Thousands of pages of congressional testimony shed light on 2016 Trump Tower meeting |
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Thousands of pages of congressional testimony shed light on 2016 Trump Tower meeting

Associated Press
Donald Trump Jr., waits for an elevator at Trump Tower in New York. Donald Trump Jr. told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he couldn't remember whether he had discussed the Russia investigation with his father, according to transcripts released Wednesday of his interview with the panel.

As Donald Trump Jr. greeted his Russian-speaking guests in a conference room high atop Trump Tower in June 2016, he cut straight to the chase.

“I believe you have some information for us,” Trump Jr. said to a Russian lawyer visiting from Moscow, according to one of the attendees.

Trump Jr. had been expecting dirt on Hillary Clinton provided as part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s presidential campaign – “potential information about an opponent,” he told congressional investigators, according to documents released Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Also anticipating damaging information on Clinton was Rob Goldstone, the colorful music promoter for a Russian pop star, who had set up the meeting.

“I expected there to be something that would make people react,” he told the committee.

Instead, lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya droned on about a 2012 law known as the Magnitsky Act that had imposed sanctions on Russia for human rights abuses and has been a particular vexation of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The new details of the June 9, 2016, meeting in Trump Tower are drawn from 2,500 pages of congressional testimony and exhibits that paint a vivid picture of how Donald Trump’s erstwhile Russian business partners collided with his presidential campaign in a single 20-minute campaign meeting that has been a key focus of investigations by three congressional committees and special counsel Robert Mueller III.

The information in the transcripts is unlikely to shift public perceptions of the meeting. Republicans will point to the hours of testimony to argue Trump Jr. might have been unwise to accept the meeting but that he did not collude with the Russian government or get the dirt he expected.

Democrats will say that the episode shows Trump Jr. was willing to accept Russian help, prompting deep questions about his father’s election effort that have not been answered.

But the documents provide the public’s best understanding yet about the events that led up to the meeting, as well as the deep anxiety sparked in President Trump’s orbit a year later, when the meeting’s occurrence became public and contradicted previous Trump claims that no one on his campaign had interacted with Russians.

The release comes as congressional Republicans look to wrap up their parallel investigations. Already, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have issued a report finding no evidence that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia. Democrats fear the Senate Judiciary Committee could be preparing to do the same soon. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s leadership said Wednesday that its investigation has determined the Kremlin sought to help Trump win the election but that it will be several more months before the committee addresses the question of collusion.

The roots of the Trump Tower meeting can be found three years earlier, when the Trump-owned Miss Universe pageant was held in Moscow, financed by the Russian billionaire developer Aras Agalarov and his son, Emin, a pop singer.

During a boisterous planning meeting in Las Vegas and then over a weekend in Moscow, Trump became friendly with the Russian father-and-son duo, as well as Goldstone, Emin Agalarov’s sharp-tonged British manager.

Trump pushed repeatedly for the Agalarovs to get him a meeting with Putin in connection with the pageant, Goldstone testified. Trump’s demand, he said, was “the gorilla in the room that had to be addressed, but there seemed to be no answer to address it.”

An Agalarov employee told the committee that his boss tried to make the meeting happen, “secretly” requesting it through a Russian government employee.

At first, it looked as though Putin would accommodate Trump. But then the Russian president canceled at the last minute. Instead, he issued an invitation for Trump to attend the Sochi Olympics and a hopeful promise for the future. Putin “said he’d be happy to meet him there or at any future time,” Goldstone testified.

While in Moscow, Trump attended a reception at the exclusive Nobu restaurant, where someone asked him his view on Russia, its leader and economy. “I remember him saying specifically, ‘You have a very strong leader. Our leader is weak,’ ” Goldstone recalled. Asked whom Trump was referring to when he mentioned a weak leader, Goldstone answered: “President Obama.”

Following the pageant, Trump’s new Russian friends stayed in touch. In May 2015, the month before Trump declared his candidacy for the presidency, Goldstone brought Emin Agalarov to see the celebrity businessman in New York, where the men posed for photos.

“Maybe next time, I’ll be hosting you guys in the White House,” Goldstone recalled Trump saying.

