The Evidence That Trump and Putin Concocted a Cover Story for the Trump Tower Meeting

On July 20, 2017, we published my This Man Has Our Nuclear Codes piece. It was my appalled response to reading the interview President Trump had conducted in the Oval Office the day before with Maggie Haberman, Peter Baker, and Michael Schmidt of the New York Times. I wasn’t in a good mood:

Literally everything about the interview is obnoxious and grating. Trump demonstrates an inability to understand historical facts that extends from what happened just moments before in a meeting with Republican senators to the causes of Napoleon’s defeat during his invasion of Russia. Every story he tells is not just wrong but hit-yourself-in-the-head-with-a-hammer wrong…

…It’s all funhouse mirrors and mostly false assertions that are as incriminating as they are intended to be exculpatory.  If the New York Times were to interview Trump tomorrow and ask all the same questions, the details would be different but the overall impression would be the same. The president lies so much and has such a distorted idea of what’s happening around him that he literally doesn’t know or care what is true and what is not.

What shines through it all, though, is his unapologetic intention to obstruct justice.

I took that interview apart piece by piece, but I still left a lot of material on the cutting room floor. I had to revisit it on August 2, 2017 in my It Looks Like Trump and Putin Colluded on Adoption story.  Over the weekend, I was pleased to note that Marcy Wheeler has come to the same conclusion after reading the 20-page legal document the president’s former lawyers sent to Special Counsel Robert Mueller on January 29, 2018.

It was an extraordinary assertion for me to make last August and it’s still an audacious theory, but there is more evidence to support it than ever.

Before I get to that, though, I need to set the stage.

The “adoption story” is what the White House produced during an Air Force One flight home from the G20 conference in Germany on July 8, 2017. It was the same day that the New York Times broke the story that there had been a meeting 11 months before in Trump Tower on June 9, 2016 that was hosted by Donald Trump Jr. and attended by Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya. The full significance of the meeting and roster of attendees were not initially reported. The Times apparently thought it noteworthy simply because it was one more in a string of examples of undisclosed meetings between the Trump campaign and Russian nationals, and this time it didn’t involve peripheral characters.

While President Trump has been dogged by revelations of undisclosed meetings between his associates and Russians, this episode at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, is the first confirmed private meeting between a Russian national and members of Mr. Trump’s inner circle during the campaign.

The Trump administration was not caught completely off guard by the story in the Times. As Michael Isikoff reported for Yahoo News on July 13, 2017, “President Trump’s legal team was informed more than three weeks ago [by Kushner’s lawyers] about the email chain arranging a June 2016 meeting between his son Donald Jr. and a Kremlin-connected lawyer.”

On June 21, Jared Kushner updated his security clearance application (again) to reflect that he had been in attendance at the meeting. This caused the FBI to interview him on June 23. The administration knew they had a problem weeks before the story broke.

The New York Times did not initially have the email chain (or, if they did, they didn’t let on), and the first article didn’t report on the chain’s contents. As a result, when the Trump team was considering how to respond to the story on Air Force One, they thought they could keep the emails secret. Or, at least some of them did. There was actually a heated argument over that precise issue which reportedly led directly to the resignation of White House aide Mark Corallo.

The latest witness to be called for an interview about the episode was Mark Corallo, who served as a spokesman for Mr. Trump’s legal team before resigning in July [2017]. Mr. Corallo received an interview request last week [January 2018] from the special counsel and has agreed to the interview, according to three people with knowledge of the request.

Mr. Corallo is planning to tell Mr. Mueller about a previously undisclosed conference call with Mr. Trump and Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, according to the three people. Mr. Corallo planned to tell investigators that Ms. Hicks said during the call that emails written by Donald Trump Jr. before the Trump Tower meeting — in which the younger Mr. Trump said he was eager to receive political dirt about Mrs. Clinton from the Russians — “will never get out.” That left Mr. Corallo with concerns that Ms. Hicks could be contemplating obstructing justice, the people said.

