” scenario, after a phrase Don Jr. has used many times. The story is that, in fact, the meeting proved to be far less damning than Goldstone and Don Jr.’s emails might seem. What actually happened, participants say, was:
The Trump delegation, these accounts claim, was both bored and befuddled by Veselnitskaya’s presentation. So Jared Kushner left halfway through, and Don Jr. cut things off after 20 or 30 minutes. The meeting certainly didn’t end with any “deal” of any kind — indeed, it was a complete waste of time, they say — and there was no follow-up. And that was that.
As for Donald Trump himself, he’s said he knew nothing about it, er, unless maybe he did. “I didn’t know until a couple of days ago,” the president told Reuters in July 2017. Shortly afterward, he vaguely told reporters “maybe it mentioned at some point,” but he could have just been referring to the topic of Russian adoptions generally — he hasn’t clarified.
The participants’ version of events has basically held together since last July, and no evidence has yet emerged to conclusively debunk it.
In fact, many in the political world find it to be surprisingly credible, mainly because Don Jr. and Rob Goldstone, the music publicist, seem like such unlikely participants in a collusion conspiracy. (Amazingly, Goldstone posted his location at Trump Tower on Facebook on the day of the meeting and wrote, “Preparing for meeting.” He also posted a picture of himself on Instagram wearing a shirt reading “RUSSIA” in big letters shortly after the election. None of this is top-notch opsec.)
Still, it’s worth remembering that others involved, like Paul Manafort and Ike Kaveladze, don’t seem quite so amateurish. Manafort’s years of dealings with pro-Russian elements in Ukraine have since led to his indictment for money laundering and other alleged crimes (he’s pleaded not guilty). Kaveladze, meanwhile, is an experienced businessman who was the focus of a congressional money laundering probe nearly two decades ago (he was never charged and has denied wrongdoing).
On another front, it would seem that Kushner’s email, “Need excuse to get out of meeting,” would back up this story that the meeting was a dud. That’s possible. But it’s also possible that Kushner wanted to leave the meeting for a different reason (such as to avoid incriminating himself).
It’s also difficult to square the “such a nothing” version of events with the emails Goldstone sent both before and after the meeting.
The story really only makes sense if Goldstone’s initial email and promise were total bullshit. Nearly everything Goldstone wrote about (“the Crown prosecutor of Russia,” “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary,” “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump”) bears hardly any resemblance to what the participants claim actually happened (that it was just Veselnitskaya, who had no useful dirt on Clinton, and who made no claims to be representing the Russian government).
And, in fact, the meeting participants have portrayed Goldstone as a bullshitter, often with similar language. Don Jr. said on Fox News that “there was some puffery to the email, perhaps to get the meeting, to make it happen.” Goldstone himself has since said he used ”hot-button language to puff up the information.” And Veselnitskaya has said Goldstone’s “roguish letters” now seem designed either to “confuse everything, or intentionally make everything look intriguing so that the meeting could take place.”
Still, there are two more Goldstone emails sent after the meeting that also fit awkwardly with the “such a nothing” scenario. In the first, he says a story on Russia hacking the DNC was “eerily weird” considering what they had just discussed at Trump Tower. In the second, he says that at the meeting, he said a contact of his working at a Russian social media site could set up a page for Trump and “Paul had said he would welcome it.”
These point to two possible topics of further discussion at the meeting — Russian hacking and Russian social media help for Trump — that could have implications with regards to collusion.
Finally, President Trump’s personal involvement in dictating his son’s misleading story that the meeting was about Russian adoptions and not Russian government dirt on Clinton is eyebrow-raising. Here’s how the New York Times describes what happened aboard Air Force One last July:
The president supervised the writing of the statement, according to three people familiar with the episode, with input from other White House aides. A fierce debate erupted over how much information the news release should include. Mr. Trump was insistent about including language that the meeting was about Russian adoptions, according to two people with knowledge of the discussion.
