The Senate Judiciary Committee unleashed a new tranche of records on Wednesday that offered the most detail yet about one of the most important subplots in the Russia imbroglio.
The more than 2,500 pages in the trove add the most context yet about the meeting that took place on June 9, 2016, in Trump Tower between top Trump campaign aides and a delegation of Russians after an offer of help in the contest against Hillary Clinton.
The document dump also helps put the meeting into the broader context about what is known about the Russian attack on the 2016 election and the ongoing investigation about whether any Americans were involved with it — and what still isn’t known.
Here’s a look at three big reasons the Judiciary Committee release was important.
1. The Russians apparently tried hard to collude with the Americans. But there’s no airtight case that the Americans reciprocated.
By the time Donald Trump Jr. received emails that described an offer of help from Moscow in June, Russians had been drilling pilot wells into the Trump campaign for months.
The Russian government had a long-standing relationship with Trump’s top national security aide, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn. Russian agents had made overtures to foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos in London in March 2016, according to court documents. Another Russian reached out via the National Rifle Association in May, according to one congressional report.
In fact, the overture that Trump Jr. received in June 2016 wasn’t even the only such outreach of that month. Another request for a meeting came into the campaign via another avenue about the same time that Trump Jr. received his now well-known email on June 3. The message described, via intermediaries, an offer of help for the Trump campaign from Russia’s top federal prosecutor, Yuri Chaika.
After all the earlier Russian attempts to get through, here was finally one known to have worked: “If it’s what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer,” Trump Jr. wrote to the intermediary who pitched him the meeting. He told Senate investigators that what he “loved” was the prospect of getting damaging information about Clinton.
Trump Jr. invited his brother-in-law Jared Kushner and then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to host attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, real estate dealer Irakly Kaveladze and others.
But Veselnitskaya didn’t bring high-powered “dirt” on Clinton that Trump Jr. had been promised, according to the accounts of people in the Judiciary Committee material. Instead, the tip she offered was about investors Dirk and Robert Ziff, who she alleged might have funneled money improperly out of Russia via Cyprus to the Democratic National Committee.
That nugget didn’t impress Trump Jr. and the other Americans, according to their accounts, and evidently they did not express any desire to do the additional investigating that Veselnitskaya said would be necessary to substantiate and use it as a political weapon against Democrats.
So although Trump Jr. did get something from his Russian guests, it was not the dirt on Clinton he was first promised, and not dirt sufficient for him to have made any kind of reciprocal commitment to Veselnitskaya or the others — at least according to his own testimony.
Trump Jr. and Kushner say that ultimately, the meeting was of no consequence. Trump Jr. later released, on his own, the emails that set the process into motion that culminated in the meeting.
For at least one other person inside this orbit, however, that move raised eyebrows. The Judiciary Committee released an email to Kaveladze from a redacted sender that referenced Trump Jr’s 2017 decision to unveil those messages: “Why did he release this email admitting to collusion?”
2. It still isn’t clear what happened after the Trump Tower meeting.
So one of the Russian pilot wells finally struck oil. The Russian government gets a meeting and conducts one, albeit — according to the Senate Judiciary Committee material — not along the lines of the initial premise as represented to Trump Jr.
Why, though? And what happened next?
It has become clear the Russian government was working to disrupt the election and that it was doing so to Trump’s benefit. But what role did the Kremlin envision Trump and his campaign playing in that scheme? Was the goal to enlist them in a cooperative effort and — assuming the accounts are accurate — did Veselnitskaya just botch the job?
Or was the Russian goal of sowing chaos and mistrust within the United States more important to Moscow at that time than the goal of electing Trump? That’s what former CIA officer Daniel Hoffman has suggested: that this was about poisoning the well for everyone and planting a trap that was meant to be discovered.
The meeting, in this view, was meant only to ensnare and embarrass the Trump camp in the way it has, according to Hoffman’s thesis, and thus befuddle Americans as to what went on behind the scenes in the presidential election.
Why, then, would the Russians then arrange for WikiLeaks to begin releasing stolen emails that embarrassed the leadership of the Democratic National Committee the following month?
Why wage such aggressive social media agitation against Clinton and in support of Trump? And why release emails later on to embarrass Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, hours after the appearance of the infamous Access Hollywood recording?
There isn’t enough public evidence now to make the full story make sense. If people in Trump world used the June meeting in Trump Tower as the baseline to establish clandestine ties with the Russians, that would be significant — but there is so far no public evidence they did.
President Trump, Trump Jr. and everyone else in the campaign denies there was any such conspiracy with the active measures the Russian government continued waging against the election. The House intelligence committee’s Republican majority has cleared Trump’s campaign of any wrongdoing.
There were, however, continued contacts between people in Trump world and Russian officials. Manafort’s long-standing relationships with powerful Ukrainians, and through them powerful Russians, eventually were his undoing as campaign chairman.
Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions met with Russia’s then-ambassador to the United States. A junior foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, traveled to Moscow twice as the year wore on. And Kushner and Flynn met or communicated with Russian officials after Election Day as well.
The Senate Judiciary Committee material released on Wednesday increases the amount of noise about the story but does not help with distinguishing a new signal in the midst of it.
3. How much did Donald Trump Sr. know about all this?
President Trump has said different things at different times about what he accepts about Russia’s attack on the 2016 election — his latest position is that it took place but he will defend future elections strongly. Trump has been largely consistent, though, that he did not know in real time in June 2016 that his oldest son, son-in-law and campaign chairman hosted a foreign delegation bearing an offer of help from overseas.
Trump Jr. stuck to that in the interview he gave to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Records show that Trump Jr. made a series of phone calls at the time he was setting up the meeting in Trump Tower. Two of them were to a blocked number. Trump Jr. was asked whether those calls were to his father. He said he couldn’t remember. Other witnesses have told the congressional committees that Trump uses a blocked number.
If law enforcement investigators could substantiate that Trump Jr.’s calls did go to Trump Sr. during this period, that might undercut the president’s denials that he was aware of the Russian outreach.
When asked about the process by which he and the White House crafted the initial statement about the meeting — a statement that did not accurately represent what the principals knew about it — Trump Jr. also told the committee he didn’t deal with his father. Instead, he said, he talked with then-White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, and he wasn’t aware of what she might have discussed with the president.
In fact, Trump Jr. said, Hicks asked him whether he wanted to speak to the president and, in Trump Jr.’s telling, he said no: “I chose not to because I didn’t want to bring him into something that he had nothing to do with.”