In truth, the debate about how to respond did not begin on Air Force One. They were approached the day before they flew home from Germany:

Early on the morning of Friday, July 7, reporters from The Times approached White House officials and lawyers with questions about the Trump Tower meeting a year earlier.

The Washington Post reported that the issue was discussed among aides “on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit” where it was agreed that the best approach would be for Donald Trump Jr. to issue a statement that was truthful so that it would not have to be walked back. Unfortunately, that consensus was overruled by President Trump with the apparent support of Hope Hicks, and that’s how the “adoption story” was born.

As is now clear from Trump’s lawyers’ letter to Robert Mueller, Donald Trump “dictated” the following statement that was issued in the name of his son.

“It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at that time and there was no follow up.”

Donald Jr. apparently consented to this wording only after insisting that the word “primarily” be added. He knew that they were engaging in a coverup and that the statement was misleading. Yet, even with his edit the statement remained misleading.

In addition to some very serious sins of omission, it was also baldly false as there actually was a follow up by the Russian team immediately after the election. The most important thing that was left out, of course, was the fact that Trump Jr. had only agreed to take the meeting because he was to told he would be provided with dirt on the Clintons from the “Crown Prosecutor” of Russia as part of that country’s effort to help his father win the election.

The dirt he actually received was unsubstantiated and essentially useless, and what was discussed instead was the
Russian government’s desire that the Magnitsky Act be repealed. In that context, adoptions came up because Putin had retaliated when the Magnitsky Act was passed in December 2012 by putting a ban on Americans adopting Russian babies. Essentially, the pitch was that the Magnitsky Act was an unjustified sanctioning of high-ranking Russian officials and if a Trump administration would agree to kill it, the Russians would lift their adoption ban.

By crafting a statement that neglected to mention that the Russians had offered dirt on the Clintons or that they had expressly declared their intention to help Trump be elected or that they discussed the lifting of sanctions in those contexts, they clearly were seeking to paint a very sinister meeting as basically innocuous. Yes, adoptions were discussed, but that was only one minor piece of the puzzle.

Now, as I already mentioned, the Trump team knew that emails revealing all of these unsavory aspects of the meeting existed. Jared Kushner’s lawyers had unearthed them at least three weeks prior and updated his security clearance application prompting a visit from the FBI. They also knew that the emails were responsive or would be responsive to both congressional inquiries and the investigation of the Special Counsel. And early on the morning of July 7, 2017 they were approached by reporters from the New York Times who apparently knew about the meeting but not about the emails.

As it happened, President Trump had a prescheduled meeting with Vladimir Putin at the G20 on July 7. He also had a second meeting that night that had not been scheduled. When this second meeting was revealed, it caused quite an uproar. For one, the White House did not volunteer that the second meeting had taken place. They also couldn’t get their story straight about how long it lasted. Trump said it was “brief” but a senior White House official told CNN the discussion lasted “nearly an hour.” No other American officials were present for the conversation which was a complete violation of protocol, yet Putin had a translator who facilitated the back-and-forth.

The official explanation was that Melania had been seated at dinner with Putin while Trump had been seated far away with the wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who did not speak any English. Growing bored, Trump decided to amble over to his wife. In other words, the president sat down to have a nearly hour long private conversation with Putin because Putin just happened to be seated with the First Lady.  All they did was exchange pleasantries.

Of course, since early that morning the entire Trump team had been scrambling and strategizing to figure how to respond to the Trump Tower meeting story they knew the New York Times was about to report. The subject was obviously on the president’s mind, especially since it centered around his son. Did Trump discuss potential cover stories with Putin during their second meeting? Was that perhaps his real motivation in violating protocol and speaking privately with a foreign head of state with no American officials in tow to be witnesses?

Going back to that July 19, 2017 interview President Trump gave to the New York Times, you’ll see something very interesting in retrospect.

TRUMP: [Melania] was sitting next to Putin and somebody else, and that’s the way it is. So the meal was going, and toward dessert I went down just to say hello to Melania, and while I was there I said hello to Putin. Really, pleasantries more than anything else. It was not a long conversation, but it was, you know, could be 15 minutes. Just talked about — things. Actually, it was very interesting, we talked about adoption.

