Donald Jr. and Team Trump’s Shifting Russia Stories

Three prominent figures in the Trump presidential campaign appear to have sought the assistance of a Russian political operative with ties to the Putin government months before last November’s election. This comes via reporting by the New York Times, which broke a story over the weekend that Donald Trump Jr., the oldest son of President Trump, organized a meeting last summer in Trump Tower with a “Russian lawyer who has connections to the Kremlin.” At the meeting with the younger Trump were then-campaign manager Paul Manafort and current White House senior aide Jared Kushner, the husband of President Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump.

On June 9, 2016, Donald Trump Jr., Manafort, and Kushner met with Natalia Veselnitskaya. The Russia lawyer, the Times reported, is “best known for mounting a multipronged attack against the Magnitsky Act, an American law that blacklists suspected Russian human rights abusers.” Russian president Vladimir Putin responded to the law by suspending adoptions of Russian children by Americans. Veselnitskaya has clients and personal connections within the government in Moscow.

Neither Trump Jr. nor Kushner had previously disclosed this meeting, which the Times says both men have confirmed. That’s a reversal from a March interview with the Times in which Donald Trump Jr. said he likely met with Russians but did not do so as a member of the campaign or in meetings that were “set up” in an official capacity. If Kushner and Manafort accompanied Trump Jr. to the Veselnitskaya meeting, Trump’s explanation from March becomes difficult to believe.

In his first statement to the newspaper, published in this Saturday’s story, Trump Jr. said:

It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up.

Trump Jr. also added that he was “asked to attend the meeting by an acquaintance, but was not told the name of the person I would be meeting with beforehand.”

But on Sunday, a follow-up Times story reported that Trump Jr. had been promised that the person he was meeting with would have damaging opposition research about the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. In a second statement to the newspaper, Trump Jr. modified his story, saying that at the beginning of their meeting “the woman stated that she had information” damaging to Clinton. “Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense,” Trump Jr. said. “No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”

The June 9 meeting came as the elder Trump had all but consolidated enough support to win the Republican nomination. Trump had won the Indiana primary on June 7, prompting his biggest GOP rival, Ted Cruz, to drop out of the race. The Trump campaign was just beginning to look toward the general election, and to Hillary Clinton, when Trump Jr., Manafort, and Kushner attended the meeting. And Veselnitskaya was savvy enough to know how to entice them there to discuss an issue of importance to Vladimir Putin.

“The claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting,” Trump Jr. told the Times.

A Problematic Trend on Russian Contacts

Donald Trump Jr.’s shifting story on the Veselnitskaya meeting is part of a trend. Trump officials and aides have often changed their public statements regarding their interactions with Russian nationals. Many times, this has been sin-of-omission stuff—failing to disclose or recall meetings until additional information or pressure prompts them to change the story. In other instances, categorical denials have been later found to be untrue.

Here’s a list of the times Trump campaign and/or administration officials have changed their stories (or where facts have since contradicted statements) about Russian interactions.

  • In January, during the transition, incoming vice president Mike Pence asked incoming national security adviser Mike Flynn if Flynn had been in contact with the Russians regarding sanctions against the country in late December by the outgoing Obama administration. On January 15, Pence said on CBS’s Face the Nation that Flynn had not discussed these sanctions with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, in late December. Flynn later admitted that he and Kislyak had discussed the sanctions, and also that the two had had more conversations during the transition than he had previously told Pence.
  • On the same Face the Nation appearance, Pence categorically denied that anyone in the Trump campaign had “any contact with the Russians.”
  • In March the New Yorker reported that Jared Kushner and Mike Flynn had met with Kislyak at Trump Tower in early December in order to create “a more open line of communication in the future,” according to the White House. The Washington Post reported in May that Kislyak reported on his Kushner-Flynn meeting, which took place on either December 1 or December 2, to his superiors in Russia in a communication intercepted by U.S. intelligence. Kislyak told Moscow Kushner had discussed the idea of “setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities.” The White House did not comment on this report.
  • Kushner’s meeting with Kislyak was among several meetings with Russian officials the 36-year-old White House aide did not disclose on a form he filled out to receive a security clearance. (Another transition-era meeting was with the head of a Russian state-owned bank.)
  • During his confirmation hearing on January 10, soon-to-be attorney general Jeff Sessions was asked what he would do if there were “any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign.” Sessions responded that he was unaware of any such activities and that in his own role on the campaign he “did not have communications with the Russians.”
  • But it was quickly discovered that Sessions had met Sergey Kislyak twice since endorsing Trump for president in February 2016. The first was a brief encounter after an event at which Sessions was speaking at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The second was on September 8 in Sessions’ Capitol Hill office. Sessions defenders noted that the first encounter was a talk with several ambassadors, of which Kislyak was just one, and that the second was listed on the Alabama senator’s public schedule and a reasonable meeting for a member of the Senate Armed Services committee to hold.

In Other Russia News

Jonathan Swan of Axios reports that the White House is trying to slow down a new set of sanctions on Iran and Russia that quickly passed the Senate and is up for debate in the House.

Administration officials believe the longer the bill gets delayed, the better their chances of convincing members that the bill is bad for diplomacy and bad for American companies—especially in the energy sector—who would be punished for doing international business with Russian companies.
Marc Short, whose White House legislative affairs team is working to amend the bill, says, “We support the sanctions on Iran and Russia; however, this bill is so poorly written that neither Republican nor Democratic administrations would be comfortable with the current draft because it greatly hampers the executive branch’s diplomatic efforts.”

The Other Election Interference

Trump defenders often make two arguments: (1) There’s no hard evidence; and (2) Isn’t what Loretta Lynch did on the tarmac in Phoenix a much more convincing case of improper election meddling?

On the first argument, that’s why the Mueller investigation is proceeding. On the second, Trump defenders aren’t wrong to look at what Lynch did and see alarming evidence of interference.

As the Obama administration’s attorney general, Lynch was head of the federal department investigating Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. On June 27 she met with Clinton’s husband, Bill Clinton, on the tarmac of an airport in Phoenix. As Lynch arrived the former president, who was flying out of Phoenix, walked onto the AG’s plane for a private conversation.

Lynch later said she and Clinton spoke about grandchildren and golf, but on July 5, FBI director James Comey announced he would recommend closing the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails and would not be recommending criminal charges. In his congressional testimony this past June, Comey said Lynch had asked him to publicly refer to the Clinton investigation as a “matter”—one of the terms preferred by the Clinton campaign.

There’s more than an appearance of meddling in an election here. What Lynch did was interference, and it was wrong, improper, and bad for democracy. You can be outraged by the Lynch affair and concerned about Russian election meddling, too.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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