On Monday night, The New York Times revealed a follow-up story regarding a meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and a Russian government-connected lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, regarding possible opposition research on Hillary Clinton. The new bombshell: Trump Jr. knew that the lawyer was apparently a front for the Russian government.
According to the Times:
Before arranging a meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer he believed would offer him compromising information about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump Jr. was informed in an email that the material was part of a Russian government effort to aid his father’s candidacy, according to three people with knowledge of the email.
The man who helped broker the meeting, publicist Rob Goldstone, reportedly wrote the email to Trump Jr.; the email allegedly explicitly talks about the material being funneled from the Russian government. As the Times acknowledges, “There is no evidence to suggest that the promised damaging information was related to Russian government computer hacking that led to the release of thousands of Democratic National Committee emails.”
This puts Donald Trump Jr. in a supremely awkward position. Originally, Trump Jr. didn’t report the meeting; then he said the meeting revolved around Russian adoption policy; then, yesterday, he admitted that he went to the meeting for the purpose of investigating possible anti-Hillary material, but gave no indicator that he knew that the information might come from Russia. Now, his lawyer has responded by calling the entire story “much ado about nothing.” The lawyer’s statement did not deny the allegation that Trump Jr. knew that the possible information would come via connection to the Russian government.
At the White House, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated that “the president’s campaign did not collude in any way. Don Jr. did not collude with anybody to influence the election. No one within the Trump campaign colluded in order to influence the election.”
She may very well be right, given that apparently no information of importance was actually handed to the Trump campaign. That means no active collusion would have taken place, despite Don Jr.’s supposed willingness to hear out the Russian source. It’s also possible that the Russian government helped set up the meet, and then planned to use news of that meet in order to set fire to rumors surrounding possible collusion.
Goldstone denies some of the allegations in the Times story:
Mr. Goldstone, who wrote the email over a year ago, denied any knowledge of involvement by the Russian government in the matter, saying that never dawned on him. “Never, never ever,” he said. Later, after the email was described to The Times, efforts to reach him for further comment were unsuccessful. ... Ms. Veselnitskaya, for her part, denied that the campaign or compromising material about Mrs. Clinton ever came up. She said she had never acted on behalf of the Russian government. A spokesperson for Mr. Putin said on Monday that he did not know Ms. Veselnitskaya, and that he had no knowledge of the June 2016 meeting.
Even if all the Times’ allegations are true, that doesn’t mean that Don Jr. broke the law. Jonathan Turley of George Washington University School of Law stated:
There is no crime in listening to people who say that they have incriminating information on a political opponent, even a foreigner. … If notice of a possible crime or information is now deemed as thing of tangible value under federal campaign laws, the wide array of exchanges on behalf of campaign would be implicated. Indeed, major free speech and association issues would be raised. Once again, this is a matter that is worthy of investigation. However, these possible criminal charges are radically over-extended on the facts that we currently have.
The legal case against Trump Jr. is weak tea. But that doesn’t mean that the Democrats and the media will rest. They now believe they have a smoking gun showing an attempt — even if it was unsuccessful — at collusion. They hope that more will be uncovered in the near future. At the very least, they have another month of headlines with which to distract President Trump.