Why the Two Very Different Russia Stories From Donald Trump Jr. Matter So Much

July 10th 2017

Mike Rothschild

Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that President Donald Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., met with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in June 2016.

Then-campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, were also at the meeting, which was set up by a third-party with the purpose of conveying "helpful information" about Hillary Clinton to the Trump campaign, according to the Times.

Since the revelation was reported on Saturday, with additional reporting on Sunday, the political sphere has focused on little else. Trump Jr. has released two seemingly contradictory statements attempting to clarify what happened, numerous experts have taken to Twitter to try to add context to the reporting, and the Trump administration has tried to deflect attention on to other matters.

What was the nature of the meeting, according to the Times?

On June 9, two weeks after Trump clinched the Republican nomination, his oldest son took a meeting with a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya. The meeting was set up by an intermediary named Rob Goldstone, a music publicist he met in Moscow during the 2013 Miss Universe pageant.

Trump Jr., in turn, asked Kushner and Manafort to attend as well, as he had been "promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton," according to multiple sources quoted by the Times. At the meeting, Veselnitskaya appears to have told the group what she knew, and then the subject changed to resolving a dispute between Russia and the U.S. over adoptions.

How did Trump Jr. try to explain it?

The president's son appeared to offer multiple explanations for the meeting, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. The short statement he released on Saturday tried to play the meeting as a "short introductory meeting" with the purpose of discussing the revival of "a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families."

That program was ended by Russian President Vladimir Putin in response to the U.S. passing a series of sanctions punishing the Russian government for human rights abuses, colloquially known as the Magnitsky Act, after a human rights lawyer murdered in a Moscow prison in 2009.

Trump Jr. addressed the issue Monday morning with a tweet:

What was the second explanation?

On Sunday, after the Times published their story, Trump Jr. gave the paper a much longer statement, claiming that he took the meeting because he was promised "information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee." Trump claimed the revelations Veselnitskaya gave about Clinton and the DNC were vague and nonsensical, and that the real pretense for the meeting was Veselnitskaya lobbying Trump to repeal the Magnitsky Act.

He claimed that he rebuffed Veselnitskaya, and ended the meeting after 20-30 minutes. For her part, according to the Times, Veselnitskaya claims the meeting was solely about Trump repealing the Magnitsky Act and that Hillary Clinton was never mentioned.

Did his father know anything about the meeting?

His legal spokesman gave two statements on the meeting. The first blamed Democrats for the meeting, saying the Russian lawyer represented a firm "retained by Democratic operatives to develop opposition research on the president." A second statement, the next day, was more circumspect, saying only, "the president was not aware of and did not attend the meeting."

However, the first time Trump used his Twitter account to reference Hillary Clinton's "33,000 deleted emails" was the same day as the meeting, and the same day as well that Trump announced his intention to give an anti-Hillary Clinton speech about "how bad a president ... she would be." That speech was pushed to June 22 because of the Pulse Nightclub shooting. In it, Trump specifically mentioned "the 33,000 emails she deleted" and that "our enemies" know what's in them, using them to compile "a blackmail file."

Did anything illegal actually happen in this meeting?

It's not clear. Several legal experts, including George W. Bush's former ethics lawyer, claimed that even if no damaging information was passed on to the Trump campaign, just taking the meeting on the pretense of getting such information constitutes a felony, maybe even treason. But an expert quoted by the New York Daily News said that because nothing was promised to the Russian lawyer in exchange, it's difficult to prove a crime was committed.

However, the mere existence of the meeting contradicts numerous Trump campaign and administration statements that nobody from the campaign ever met with anyone with Russian connections.

What happens next?

The information likely will become part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the link between Trump and Russia, as well as Congressional investigations. Meanwhile, Trump has attempted deflect the public's attention back to former FBI Director James Comey's memos.