A comment by President Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani has focused attention on a previously unknown and potentially significant event in the timeline being investigated by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
In a television interview Monday, Giuliani disclosed a meeting that took place June 7, 2016, involving seven senior Trump campaign officials — which he said included Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and Richard Gates, Manafort’s top deputy.
The timing is significant because it came as Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort prepared to meet with a Russian lawyer who, they had been told, had “information that would incriminate” Hillary Clinton. On the evening of June 7, Donald Trump told a crowd of campaign supporters that he would soon “give a major speech,” which he suggested would unveil Russia-related improprieties committed by both Hillary and Bill Clinton, the former president.
Two days later, however, when the meeting with the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, took place at Trump Tower, she provided no incriminating information about the Clintons, according to subsequent statements by both Trump Jr. and Kushner. Donald Trump never gave the promised speech.
To hear President Trump and his defenders tell it, he knew nothing during the 2016 campaign about the offer of Russian-provided dirt on Clinton. Trump insists he did not know about the Trump Tower meeting until it became public last year.
Trump’s professed ignorance, a pillar of his denial of any collusion, has fueled persistent doubts among skeptics in Congress and lawyers tracking the case. Those doubts have increased amid recent media reports that Michael Cohen, Trump’s long-time lawyer, was prepared to say that he was present when Trump learned of plans for the meeting.
Giuliani’s reference to the June 7 meeting was notably jumbled. The Times has separately confirmed the fact of the meeting and its participants with a person with knowledge of the matter who spoke on a condition of anonymity because of the pending investigation. That person, who was not at the meeting, cited other topics that were discussed. The Times could not verify whether the session with the Russians was talked about.
Trump, his son and the president’s lawyers have consistently sought to minimize the importance of the meeting with the Russians. Starting with the first disclosure of it by the New York Times in July 2017, Trump and his aides have issued statements that have proven false and mischaracterized the session. An initial statement from Donald Trump Jr., which his father took a major hand in drafting, sought to portray the meeting as focused on the issue of American couples trying to adopt children in Russia.
Against that background, any evidence that senior Trump campaign aides conferred in advance to prepare for the meeting with the Russian lawyer and her associates could provide further evidence for prosecutors who are examining whether the earlier statements were part of an effort to thwart their investigation and if the aides acted illegally in seeking derogatory information about Hillary Clinton from the Russians.
Harry Litman, a former federal prosecutor who teaches constitutional law at UCLA and UC San Diego, said that if the June 7 meeting or another session was used to prepare for hosting the Russians, it could provide “evidence of a conspiracy to try to receive or solicit something of value from a foreign government in violation of federal election law.’’
Litman, who reviewed Giuliani’s statements, said a “pre-meeting strikes me as significant, because it is strong evidence of a prior agreement for a criminal objective.’’
Giuliani’s remarks, on CNN’s “New Day,” came in response to a question about how he could be “sure if the president didn’t know beforehand?”
“Nobody can be sure of anything,” Giuliani said. Then, without further questioning, he talked about the previously undisclosed meeting.
Cohen “now says” that during the June 7 meeting, participants “were talking about the strategy” to pursue during the June 9 “meeting with the Russians,” Giuliani said.
Neither Cohen nor his attorney, Lanny J. Davis, has publicly said that. Davis declined to discuss Giuliani’s remarks.
Giuliani added that people who participated on June 7 have denied that “they were talking about the strategy of the meeting with the Russians. The people in that meeting deny it. The people we’ve been able to interview,” he said, without specifying how many participants that meant.
Asked to clarify his remark, Giuliani texted a reply on Wednesday in which he cited an unspecified “leak of such a meeting.” He repeated that there “was no such meeting” at which preparations were discussed for the June 9 session with the Russians. He declined to say which participants he or others working on the president’s behalf may have interviewed.
In a closed-door interview last September with the Senate Judiciary Committee, Donald Trump Jr. said that during the days before the June 9, 2016, meeting, he “may have had a conversation’’ about it with both Manafort and Kushner. Trump Jr. told the committee that he did not discuss the Russian meeting in advance with his father.
Phone records show that Trump Jr. placed calls to a blocked number when the June 9 meeting was arranged — and soon after it concluded. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee he did not recall who those calls were to — and said he did not know whether his father used any phone with a blocked number.