It’s been a journalistic season of hype, innuendo, and sometimes flat-out error on the Russia story, but the New York Times finally hit paydirt in the last several days.
Over the weekend, the Times revealed that Donald Trump Jr., then–campaign manager Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer at Trump Tower in Manhattan on June 9, 2016, two weeks after Trump Sr. had effectively clinched the Republican nomination for president. Trump Jr. responded to say that the meeting was to discuss adoption (the Kremlin, characteristically, prohibited Americans from adopting Russian children in response to the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 sanctions law targeting Russian human-rights abusers). In fact, as the Times reported on Monday, Trump Jr. took the meeting hoping to obtain compromising information about the Clinton campaign, as promised by an intermediary in a lengthy e-mail exchange.
On Tuesday, to preempt another Times scoop, Trump Jr. released the correspondence himself. In an e-mail dated June 3, 2016, Rob Goldstone, a former tabloid reporter and Trump-family friend, suggested that a high-level Russian prosecutor and Russian real-estate magnate Aras Agalarov — with whom Donald Trump Sr. became acquainted in 2013, when the pair collaborated on the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow — had “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.” According to Goldstone, the offer was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Donald Trump Jr. responded: “If it’s what you say[,] I love it.” According to the e-mails, Trump Jr. perhaps spoke on the phone with Agalarov’s son, Emin (a Russian pop star), and then the campaign higher-ups met at Trump Tower with Natalia Veselnitskaya, identified by Goldstone in the exchange as “a Russian government attorney.” (Veselnitskaya, who is Kremlin-connected, has campaigned in Europe and the United States against sanctions; she disputes the well-documented account of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky’s brutal death at the hands of Russian officials.) The whole correspondence appears to have been forwarded to Manafort and Kushner prior to the meeting.
No campaign professional would have accepted such a dodgy meeting the way Trump Jr. did, and no person with a strong sense of propriety — Russia is a hostile power run by a deeply corrupt regime — would have wanted to.
That said, the meeting doesn’t prove that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, let alone “treason.” In the best-case scenario, Trump Jr. took the meeting to accommodate a friend of the family (and Kushner and Manafort showed up to accommodate the son of the candidate); Goldstone’s suggestion that he had compromising information about the Clintons was only a pretense to get Velnitskaya through the door; everyone was as bored during the meeting as Velnitskaya has said (in a Today interview, she said Kushner left early and Manafort looked at his phone the entire time); and nothing else came of it.
In general, it’s hard to see why the Kremlin would have wanted to jeopardize a sensitive intelligence operation by attempting to coordinate with a poorly organized presidential campaign.
The worst case, on the other hand, is that the Trump Jr. meeting is only the beginning of damaging revelations about some sort of relationship between a Russian government determined to try to tip the scales in an American presidential election and the Trump campaign.
It would be easier to credit the Trump team’s denials if they didn’t so routinely mislead. Put aside Trump Jr.’s self-servingly incomplete account of the meeting with the Russian lawyer; he has said in the past that he never at any point met with Russian nationals, that he never discussed policy matters with Russian citizens, and that he never met with any Russians as a representative of the campaign. All of those statements have proven false. Paul Manafort’s record of truth-telling is no better, and Jared Kushner — the only person in the meeting with a White House job — initially failed to disclose the meeting during his security-clearance application process.
If the Trump team affirmatively wanted to stoke suspicions of the worst, it wouldn’t be acting any differently. One meeting doesn’t prove collusion, but it does demonstrate the seriousness of this matter and the public interest in getting to the bottom of it — now more than ever.