Well-connected Russians were reaching out to Donald Trump’s campaign last June, using the offer of damaging information against Hillary Clinton to gain access to the top levels of his organization, emails released Tuesday by Donald Trump Jr. show.
Trump Jr. met with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer, after being told in emails from a friend that she was a Russian government attorney who had “official documents and information” that would “incriminate” Clinton “and be very useful to your father.”
Her information was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” according to the emails.
Nothing in the email exchange shows any surprise on Trump Jr.’s part over the reference to official Russian backing for his father’s presidential bid — something that the Trump campaign and administration have vehemently denied for nearly a year.
Instead, the messages show that top campaign officials were eager to receive the information, even after being told that it came from a foreign government.
“If it’s what you say I love it,” Trump Jr. responded to the emails from his friend Rob Goldstone, a music promoter with business dealings in Russia.
Goldstone’s pitch was enough to secure a meeting at Trump Tower attended not only by Trump Jr., but also Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor, and Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman at the time.
The disclosure of the emails marks a potential turning point in the months-long investigation of Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 election and whether anyone associated with Trump’s campaign might have been involved.
They offered the first concrete evidence of contacts between Russians and the top levels of Trump’s enterprise and the clearest indication that people close to Trump were aware of a Russian desire to assist his campaign.
Trump Jr. has denied any wrongdoing in connection with the June 2016 meeting and said he received no useful information from Veselnitskaya.
“The entire meeting was the most inane nonsense I ever heard,” he wrote Tuesday, quoting a statement that Goldstone made recently.
In an interview with Fox News on Tuesday evening, Trump Jr. said that he "probably would have done things a little differently" but that his motive for agreeing to meet was “opposition research.”
"I had been reading about scandals that people were probably underreporting for a long time, so maybe it was something that had to do with one of those things," Trump Jr. said, explaining his expectations. "I didn’t know if there was any credibility. I didn’t know if there was anything behind it. I can’t vouch for the information. Someone sent me an email. I can’t help what someone sends me. I read it; I responded accordingly."
He also said that he had not given authorities records related to the meeting but that he was "more than happy to" cooperate.
Even if the Russian lawyer provided no useful information, however, the contact with her could be enough to violate federal law that prohibits campaigns from receiving or soliciting anything of value from foreigners, legal experts said.
The new evidence is likely to be scrutinized closely by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who is heading the federal investigation into the Russia affair.
In a statement read by White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, President Trump said his son is a “high quality person, and I applaud his transparency.”
Trump Jr. said he released the emails in the interest of transparency, but he did so only after the New York Times obtained copies and informed him that it was about to publish them.
Asked when the president first learned about his son’s meeting with the Russian lawyer, Sanders said, “I believe in the last couple days, is my understanding.”
She referred most other questions about the matter to Trump Jr.’s attorneys.
The importance that Trump Jr. placed on the meeting with Veselnitskaya could be seen not only from the high-level participants, but from the timing.
The June 9, 2016, session came in the weeks leading up to the Republican National Convention, as the Trump campaign was securing the final votes needed to cement his nomination, working on the convention program and soliciting endorsements from party leaders.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) had finally endorsed Trump on June 2, the day before Goldstone’s first email arrived.
On June 7, four days after Goldstone’s first email to Trump Jr. but before the meeting in Trump Tower, his father promised to make a speech about Clinton in the near future.
“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,” Trump said. “I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.”
The meeting with Veselnitskaya in Trump Tower took place five days before the first public revelation that hackers linked to the Russian government had accessed computers at the Democratic National Committee and obtained emails from them. The first public release of some of those emails, by WikiLeaks, occurred July 22.
In his message to Trump Jr., Goldstone said that the offer of damaging information about Clinton was “part” of Moscow’s help to the campaign, but he did not describe other assistance, if any.
The emails undermine several of Trump Jr.’s previous statements.
On Sunday, Trump Jr. said in a statement that he had asked Kushner and Manafort to join the meeting with Veselnitskaya, “but told them nothing of the substance.”
The email chain, however, shows that he sent both Kushner and Manafort a message with the subject line “Russia-Clinton-private and confidential.” The message they received may have included the full email chain, although the emails Trump released do not make that entirely clear.
