Hard to tell how serious this may be. Does it indicate a deeper interest in the much-publicized meeting between a Russian attorney and three top members of the Donald Trump presidential campaign — or more of a due diligence effort to make sure Robert Mueller touches all the bases? CNN reports that the White House has received a request from the special counsel to save all its records on the June 2016 meeting between Natalia Veselnitskaya and Donald Trump Jr:
Special counsel Robert Mueller has asked the White House to preserve all documents relating to the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort had with a Russian lawyer and others, according to a source who has seen the letter.
Mueller sent a notice, called a document preservation request, asking White House staff to save “any subjects discussed in the course of the June 2016 meeting” and also “any decisions made regarding the recent disclosures about the June 2016 meeting,” according to the source, who read portions of the letter to CNN.
The letter from Mueller began: “As you are aware the Special Counsel’s office is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, including any links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of Donald Trump. Information concerning the June 2016 meeting between Donald J Trump Jr and Natalia Veselnitskaya is relevant to the investigation.”
If that quote is accurate and complete, the extent of the interest seems more pro forma. After all, Don Jr was not an official campaign figure; Paul Manafort was, and yet doesn’t get named here. Jared Kushner, also not named, is a current White House official. Both were part of the same meeting, although Kushner left after a few minutes. If the special counsel really wanted this as a target for prosecution, one might think that they would specify Manafort and/or Kushner, although of course the wording doesn’t exclude either one.
Another indication that this may be more of a checkbox exercise will come next week. All three figures in the meeting have been cleared by the special counsel to testify to Congressional committees also probing Russian influence, with Don Jr and Manafort scheduled for next Wednesday, with Kushner testifying in a separate closed session. All of the testimony is voluntary, not compelled, which indicates that none of the three are too concerned about the legal impact of testifying before Congress. That testimony could complicate Mueller’s investigation, which is why the committee sought his clearance beforehand. That would tend to imply that none of the three is a particular target, although that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t talk themselves into that position.
Politically, of course, the potential for damage is present, but more from the testimony than the records request. It remains to be seen whether the triumvirate can offer an explanation that will satisfy the majority of Americans, and a CNN poll released today shows that there are a lot who need convincing:
Only a plurality of Republicans are buying the “anyone would have taken the meeting” argument. The biggest threat is how long this stays in the news.
Update: Reuters reports that Veselnitskaya represented a military unit of the Russian intelligence bureau FSB in land disputes a few years back:
The documents show that the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, successfully represented the FSB’s interests in a legal wrangle over ownership of an upscale property in northwest Moscow between 2005 and 2013.
The FSB, successor to the Soviet-era KGB service, was headed by Vladimir Putin before he became Russian president.
There is no suggestion that Veselnitskaya is an employee of the Russian government or intelligence services, and she has denied having anything to do with the Kremlin.
But the fact she represented the FSB in a court case may raise questions among some U.S. politicians.
It’s certainly a connection. It’s not terribly clear that it’s a substantive connection, but it is a very good demonstration of why professional campaigns vet people for access to significant officials before allowing a meeting to take place.