Senate releases insider accounts of Trump Tower meeting between campaign aides and Russian emissaries
The meeting was between campaign aides and Russian emissaries.
Donald Trump Jr. repeatedly pushed his Russian guests for damaging “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and grew increasingly frustrated when they failed to produce it, according to new accounts of the now-infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting between top campaign aides to Donald Trump and Russian emissaries.
One participant told the Senate Judiciary Committee Trump Jr. kicked off the June 9 meeting expectantly, telling his Russian guests, “So I believe you have some information for us?” And after hearing a Russian lawyer explain about an alleged tax fraud scheme involving major Democratic donors, a participant said Trump Jr. followed up: “So can you show us -- how does this money go to Hillary?”
Another participant recalled him pressing a second time, saying Trump, Jr. asked if “illegally obtained funds were also being donated to Mrs. Clinton's foundation.”
In the months since the first reports on the meeting, that gathering has emerged as a focal point of investigations into allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign. The Senate Judiciary Committee released roughly 2500 pages of interview transcripts and other documents Wednesday morning that provide a number of new details and fresh insider accounts of the gathering, but do not appear to change the narrative in any dramatic way.
“The public's business ought to be public,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who decided earlier this year he would permit the release the documents, a decision welcomed by Democrats.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)said the documents offer the public “a piece of the picture, a part of the puzzle.”
“But the full mosaic will require further investigation,” he said. “The American people deserve to know the truth.”
Trump Jr. said he welcomed the chance for the public to review his testimony.
“I appreciate the opportunity to have assisted the Judiciary Committee in its inquiry,” he said in a statement to ABC News. “The public can now see that for over five hours I answered every question asked and was candid and forthright with the Committee.”
The Russian Emissaries
Beyond the details of Trump Tower meeting itself, the documents offer a fresh look at the relationships between the Russian emissaries and Trump’s team – including the billionaire Moscow developer Aras Agalarov, who initially pushed for the meeting with help from his son, a Russian pop star, and his son’s music agent.
As early as the summer of 2015, early into Trump’s primary bid, the music agent to Emin Agalarov, Rob Goldstone, began to float the idea of Trump paying a visit to Russia. In an email exchange with Trump’s personal secretary Rhona Graff, he floats the idea of a first meeting with Russian President Putin.
“Maybe he would welcome a meeting with President Putin, which Emin would set up,” he wrote.
It is not clear if Graff replied.
After Trump’s election, another aide to Agalarov exchanges texts with Goldstone, celebrating Trump’s election.
“So it seems we are all now in the president’s inner circle!!” wrote Ike Kaveladze, who represent’s Agalarov’s business interests in the U.S. “So shocking.”
Later, Goldstone begins to update his Russian contacts on the fallout coming from the reports of the Trump Tower meeting. He texted to Agalarov’s son: “I hope this favor was worth it for your dad – it could blow up big.”
A lawyer’s murky background
The woman who led the Russian group’s presentation was Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who told the Senate in written answers to question that she was already in New York on other business when the meeting was added to her schedule.
She said she had no idea if Trump Jr. knew her background.
“Whether Mr. Trump Jr. knew anything about me and my name is unknown to me,” she said.
Her presentation centered U.S. sanctions against Russia, a policy staunchly opposed by Putin’s government, and the Kremlin’s response prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian children. Trump’s team of aides in the meeting appeared to be baffled by her focus on this, instead of the promised dirt on Clinton.
Goldstone told the senators that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, “appeared somewhat agitated by this and said, ‘I really have no idea what you're talking about. Could you please focus a bit more and maybe just start again?’”
“And I recall that she began the presentation exactly where she had begun it last time, almost word for word, which seemed, by his body language, infuriate him even more,” Goldstone said.
Kushner told reporters he only stayed briefly in the room and he believes "all of my actions were proper and occurred in the normal course of events of a very unique campaign,” adding unequivocally, “I did not collude with Russians, nor do I know of anyone in the campaign who did.”
Veselnitskaya later revealed in an interview on NBC and in emails obtained by ABC News that - contrary to her earlier denials of Russian government ties to Senate Judiciary Committee investigators - she is, in fact, closely linked to top Kremlin official, Yuri Chaika, the prosecutor general.
“I am a lawyer, and I am an informant,” she told NBC. “Since 2013, I have been actively communicating with the office of the Russian prosecutor general.”
Trump team drafts response
The Senate interview with Trump Jr. also suggests President Trump personally may have weighed in directly as his lawyers crafted an initial response to news reports of the Trump Tower meeting.
That first public response, drafted aboard Air Force One, said the focus of the meeting was “adoptions” and failed to mention it came after the Russians had promised to deliver “dirt” on his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton – an omission that has become a topic of interest to Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
“He may have commented through Hope Hicks,” Trump Jr. told the Senate of one of the president’s closest and longest-serving aides. “I believe some [of Trump’s comments] may have been [incorporated into the formal response], but this was an effort through lots of people , mostly counsel.”
When Trump Jr. first found out about the New York Times story, he said the meeting was about adoptions and mentioned nothing about a promise of political dirt on his father's political rival.
When the Times presented material to the contrary, the Trump son released a statement saying, "After pleasantries were exchanged, the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Mrs. Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”
Trump Jr. later went on Fox News' Sean Hannity show with something of a mea culpa saying, “'In retrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently,” in reference to the meeting.
Trump's one-time legal team spokesman, Mark Carrollo told author Michael Wolf in his book "Fire and Fury that he "believed the meeting on Air Force One represented a likely obstruction of justice,” and so he quit. ABC News first reported that Mueller sought an interview with Corallo afterward.
A blocked call
During his Senate interview, Trump Jr. said he never mentioned to his father he was going to hold the meeting.
But Democrats reviewing the transcripts have focused considerable attention to the question of whether candidate Trump knew the meeting with the Russian emissaries was occurring.
In a report prepared by Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) Senate investigators focused on a series of phone calls and emails that occurred on June 6, 2016, as Goldstone and Trump Jr. were connecting to set up the June 9 meeting “about this Hillary info.”
Minutes after Trump Jr. had a phone call with Goldstone’s Russian client, he called a blocked phone number and spoke with someone for 11 minutes. Trump Jr. told Senate investigators he could not identify whom he called and said he did not know if his father used a blocked number. “I have no idea,” he said, when asked with whom he spoke. The senate investigators wrote that Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski testified that “[Donald] Trump’s ‘primary residence has a blocked [phone] line.”
Ivanka greets Russian guests
One of the Russian participants recalled a brief encounter with Ivanka Trump, the candidate’s daughter, after their meeting wrapped up.
“She was at the reception,” Kaveladze said. “She said hello to us, and we said hello, how are you, and we had, like, polite conversation for maybe 1 minute. And then she told us to have a good day, and we left.”
While numerous questions have swirled around the controversial private meeting since it first came to light, the Russians told the senate they found the entire episode to be of little use.
Kaveladze told the senators he reported back to Agalarov after it ended.
“It was a complete loss of time,” he said, calling it a “useless meeting.”
The Russian participants have largely maintained identical descriptions of the day’s events. Scott Balber, a New York lawyer who represents the Agalarovs and Kaveladze, told ABC News “the meeting itself was a big nothing.”
Of Goldstone’s promise of dirt, Balber said: “I think he has said publicly that he quote ‘goosed the story’ for the purpose of getting the folks in the Trump campaign to agree to the meeting.”