Trump Tower Meeting's Organizer First Dangled Putin Meeting
(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump’s bid for the U.S. presidency was just weeks old in 2015 when the offers for Russian meetings and calls started.
A British-American publicist emerged with a swift invitation to visit Moscow, and possibly even to meet with Vladimir Putin. That was declined, but the outreach continued over more than a year, including an approach to Donald Trump Jr. that led to the now-infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting at the height of the campaign.
Secrecy about the meeting was promised. The next day, one of the meeting’s instigators offered a sizable gift from his wealthy Moscow family for Donald Trump’s birthday.
Meeting participants barraged each other with messages a year later as reporters began asking questions that ultimately prompted Trump Jr. to release some of the emails. The publicist complained about “massive problems” with lawyers. Trump Jr.’s lawyer and others exchanged missives about how they should characterize the meeting. The White House’s incoming communications director offered help riding out the controversy.
Those new details emerge from 2,500 pages of testimony and documents released Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee from people involved in the June 9, 2016, meeting in Trump Tower. Along with the publicist, Rob Goldstone, the participants included Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, as well as a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and other intermediaries.
In many ways, Goldstone emerges as the most expansive narrator of large portions of the Russian encounter. He sent some emails, about social visits, to Trump’s executive assistant, Rhona Graff. But later, as he worked to set up the meeting with the Russian lawyer who he said promised dirt on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Goldstone routed the request to Don Jr.
“I can also send this info to your father via Rhona but it is ultra sensitive so I wanted to send to you first,” Goldstone wrote. Asked why he steered his inquiries toward Trump Jr. instead of Graff, he told lawmakers that he viewed the choice as the “lesser of two evils.” The music publicist acknowledged that he felt he was out of his depth arranging such a political meeting, and repeatedly asked his Russia client for more information about who the lawyer was and what was being offered to the Trump camp.
The Trump Tower meeting, Goldstone testified, was a bust. The “smoking gun” on Clinton didn’t emerge. He was deeply embarrassed and apologized to Trump Jr., saying the meeting had been a “bait and switch.”
While the documents show a willingness on the part of the Trump campaign to work with Russians, they don’t appear to provide evidence of collusion. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee noted the investigation isn’t closed and still lacks critical documents and testimony from dozens of witnesses.
“I respect the Senate Judiciary Committee’s investigation, but they have more work to do," said the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York.
The White House hasn’t commented on the documents and the Trump Organization didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Another Moscow Invite
Goldstone was no stranger to the Trump family. He’d been on the scene when Trump visited Moscow in 2013 for the Trump-owned Miss Universe pageant. Goldstone’s prize client was Moscow pop star Emin Agalarov, the son of billionaire developer Aras Agalarov, who’d hosted the pageant.
Goldstone emailed Trump’s assistant in July 2015, just weeks after Trump officially launched his presidential campaign, inviting Trump back to Moscow to attend the billionaire developer’s 60th birthday party.
Trump was busy with his campaign, Graff responded, conveying regrets. “I totally understand re Moscow,” Goldstone replied to Graff on July 24, 2015. “Unless maybe he would welcome a meeting with President Putin which Emin would set up.” It was a nod to Trump’s unrequited desire -- made public in a tweet two years earlier -- to meet the Russian president.
Goldstone raised another proposal in January 2016, as Trump was battling a crowded field of Republican presidential hopefuls. Goldstone offered to arrange for Russia’s largest social-media network to promote Trump’s candidacy to more than 1.6 million Russian-American members of the network, according to the Senate documents.
“I can get massive exposure for Mr. Trump on the site for sure -- and it will be covered in Russian media also -- where I noticed your campaign is covered positively almost daily -- which (sic) extremely gracious comments from President Putin etc.,” Goldstone wrote to Trump Jr. and Graff.
Graff replied hours later, calling the offer a “terrific opportunity” and referring Goldstone to Dan Scavino, the Trump campaign’s social media director.
Goldstone offered what would become known as the Trump Tower meeting in early June 2016, pitching Trump Jr. on a get-together with a “Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow for this Thursday.”
Goldstone also wrote that the attorney was connected with Russia’s top prosecutor. Others connected with the meeting have long denied that the attorney at the heart of the meeting, Veselnitskaya, was doing the Kremlin’s bidding.
The newly released documents show Goldstone’s real-time efforts to understand more about what he was offering the Trumps. Goldstone was assured by his pop-star client that he need only set up the meeting -- others would handle the introductions and the agent needn’t stay, he said he was told.
While the meeting’s participants and the planning emails have been the object of intense public scrutiny, some mysteries have remained. The latest document release didn’t clear up one of the most tantalizing -- who Trump Jr. talked to for four minutes on June 6, on a blocked telephone line, amid planning calls, and again on June 7.
Trump Jr. has denied that he told his father about the meeting, and its promise of dirt on Clinton. Responding to senators’ questions about who he called, he testified: “I have no idea.”
He also told senators he didn’t know what his father was referring to on June 7, when he told a campaign crowd that by the next week, he would be unveiling some “very, very interesting” information about Clinton.
Having been told he wouldn’t be part of the meeting, Goldstone said he was pulled in at the last minute.