A few months later, Goldstone invited Trump to attend a birthday party for Aras Agalarov at a Nobu in Moscow. After Trump’s assistant declined, citing his busy campaign schedule, Goldstone tried to sweeten his offer: If Trump attended, perhaps Agalarov could get him that meeting with Putin. Trump did not attend.

From Russia, the Agalarovs tracked the campaign. As Super Tuesday approached, Aras Agalarov wrote Trump of his appreciation for the candidate’s campaign trail statement that “the U.S. and Russia should work together more closely.”

“We would like to wish you success in winning this major ballot and further reinforcing your undisputed status as the front-runner for Republican nomination for U.S. Presidential Election,” Agalarov wrote.

Goldstone offered other help, passing along an offer of assistance from an executive at the Russian social media company VKontakte, or VK.

By June 2016, Trump had clinched the Republican nomination.

That’s when Emin Agalarov asked Goldstone to get the meeting for the Russian lawyer. Repeatedly, Agalarov told Goldstone that she was “well-connected.” He also said she would bring “damaging information” about Democrats and Clinton, Goldstone recalled.

Goldstone testified that he immediately told Agalarov that he believed the meeting was a bad idea. But the Russian was insistent.

“”He said, ‘It doesn’t matter. You just have to get the meeting,’ ” Goldstone said.

So Goldstone wrote Trump Jr. an enticing email. The lawyer, he wrote, had “very high level and sensitive information” that was part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

Trump Jr. responded: “if it’s what you say I love it,” and quickly moved to schedule time and invite Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman, to attend.

It was a motley group that went to Trump Tower that June afternoon. Besides Goldstone, Agalarov sent a U.S.-based employee, Ike Kaveladze. A Clinton supporter, Kaveladze testified that he considered backing out of the meeting when he got wind that it was intended to hurt the Democrat’s campaign.

Veselnitskaya, who spoke little English, brought a translator, as well as Rinat Akhmetshin, a veteran of a Soviet counterintelligence unit who is now a Russian American lobbyist and who had been assisting her in efforts to change the Magnitsky Act.

Trump Jr. told the committee he did not remember Akhmetshin’s presence. Others remembered that he showed up wearing hot pink jeans and a hot pink shirt.

By consensus, the meeting did not go well. Trump Jr. said it was such a waste of time that he never bothered to inform his father. Goldstone quickly informed Emin Agalarov that it was the most embarrassing thing the pop star had ever asked him to do.

The Russian speakers decamped to the Trump Bar just off the lobby on the first floor of Trump Tower. As they had a round of drinks, Aras Agalarov called Kaveladze from Moscow. Kaveladze handed his phone to Veselnitskaya so she could offer her thanks.

But later, when he was alone, Kaveladze spoke to his boss again. “I said it was complete loss of time,” he recalled.

By June 2017, when Trump was president and Mueller was investigating Russian interference in the election, Trump’s associates became concerned that the year-old meeting would become public.

The lawyers are “concerned because it links Don Jr. to officials from Russia — which he has always denied meeting,” Goldstone wrote in an email to Emin Agalarov on June 27.

Soon after, the New York Times reported the meeting, and lawyers and meeting participants scrambled to come up with an explanation for the encounter.

Trump himself contributed to an initial statement about the meeting released by his son, Trump Jr. told the committee. It misleadingly stated that it had been “primarily” about the adoption of Russian children by Americans. The Kremlin halted adoptions as retaliation for the Magnitsky Act. His statement did not mention the sanctions law or the offer of dirt on Clinton.

Shortly after the Times piece appeared, Goldstone fielded an unexpected call from The Washington Post while having lunch in Greece. Reporting the call to Trump lawyers, he assured them that he had offered a similar account.

“I said only that the meeting appeared to have been about adoption issues and was quickly terminated,” he wrote in an email at the time.

But within days, Trump Jr. released all of the emails Goldstone had sent him, generating intense scrutiny — and tension between Goldstone and his Russian client.

Goldstone testified that Agalarov also told him he should be pleased he had become so famous.

“You know, Jeffrey Dahmer was famous. I don’t think he got a lot of work out of it,” Goldstone told Agalarov in one phone call, before hanging up.

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