And here’s how Michael Wolff recounted the Air Force One deliberations in his book Fire and Fury:
An aggrieved, unyielding, and threatening president dominated the discussion, pushing into line his daughter and her husband, [Hope] Hicks, and [Josh] Raffel. [Marc] Kasowitz — the lawyer whose specific job was to keep Trump at arm’s length from Russian-related matters — was kept on hold on the phone for an hour and then not put through. The president insisted that the meeting in Trump Tower was purely and simply about Russian adoption policy. That’s what was discussed, period. Period.
Trump’s preferred story was soon debunked, but the question remains why he was so insistent on putting it out in the first place, especially because he wasn’t at the meeting and claims to know little about it. Was he just trying to cover himself politically? Or is there another reason?
Well, Steve Bannon certainly thought so. Bannon, who knows the Trumps quite well and began working on the Trump campaign two months after the meeting, theorized to journalist Michael Wolff that Trump Jr. had brought up the visitors to see his father directly — and that Don Jr. would “crack… like an egg on national TV,” eventually revealing the truth of what happened that day.
There’s also the question of Don Jr.’s call to the
Meanwhile, some on the right have their own suspicions of what might have gone on. They’ve pointed to the fact that two meeting attendees, Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin, had done work with Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that was paid for the infamous “Steele dossier” by the Clinton campaign — perhaps suggesting this could have been some sort of a setup. However, the Trump Tower meeting was never mentioned in the dossier, and given Fusion’s anti-Trump inclinations one would think they would have leaked the meeting’s existence before the election if they knew about it.
Some other interesting questions have been posed by independent journalist Marcy Wheeler, who has been doing some of the best and most interesting coverage of the Trump-Russia scandal at her site EmptyWheel — work that combines a mastery of the underlying facts with deep subject matter expertise and a talent for skeptical close reading.
When it comes to the Trump Tower meeting, Wheeler posits that the various meeting participants and associated lawyers could be trying to “craft a story” that will provide a seemingly benign explanation for all the potentially incriminating documents and evidence they know of. She says the disclosures so far could be a “limited hangout,” which is a spy term used by Nixon’s aides during the Watergate cover-up. Essentially, this refers to partial admissions meant to serve as a smokescreen to obscure something else.
It’s not, Wheeler posits, that everything we’ve heard about the Trump Tower meeting is totally false. It’s more that it’s incomplete. In particular, her writings have raised several interesting questions about the story. These include, among others:
Was Trump’s campaign looking for hacked email dirt? On April 26, 2016 — a month and a half before the meeting — Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos was told by a Russian-government connected source that Russia “had dirt on” Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.”
We haven’t yet seen proof that Papadopoulos told others in the Trump campaign about this, but that certainly seems likely considering he drunkenly bragged about it to an Australian diplomat. (Papadopoulos made a plea deal last year and is cooperating with Mueller’s probe.)
Now, Goldstone’s promise of information about Clinton in his email to Don Jr. does not seem to refer to hacked emails. Instead, he wrote about “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia.”
However, if anyone in the Trump delegation to the meeting was aware in advance that the Russians had email dirt on Clinton, it certainly seems possible that topic would come up that day. (Participants have denied that it did.) This is particularly important because the email hackings were crimes, so any Trump team involvement in it could expose them to criminal charges. (Keep in mind, again, Goldstone’s email five days after the meeting saying a story on the DNC going public to claim Russian hackers stole their files was “eerily weird” given what they’d just discussed at Trump Tower.)
Why was Ike Kaveladze there? Recall, again, that Kaveladze is a senior vice president at the Agalarovs’ real estate company with expertise in financial management. He flew from Los Angeles to New York to attend the meeting.
He testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Aras Agalarov called him three days before the meeting, on June 6, and and told him to be in New York City. He also said there would be a meeting about the Magnitsky Act sanctions on Russia. Only later, he says was he told that some dirt on Hillary Clinton would be involved. Kaveladze also belatedly amended his testimony to disclose that he flew to Moscow the day after the meeting.
Was there a second part of the meeting we don’t yet know about? This, of course, was Bannon’s theory — that Don Jr. brought up attendees to meet his father. And Wheeler has flagged a recent LA Times story suggesting that the entire Russian group didn’t exit Trump Tower together, and used it to ask whether some in the delegation stayed behind for more conversations afterward. (Kaveladze testified that most of the Russian group had a round of drinks at a bar in the Trump Tower lobby.)
