The Daily 202: Email to Donald Trump Jr. could be a smoking gun, as Russia connections deepen

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There is a paper trail.

Monday night, the New York Times reported: “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.”

New details from others involved in arranging the meeting point to additional Trump links to Moscow. The Washington Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman, Tom Hamburger and Greg Miller report: “The session was set up at the request of Emin Agalarov, a Russian pop star whose Kremlin-connected family has done business with Trump in the past . . . Emin Agalarov and his father, Aras Agalarov, a wealthy Moscow real estate developer, helped sponsor the Miss Universe pageant, then owned by Trump, in Russia in 2013. After the pageant, the Agalarovs signed a preliminary deal with Trump to build a tower bearing his name in Moscow, though the deal has been on hold since Trump started his campaign for president. …

“Goldstone previously told The Washington Post that he set up and attended the meeting so Veselnitskaya could discuss the adoption of Russian children by Americans. In a new statement, Goldstone confirmed what Trump Jr. said Sunday: that he enticed the then-candidate’s son by indicating that (Natalia) Veselnitskaya could provide damaging information about Democrats . . .

“The involvement of the Agalarovs brings the meeting closer to Trump’s past business interests and to the Kremlin. Trump has spent time with both Emin Agalarov and his father – appearing in a music video for the pop singer that was filmed at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton hotel in 2013. . . . The Agalarovs are also close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Aras Agalarov’s company has been awarded several large state building contracts, and shortly after the 2013 pageant, Putin awarded the elder Agalarov the ‘Order of Honor of the Russian Federation,’ a prestigious designation.”

Trump Jr., 39, has hired criminal defense lawyer Alan Futerfas to represent him in the Russia probes. His past clients have included alleged organized-crime associates. In a statement sent late Monday night, the New York-based attorney neither confirmed nor denied the Times story about the email on Russia’s intentions. He called the June meeting “much ado about nothing” and said Trump Jr. believed he was being offered information about “alleged wrongdoing” by Clinton in her dealings with Russia. “Don Jr.’s takeaway from this communication was that someone had information potentially helpful to the campaign and it was coming from someone he knew,” he said.

Susan Hennessey, the managing editor of Lawfare and a Brookings Fellow, dropped a truth bomb. A Harvard Law graduate, she was previously an attorney in the general counsel’s office at the National Security Agency: “I cannot say this strongly or sincerely enough. If you work in the White House, you need to have a plan in place for retaining a lawyer,” she wrote on Twitter.

Eugene Robinson calls the Russia meeting “a legal game-changer”: “From now on, ignore the conventional wisdom about how the Russia scandal is not ‘resonating’ with President Trump’s still-loyal base. The question at this point is what strikes a chord with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III – and what kind of legal jeopardy Trump’s closest associates, including his eldest son and son-in-law, might eventually face. . . . Is this all too complicated for voters to follow? Would Americans beyond the Beltway rather hear about jobs or health care? Perhaps so. But the questions that should be concentrating the minds of the president’s inner circle are legal, not political – and Mueller’s high-powered team of lawyers is experienced at connecting dots.”

Don Jr. must also contend with the ongoing congressional investigations. A Republican senator on the Intelligence committee, Susan Collins of Maine, said the panel “needs to interview” the president’s namesake and the others who attended the meeting. Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., the vice chairman of the committee, gaggled outside his office yesterday afternoon to explain the significance of the latest revelation: “This is the first time the public has seen clear evidence that senior-level officials of the Trump campaign met with potentially an agent of a foreign government to try to obtain information that would discredit Hillary Clinton,” he said.

What did the president know and when did he know it? Administration officials, who spent months vehemently and categorically denying that there was any contact between the campaign and Russians, are now trying to downplay the significance of an encounter that undercuts many of their previous claims.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed during her off-camera briefing that the president only learned of his son’s meeting with Veselnitskaya “in the last couple of days.” Don Jr. also said in his Sunday statement that his father “knew nothing of the meeting or these events.”

This is very hard to believe. Don Jr. pulled in his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort. “This was three people who were closer to him and to the campaign than just about anybody else,” Aaron Blake explains. “This meeting was seen as significant enough for all three of them to make a point to attend, and yet nobody shared details of the meeting with the guy whose campaign they were acting as members of? The president is going to have to address this.”

Why has the White House failed to get its story straight on so many occasions? “When you are treading water in situations like these, the best strategy is generally to get all the bad news out at once, and to understand the truth so that you don’t keep getting caught in falsehoods that make it look like you have something to hide,” Aaron writes. “There are basically two options for the White House officials here: They are trying to hide something, or they are completely derelict in dealing with – and getting out in front of – all of this.”

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