Congress is very eager to wrap up its probe into Russian election meddling. I mean, this isn't Benghazi, right? No need for seven separate investigations stretching out over years. So in an effort to move toward a conclusion, the Senate Judiciary Committee released 2,500 pages of documents and transcripts from its investigation this week, and the Senate Intelligence Committee explained that the intelligence community's assessment about Russia's intentions in meddling in the 2016 election were accurate. "The Russian effort was extensive, sophisticated, and ordered by President Putin himself for the purpose of helping Donald Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton," said Democrat Mark Warner, the Senate Intelligence Committee's vice chair.
That conclusion may sound obvious, but it still needs to be said. And the documents provide more detail on the Russian effort and the Trump campaign's cooperation with it.
Much of the material concerns the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting that included Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and a group of Russians, and around which so much of the "collusion" discussion has revolved. Proposed by an acquaintance of Don Jr.'s named Rob Goldstone, it was supposed to involve the Russians giving the Trump campaign damaging information on Hillary Clinton. In an email to Don Jr. (with "Russia - Clinton - private and confidential" as the subject line), Goldstone had proposed the meeting promising something extraordinary: Russian billionaire Aras Agalarov, who along with his son Emin is friendly with the Trumps, met with a high-ranking Russian official who "offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary [...] This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."
Don Jr. replied with "if it's what you say I love it," and a meeting with the campaign's top officials was quickly arranged.
In his testimony to the committee, Don Jr. claimed that he never told his father about the meeting, either before or after. This idea is almost too fantastical to believe. Don Jr., so obviously desperate for his father's approval, wouldn't let dad know that he was about to bring in a major coup of dirt on Hillary directly from the Russians?
That doesn't count as evidence, though. We do, however, have a very interesting chain of events suggesting what actually happened:
June 3, 2016: Rob Goldstone suggests the meeting. Don Jr. agrees and begins arranging it.
June 6, 2016: Don Jr. has two phone calls with Emin Agalarov 27 minutes apart; in between them he speaks to someone with a blocked number, i.e. one that doesn't show up in the records. Donald Trump reportedly has a blocked number, but Don Jr. testified that he doesn't remember who he talked to.
June 7, 2016: Donald Trump tells a crowd, "I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week and we're going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you're going to find it very informative and very, very interesting."
June 9, 2016: The meeting takes place, but no damaging information is forthcoming. Trump's "major speech" never takes place.
Let me speculate for a moment. It seems clear that Don Jr. told his father about the meeting, and everyone was excited about what they'd learn. Indeed, in the frenzy of a presidential campaign you don't bring the candidate's son, the candidate's chief policy adviser (and son-in-law), and the campaign chairman all together for a meeting unless it's really, really important. They were so sure they were going to get something juicy that Trump couldn't help but tell a crowd that it was coming, like he was delivering a promo for a very special upcoming episode of The Apprentice. Then it turned out the Russians didn't have anything to offer, so they pretended it never happened.
Until reporters started sniffing around a year later. When that happened, the Trumps had to come up with a cover story for Don. Jr. to release to the press, and their first statement said that the Trump Tower meeting "primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children" and had nothing to do with the campaign. Not only was this utterly untrue, but The Washington Post reported that the statement was personally dictated by the president. The Trump team's comments would go through various iterations until they learned that The New York Times had in their possession the emails between Don Jr. and Goldstone, upon which Don Jr. released them himself and the game was up.
Asked about his father's involvement in crafting the first false statement, Don Jr. said, in the transcripts released by the Judiciary Committee, that the president "may have commented through Hope Hicks," then a key White House aide. We also learned that when the story of the meeting broke in the media, Don Jr.'s lawyer reached out to Goldstone, Emin Agalarov, and Russian businessman Ike Kaveladze, who was one of the participants in the meeting, to make sure they were all telling the same story.
We know that the Trump campaign was certainly eager to collude with Russia. We know that the Russians mounted a multifaceted effort to help Trump, involving in-person approaches and cyber efforts. The new report also notes that "the committee has obtained a number of documents that suggest the Kremlin used the National Rifle Association as a means of accessing and assisting Mr. Trump and his campaign"; no doubt we'll be hearing more about that. We know that the Trump team, including the president, tried to fool the public about the Trump Tower meeting.
And we know that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has learned a lot of things he still hasn't told us about. Stay tuned.