After agreeing to meet with Russians connected to the Russian government, and who he believed were bringing dirt on Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump Jr. asked a Russian lawyer at the meeting itself if she could provide information to connect Clinton to illegal campaign donations — further evidence outlined in special counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted final report released Thursday that Trump Jr. sought foreign help in the 2016 campaign.
The report also details President Donald Trump’s press strategy to obscure the true purpose of the meeting from the public, though Mueller concluded that neither Trump’s nor his son’s actions surrounding the Trump Tower meeting rose to the level of criminality.
Don Jr. Clearly Wanted Foreign Election Help
Perhaps the most revealing part of Mueller’s report on the Trump Tower meeting was its further proof that Trump Jr. sought the Russians’ help to get dirt on Clinton.
For example, after his initial back-and-forth with Emin Agalarov’s representative Rob Goldstone — in which Goldstone promised information from the “Crown prosecutor of Russia” that “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia” — Don Jr. forwarded the email chain to campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner under the subject line “FW: Russia – Clinton — private and confidential,” according to the report.
In the meeting itself, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya asserted, in the Mueller report’s words, “that the Ziff brothers had broken Russian laws and donated their profits to the DNC or the Clinton Campaign. She asserted that the Ziff brothers had engaged in tax evasion and money laundering in both United States and Russia.”
After a redaction, the report cited Russian lobbyist and former counterintelligence officer Rinat Akhmetshin: “According to Akhmetshin, Trump Jr. asked follow-up questions about how the alleged payments could be tied specifically to the Clinton Campaign, but Veselnitskaya indicated that she could not trace the money once it entered the United States.”
Georgian-American businessman Ike Kaveladze, who also attended the meeting, “similarly recalled that Trump Jr. asked what they have on Clinton, and Kushner became aggravated and asked ‘[w]hat are we doing here?’”
Ultimately, Mueller determined that Trump Jr. didn’t have enough knowledge of election law for Mueller to recommend charges over this pursuit of foreign election assistance. The special counsel’s team also wasn’t sure if the promise of dirt itself would constitute enough of a gift that it would require disclosure on election forms.
“Accordingly, taking into account the high burden to establish a culpable mental state in a campaign-finance prosecution and the difficulty in establishing the required valuation, the Office decided not to pursue criminal campaign-finance charges against Trump Jr. or other campaign officials for the events culminating in the June 9 meeting,” the report said.
Mueller’s report found little evidence that Donald Trump knew ahead of time that the meeting would involve Russians, though there is some indication that Trump knew a meeting would occur.
Deputy Campaign Chairman Rick Gates said he recalled that Trump Jr. “announced at a regular morning meeting of senior campaign staff and Trump family members that he had a lead on negative information about the Clinton foundation.”
And former Trump fixer Michael Cohen told Mueller’s team that on June 6 or 7, he recalled being in Trump Sr.’s office when Trump Jr. “told his father that a meeting to obtain adverse information about Clinton was going froward.”
“Cohen did not recall Trump Jr. stating that the meeting was connected to Russia,” the report noted.
The President himself told Mueller in writing that he had “no recollection of learning at that time” about a meeting “concerning potentially negative information about Hillary Clinton.”
Donald Trump Knew How Bad The Meeting Looked
Though it appears Donald Trump didn’t know the full extent of the meeting before it occurred, he also appears to have known how bad it looked after the fact, and pursued a press strategy to keep the true purpose of the meeting secret.
When he first heard about the meeting, Trump appeared to try to create some plausible deniability: According to Hicks, during a meeting that included her, the President, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump on or about June 22, 2017, “Kushner said that he wanted to fill the President in on something that had been discovered in the documents he was to provide to the congressional committees involving a meeting with him, Manafort and Trump Jr. Kushner brought a folder of documents to the meeting and tried to show them to the President, but the President stopped Kushner and said he did not want to know about it, shutting the conversation down.”
Eventually, when the story became inevitable, Trump took a more proactive approach to hiding the details about it.
Specifically, per the report, he told aides, including Hope Hicks, “to not publicly disclose the emails” regarding the meeting. He also, as has been publicly reported, “dictated a statement about the meeting to be issued by Donald Trump Jr. describing the meeting as about adoption.”
Despite Hicks’ repeated attempts to get in front of the news by setting Trump Jr. up with a “softball” interview about it, Trump Sr. rejected the approach. When Hicks first told Trump Sr. about the New York Times’ report that would reveal the meeting, “he directed her not to comment,” per the report.
“Hicks thought the President’s reaction was odd because he usually considered not responding to the press to be the ultimate sin,” the report said.
After Trump Jr. ultimately did give a statement to the Times, claiming misleadingly that “We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children,” Trump Sr. appeared satisfied. When Hicks approached the President again urging him to be fully transparent about the meeting, Trump reportedly responded: “You’ve given a statement. We’re done.”
Summing up Trump’s response to learning about the meeting, Mueller said that Trump’s attempts to mislead the public about the true purpose of the meeting were “directed at the press. They would amount to obstructive acts only if the President, by taking these actions, sought to withhold information from or mislead congressional investigators or the Special Counsel.”
And while Trump did attempt to deceive the public, via his press strategy, Mueller’s report stated that “the evidence does not establish that the President took steps to prevent the emails or other information about the June 9 meeting from being provided to Congress or the Special Counsel.”