What was up with that Trump–Putin chat last year? Finally, it was just a few hours after the New York Times started inquiring about the Trump Tower meeting that President Trump ditched his American translator to have a long private side conversation with Vladimir Putin at a G20 dinner, with no Americans present. We don’t know what they talked about, but what is clear is that no one in the “deep state” was around to leak it, as had happened two months earlier, when Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office that his firing of FBI Director Comey took “great pressure” off him in the Russia investigation.
These questions are speculative and it is possible that the answers to them are benign. Or not.
The question at the heart of the Trump-Russia scandal and the Mueller investigation is whether Trump’s team and the Russian government cut a secret deal of some kind involving Russian interference in the campaign — something Trump has repeatedly and fiercely denied. But Goldstone’s emails setting up the meeting certainly seem to suggest that something like that might have happened.
The most commonly speculated possibilities are that such a deal could have involved one or more of the following:
1) The hacked Democratic emails
3) Plans to get the Russian government’s help on social media with bots or propaganda
4) Policy promises made by the Trump team on issues important to the Russian government, such as sanctions relief
However, there remains no conclusive evidence that any of this actually did happen at the meeting, and again, all participants who have spoken out have denied that any of it took place.
There’s also the question of just who knew about the meeting. The “such a nothing” story claims that Trump himself had no role, and the Russian government had no evident role. So any revelation that either were more involved in the meeting than we currently know would also deepen the scandal.
For many months, it’s been clear that special counsel Robert Mueller is keenly interested in the Trump Tower meeting. His team has been requesting documents about it and quizzing witnesses about what actually happened.
Yet the Times has reported that Mueller seems focused not just on the meeting itself, but on the misleading public statement that the president crafted for Don Jr. about the meeting aboard Air Force One last year, which has struck some as odd:
Some lawyers and witnesses who have sat in or been briefed on the interviews have puzzled over Mr. Mueller’s interest in the episode. Lying to federal investigators is a crime; lying to the news media is not. For that reason, some of Mr. Trump’s advisers argue that Mr. Mueller has no grounds to ask the president about the statement and say he should refuse to discuss it.
One possibility is that Mueller is interested in obstruction of justice. Some have argued that Trump may have been trying to throw investigators off the trail of the meeting with the misleading statement. There’s also the reported Hope Hicks assurance to Mark Corallo that the email thread in which Don Jr. set up the meeting “will never get out.” So the Air Force One discussion could amount to one more brick in the wall of a larger obstruction case.
Another possibility, though, is that Mueller is still trying to determine what happened at the meeting itself — and whether anything about it is still being covered up.
Because if there is an ongoing, coordinated cover-up among the meeting’s participants, it still appears to be holding. The first two cooperators Mueller flipped — George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn — are not known to have had any involvement in the meeting. And no meeting attendee is yet known to have “flipped.”
Now one participant, Paul Manafort, has been indicted by Mueller’s team on unrelated charges, but he’s pleaded not guilty. However, Rick Gates — Manafort’s longtime business partner who was indicted on similar charges — has now flipped. Gates did not attend the Trump Tower meeting, but he worked closely with Manafort on the Trump campaign and could well have heard about what happened during it. That, though, is purely speculative, and in any case his cooperation puts more pressure on Manafort to give up what he knows in a cooperation deal or face an even likelier conviction.
If Mueller doesn’t manage to flip someone with useful information here, the Trump team’s deliberations about the meeting last year could be an alternate route to establishing whether there is still a cover-up happening. The Times, for instance, mentioned that Hicks exchanged a series of text messages with Don Jr. while she and the president were aboard Air Force One — which could be valuable evidence about just what happened aboard that plane.
Then there is the question of why, exactly, President Trump himself seemed so set on hiding the truth about that meeting — something that has larger implications for the Russia investigation as a whole.
Perhaps it really was just a ham-handed attempt by Trump to prevent a narrative he genuinely believes to be fake news from advancing further. Or perhaps it was part of a deliberate action carried out because he really does have something to hide.