HABERMAN: You did?

TRUMP: We talked about Russian adoption. Yeah. I always found that interesting. Because, you know, he ended that years ago. And I actually talked about Russian adoption with him, which is interesting because it was a part of the conversation that Don [Jr., Mr. Trump’s son] had in that meeting.

So, by his own admission,  the president joined Putin uninvited at the July 7 dinner and discussed Russian adoptions with him. On July 8, on Air Force One, he “dictated” the Russian adoption cover story despite protests from members of his family, legal team and other advisers.

While Hicks allegedly assured the group that the emails would never surface, causing the spokesman for the legal team to resign out of concern that she and Trump were obstructing justice, the New York Times told them they knew of their existence the very next day. And then they reported on that, too. Even worse, their sources were “three advisers to the White House briefed on the [Trump Tower] meeting and two others with knowledge of it.”

By July 11, 2017, the Trump team realized that the New York Times had obtained actual copies of the emails and was preparing to publish them. To get ahead of that blockbuster story, Donald Jr. preemptively released the emails on his own in a series of tweets and did his best to rationalize and minimize them.

The next step was to try to protect the president. Trump insisted that he had no prior knowledge of the Trump Tower meeting and had only learned that it taken place at all a few days earlier.  But, of course, his lawyers had known for weeks and his son-in-law had been interviewed by the FBI about the matter on June 23.

By the end of the July, the Washington Post was reporting that the president was totally responsible for the adoption alibi.

The report said that President Trump had “overruled the consensus” of Trump Jr, Kushner, aides, and lawyers, who favored issuing “transparent” reports “because they believed the complete story would eventually emerge.” The Post reported that Trump personally dictated, worked on, and released a version in Trump Jr’s name with claims which “were later shown to be misleading”. Some advisors reportedly feared “that the president’s direct involvement leaves him needlessly vulnerable to allegations of a coverup.”

In response to that article, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders falsely declared on August 1, 2017 that Trump “certainly didn’t dictate, but … he weighed in, offered suggestion, like any father would do”. Her statement is now directly contradicted by the letter Trump’s own lawyers sent to Robert Mueller on January 29, 2018.

You have received all of the notes, communications and testimony indicating that the President dictated a short but accurate response to the New York Times article on behalf of his son, Donald Trump, Jr. His son then followed up by making a full public disclosure regarding the meeting, including his public testimony that there was nothing to the meeting and certainly no evidence of collusion.

There’s much more to this story, including strong indications that Trump actually was aware of the Trump Tower meeting at the time. But for our purposes, here, we can skip over those facets of this scandal. I will instead summarize the evidence that Trump and Putin colluded on the adoption story.

Trump acknowledges that he had a conversation with Putin on the evening of July 7, 2017 where by his own design no American witnesses other than his wife were present. That entire day, his staff had been preoccupied with figuring out how to respond to an impending nightmare involving the president’s son. Trump, by his own admission, says that he and Putin discussed the adoption issue, which was tied in Putin’s mind to the Magnitsky Act. The president then proceeded to board Air Force One and dictate a partially false and wholly misleading statement over the strong objections of some family members and staff. The statement omitted all references to the Magnitsky Act, sanctions, or dirt on the Clintons and focused exclusively on the adoptions issue that he had just discussed with Putin. The president then lied about having dictated that response, although his lawyers have admitted to the Special Counsel that he was solely responsible for it.

It is almost unthinkable that the president could not have mentioned to Putin the very thing that was preoccupying him that night, especially when we know they discussed adoptions. That the president, who supposedly knew next to nothing about what happened in the Trump Tower meeting until a few days prior, could have come up with the adoptions story on his own and overruled strong voices in his orbit, without it having been discussed the night before with Putin just isn’t plausible.

Since Trump made sure there were no witnesses to the conversation, we’ll never get absolute proof that he and Putin colluded on the cover story. But I think we have proof enough.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.