And so the plot thickens … but by how much? Three days ago, the New York Times reported on a previously undisclosed meeting between a Russian attorney with alleged Kremlin links and three members of Donald Trump’s inner circle for the purposes of passing along dirt on Hillary Clinton and the DNC. Donald Trump Jr acknowledged the meeting and updated his disclosures, but called the event meaningless, stressing that no information of any use was provided and that he had no idea of any links between the information and the Russian government. Last night, the NYT reported that Trump Jr was warned prior to the meeting of those links:
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 email to the younger Mr. Trump was sent by Rob Goldstone, a publicist and former British tabloid reporter who helped broker the June 2016 meeting. In a statement on Sunday, Mr. Trump acknowledged that he was interested in receiving damaging information about Mrs. Clinton, but gave no indication that he thought the lawyer might have been a Kremlin proxy.
Mr. Goldstone’s message, as described to The New York Times by the three people, indicates that the Russian government was the source of the potentially damaging information. It does not elaborate on the wider effort by Moscow to help the Trump campaign.
Let’s note the curious nature of this report first. It’s not the first time that news outlets have reported on the contents of a document without seeing it for themselves, but it’s starting to become a bad habit. Why didn’t the Times insist on seeing the e-mail before reporting on it? The use of the word “indicates” can mean a lot of different things. Did the e-mail say, “The Putin regime is the source for this?” If so, why not just say the e-mail “stated” that the source was the Russian government? “Indicates” leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and with the indirect reporting provided in this story, offers less than full confidence in the interpretation without knowing the names of the sources who are only “describing” the e-mail rather than reading the content verbatim.
That, however, doesn’t make it worth ignoring. After all, we were told before last weekend that there were no meetings with Russians by high-ranking members of the Trump campaign. The only contacts that the Trump team would acknowledge were possible inadvertent contacts by lower-level campaign workers. It’s tougher to get any higher than Don Jr and Jared Kushner, both Trump family members, and then-campaign chair Paul Manafort. Perhaps this meeting was a “nothingburger” as Trump Jr now suggests, but it’s a nothingburger they didn’t disclose on their own, and that looks suspicious, too.
On the other hand, the Russian lawyer told NBC News that she never offered any dirt on Hillary Clinton or the DNC:
The Russian lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr. during the presidential campaign denied in an exclusive interview with NBC News that she had any connection to the Kremlin and insists she met with President Donald Trump’s son to press her client’s interest in the Magnitsky Act — not to hand over information about Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“I never had any damaging or sensitive information about Hillary Clinton. It was never my intention to have that,” Natalia Veselnitskaya said.
When asked how Trump Jr. seemed to have the impression that she had information about the Democratic National Committee, she responded:
“It is quite possible that maybe they were longing for such an information. They wanted it so badly that they could only hear the thought that they wanted.”
Interestingly, Veselnitskaya says that Kushner left after the first few minutes, and Manafort never engaged in the conversation at all — if one believes this tale. It seems difficult to buy, because why would these three men take a meeting with Veselnitskaya to discuss the Magnitsky Act sanctions? That’s something you send a flunky or surrogate to discuss. If they attended, they had to have been told that Veselnitskaya had more to tell them than just some pro-Russian talking points on Putin’s human-rights record.
However, this also lets them off the hook a bit, too. Trump says she had nothing to offer, and Veselnitskaya says the same thing. In any event, the purported dirt — Russian financing of the DNC — never got used in the presidential campaign, nor has Trump even mentioned the idea of rolling back the Magnitsky sanctions or any other penalties on Russia. Without a quid pro quo or even evidence of an attempt at it, it’s tough to allege collusion. Stupidity, maybe.
If the latest NYT story is true and Trump Jr got warned about the source of the potential material, it certainly goes to judgment and character. As John Dickerson puts it, it doesn’t show collusion, but suggests that Trump Jr may have been “collusion curious.” It’s probably best to wait to see how Robert Mueller’s independent investigation puts these pieces together before coming to a conclusion either way, however, because Mueller’s team won’t base its report on a telephone paraphrase of an e-mail that may or may not really exist.
Dickerson on Russia email revelations: Doesn’t show collusion, but shows Don Jr. was 'collusion curious.' pic.twitter.com/W7RbPNS3Sw
— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) July 11, 2017
Update: Power Line’s Scott Johnson wonders if this report a “joke”:
The story continues, but the Times’s four reporters do not pause to itemize other blanks or holes. This is the true anticlimax. “There is no evidence” for much more. The reader is left on his own to draw the relevant inferences.
There is no evidence that the Russian lawyer had damaging information to deliver. There is no evidence that the Russian lawyer delivered damaging information. There is no evidence that Trump Jr. asked the Russian lawyer to come back with damaging information. There is no evidence that Trump Jr. would have promised the Russian lawyer anything if she had agreed to return with damaging information. There is no evidence that Trump Jr. came away from the meeting with anything but disappointed expectations.
Is this some kind of a joke?