In July 2016, several weeks after the meeting, Trump Jr. denounced Democratic accusations that Russians were helping the Trump campaign. The allegations were “disgusting” and “phony,” he said.
It remains unknown whether the Trump campaign ultimately did receive information or other assistance from the Russian government intended to damage Clinton or whether anyone involved in the campaign shared information with the Russians.
But a U.S. intelligence assessment released in January concluded with “high confidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally authorized a campaign to interfere in the American vote with the aim of aiding Trump.
Democrats quickly denounced Trump Jr.’s actions, with some lawmakers referring to his conduct as “treasonous.”
In a statement, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco said the latest disclosures show that “the Trump campaign’s inner circle met with an agent of a hostile foreign power to influence the outcome of an American election.”
Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said the emails marked “the end of the idea pushed by the administration and the president that there is absolutely no evidence of intent to coordinate or collude.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the emails “show direct coordination between the Trump campaign and possibly the Russian government itself.” Congress should require Trump Jr. to testify, she said in a statement.
Republican lawmakers’ initial response was to seek to change the subject.
“That’s the very thing we need to not get distracted by,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) referred to Trump Jr. as a “nice young man” and said the accounts of his meeting with the Russian lawyer were “overblown.”
Vice President Mike Pence released a statement that pointedly referred to the meeting as “pertaining to the time before he joined the campaign.”
Trump Jr.’s friend Goldstone runs a public relations company called Oui 2 Entertainment. He met the Trumps while working on the Trump-owned Miss Universe pageant, which held a competition in Moscow in 2013.
He alerted Trump Jr. to the offer of help from the Russian government in a June 3, 2016, email that said he was acting on behalf of a client, Emin Agalarov, a pop star living in Moscow.
Agalarov’s father, Aras Agalarov, is an oligarch originally from the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan who several years ago had been involved in talks to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. According to Goldstone’s message, the elder Agalarov had met with Russian officials who offered to provide the Trump campaign with damaging information about Clinton.
“Emin just called me and asked me to contact you with something very interesting,” Goldstone wrote. “The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”
It is unclear what the reference to the “crown prosecutor” was. There is no such office in Russia, although that is the term used for prosecutors in Britain, which is where Goldstone is from.
The Trumps knew the Agalarov family from the Miss Universe competition. The senior Trump once appeared in a music video for Emin Agalarov’s single “In Another Life,” portraying an angry boss.
The elder Trump thanked Aras Agalarov in a November 2013 tweet that referred to his never-completed plans to build a Trump property in Moscow: “I had a great weekend with you and your family. You have done a FANTASTIC job. TRUMP TOWER-MOSCOW is next. EMIN was WOW!”
Trump Jr. initially responded to Goldstone’s offer of information by suggesting a telephone call with Emin Agalarov, the emails show. Four days later, he agreed to a face-to-face meeting with Veselnitskaya after Goldstone said “the Russian government attorney” was “flying over from Moscow.”
“Great,” Trump Jr. replied, noting that Manafort and Kushner probably would attend the meeting.
In a statement accompanying the emails, Trump Jr. acknowledged knowing that information about Clinton was the intended reason for the meeting.
“The information they suggested they had ... I thought was Political Opposition Research,” he wrote. “I decided to take the meeting.”
He added that Veselnitskaya “had no information to provide” and shifted the conversation to the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law imposing sanctions on Russian businessmen. For several years, Veselnitskaya has been involved in lobbying efforts to overturn the law, which Putin bitterly opposes.
In an interview Tuesday on NBC’s “Today” show, Veselnitskaya said it was the Trump campaign that was eager for information about Clinton.
“It’s quite possible that maybe they were looking for such information. They wanted it so badly,” she said, speaking in Russian from Moscow. “I never had any damaging or sensitive information about Hillary Clinton.”
Kushner left early when it became clear she had no information about Clinton, and Manafort stared at his phone the entire meeting, she said.
Asked whether she had connections to the Kremlin, she replied, “Nyet.”
8:35 p.m.: This article has been updated to include details from Trump Jr.’s interview with Fox News on Tuesday.
3 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details.
1 p.m.: This article was updated with a White House statement and other reaction as well as additional details.
This article was originally published at 8:15 a.m.