Donald Trump Jr., along with Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and Trump's then-Campaign Manager Paul Manafort, met in Trump Tower in New York with a group of Russian emissaries on June 9, 2016. Now investigators probing the connections between Trump and Russia during that year's presidential election want to know the answer to a key mystery surrounding that meeting. Did the then-candidate Trump know about it, and if so, when and how much?
In fact, in the list of questions for Trump from Russia investigation Special Counsel Robert Mueller published on Monday, Mueller plans to ask Trump directly about when he learned of the meeting, and the role he played in concocting a cover story once the meeting was revealed, about a year after it happened.
The group of Russians at the meeting was led by Kremlin-linked lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who has since admitted that she is a longtime "informant" for top Russian officials — which according to numerous experts is another way of saying that she is a Russian spy.
The meeting was initiated when Trump Jr. received an email from Rob Goldstone, a publicist who worked for Emin Agalarov, son of Aras Agalarov, a top Russian oligarch and real-estate developer with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin — and to Trump. The Agalarovs and Trump were partners in bringing the 2013 Miss Universe pageant to Moscow, and in the planned Trump Tower Moscow project that grew out of the Miss Universe partnership.
In the email, Goldstone said that at the meeting, the Russians would offer information that "would incriminate Hillary (Clinton) and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father." Goldstone added that the damaging information on Clinton was "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."
But did Trump himself know about the meeting? The answer could link Trump directly to collusion with the Russians.
New revelations contained in the report released last week by Republicans on the House Select Committee on Intelligence show that Trump had been in direct communication with Aras Agalarov as recently as late April of 2016. Footnotes to the Republican report reveal that Trump, who does not use email, sent a handwritten message to Aras Agalarov on April 25, 2016. That message came in response to an email message from Agalarov.
Trump and the Putin-linked oligarch had also exchanged messages on March 18, with Trump again passing along a handwritten note in response to a "typewritten" missive from Agalarov. The messages were sent via email by Trump's personal assistant Rhona Graff, to Goldstone, who presumably relayed the message to Agalarov.
Two days after the Aril 25 communication between Trump and Agalarov — during a campaign in which Trump repeatedly asserted that he had "nothing to do with Russia, for anything" — Trump gave his first foreign policy speech of the campaign, at New York's Mayflower Hotel. Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak attended that speech and met with Trump at a reception afterward.
The purpose of Trump's correspondence with Agalarov and meeting with Kislyak just days later remains unclear. But the previously unrevealed contact between Trump and Agalarov, via Goldstone, raises the possibility that two months later, Agalarov may have communicated with Trump prior to the Trump Tower meeting. Whether such communication took place remains a mystery.
Trump was in his Trump Tower office at the time of the meeting with the Russians, just a floor above the room where the meeting took place. The House Intelligence Committee found that Trump Jr. had three phone calls immediately following the meeting, the first and last to Emin Agalarov. The second call came from a blocked number.
The elder Trump had a blocked phone number at that time, and Democrats on the House Committee suspect that the second call may have come from Trump himself. But they say that Republicans who controlled the committee refused to investigate to find out who owned the blocked number.
But both Veselnitskaya and Aras Agalarov kept in communication with the Trump campaign, each reaching out to the campaign after the election which, of course, was won by Trump. According to Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Agalarov and Veselnitskaya may have been looking for Trump to lift sanctions against Russia — as they discussed at the Trump Tower meeting — as payment for Russia's covert help to Trump in the election.
The Trump campaign denied that any of the Russians followed up after the meeting. But with the multiple instances of communication between Trump and Agalarov, the outreach by Russian spy Veselnitskaya, and the possible phone call from Trump immediately following the Trump Tower meeting, an answer to the mystery of whether Trump had knowledge of the meeting — knowledge that could be seen as direct collusion with Russia — appears to be growing closer.