The gathering was a bust, according to testimonies of several participants. Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort listened as Veselnitskaya talked about U.S. sanctions -- the so-called Magnitsky Act -- and an adoption ban that Russia passed in response, and some Democratic donors involved in the drama.
“Meeting was boring. The Russians did not have any bad info on Hillary,” said one participant, Irakly “Ike” Kaveladze, who worked for an Agalarov company.
Manafort said nothing, Kaveladze said. Another participant, Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, was dressed in pink jeans and a pink T-shirt -- “highly inappropriate,” Kaveladze noted. Kaveladze said Kushner, who arrived wearing loafers with no socks, was visibly frustrated with Veselnitskaya’s presentation and asked: “Why are we here and why are we listening to that Magnitsky Act story?”
Embarrassed as the meeting closed, Goldstone testified that he apologized to Trump Jr. He also swiftly revisited the idea of helping push Trump with a voting registration or information page on Russian social media site VK.
“Great,” responded Manafort, the campaign chair, according to Goldstone’s testimony. It’s unclear if that effort happened.
The next day, Goldstone wrote to Graff that his client, Emin Agalarov, would like to send a “sizable birthday gift” for Trump to his offices. Goldstone wrote that Trump’s bodyguard, Keith Schiller, had told him the previous day that any packages would have to go through “TSA-style scanning.”
Graff responded to Goldstone via email, saying any package would have to come through the building’s sub-cellar, where it would be screened by the Secret Service. The gift was a painting, Goldstone said, without elaborating.
After the meeting, according to the emails, Goldstone appeared to fret. Writing to Kaveladze and the younger Agalarov on June 14, he pointed toward a news story about the hack of Democratic National Committee emails. “Top Story right now” Goldstone wrote. “Seems eerily weird based on our Trump meeting last week with the Russian lawyers etc.”
After Trump’s surprise electoral victory, Goldstone was asked to broker another meeting with Veselnitskaya. It was “a ridiculous request,” Goldstone later testified -- one that he said he had to “fight everything in me not to have to request.”
“Enclosed please find synopsis of the topic Ms. Natalya wants to discuss with T people,” Kaveladze wrote to Goldstone on Nov. 23. Veselnitskaya was so enthused about the prospect of a meeting that she flew to the U.S. hoping it would happen, according to Russian-language texts included in the exhibits.
Goldstone relayed the request in a Nov. 28 message to Graff. Aras Agalarov asked him to convey the document on the Magnitsky Act, Goldstone wrote, so it could get to “the appropriate team.” Goldstone reiterated that the lawyer representing the case -- Veselnitskaya -- was in New York and could meet with members of the Trump transition team. There’s no indication the meeting happened.
Word Gets Out
The questions started a half-year later. In early July 2017, the New York Times published a story that Trump Jr. had arranged a meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer.
“I hope this favor was worth it for your dad -- it could blow up big,” Goldstone wrote to the Russian pop star after the July 9 article, noting that Kaveladze and Goldstone had cautioned the elder Agalarov against it.
Word of the meeting could destroy the business he spent 20 years building, Goldstone wrote to his client. “I trust we will be compensated in some way,” he added.
Pressed on why the news could hurt his business, Goldstone responded to the pop star: “Because I work in music and it’s FULL of Liberals and I am seen as some weird link to the Kremlin.”
“That should give you mega PR,” Agalarov responded. As Goldstone grew more exasperated, the pop star dug in, explaining to his publicist that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. “This is making you one of the most famous people in the world,” the younger Agalarov wrote.
“You know, Jeffrey Dahmer was famous,” Goldstone replied, referring to the serial killer, according to his testimony. “I don’t think he got a lot of work out of it,” Goldstone added before hanging up on his client.
Agalarov suggested language Goldstone could use to explain the meeting. Goldstone also communicated with Alan Garten, the Trump Organization general counsel, according to exhibits and testimony.
By July 10, a lawyer for Trump Jr. was also involved.
“Please consider the following as a statement,” the lawyer, Alan Futerfas, wrote to Goldstone. In an apparent effort to keep their stories consistent, Goldstone then forwarded that proposal to Kaveladze. The proposed statement read: “As the person who arranged the meeting, I can definitely state that the statements I have read by Donald Trump Jr. are 100 percent accurate. The meeting was a complete waste of time and Don was never told Ms. Veselnitskaya’s name prior to the meeting.”
Goldstone refused to issue the statement, describing it to Senate investigators as “ludicrous” and “didn’t sound like my voice.”
The next day -- July 11 -- Trump Jr. released some of the emails that led up to the Trump Tower meeting.
In an email to Kaveladze, bearing the subject line “dt jr.,” an unidentified sender mused: “Why did he release this email admitting to collusion?”
Goldstone texted his client: “I need to retain an attorney as soon as possible -- this is getting out of control.”
Efforts to control the message also appear to have been picked up by Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as White House communications director.
“I don’t officially start...until the 15th, Rob,” read a July 23 email from Scaramucci’s account. “But I just wanted to drop you a line to say if you ever need to pick my brains then my door is always open. Obviously there is still pressure on all sides, but if we remain consistent and united I don’t envisage any issues we can’t ride out.”
Though the early contacts described a meeting with a “Russian government attorney” and an “ultra sensitive” matter, Goldstone suggested after the fact that the meeting was “in no way connected with the Russian Government or any of its officials.”
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