By JO BECKER, MATT APUZZO and ADAM GOLDMAN
President Donald Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., was promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton before agreeing to meet with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign, according to three advisers to the White House briefed on the meeting and two others with knowledge of it.
The meeting was also attended by his campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Manafort and Kushner only recently disclosed the meeting, though not its content, in confidential government documents described to The New York Times.
The Times reported the existence of the meeting on Saturday. But in subsequent interviews, the advisers and others revealed the motivation behind it.
The meeting – at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, two weeks after Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination – points to the central question in federal investigations of the Kremlin’s meddling in the presidential election: whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. The accounts of the meeting represent the first public indication that at least some in the campaign were willing to accept Russian help.
And while Trump has been dogged by revelations of undisclosed meetings between his associates and the Russians, the episode at Trump Tower is the first such confirmed private meeting involving members of his inner circle during the campaign – as well as the first one known to have included his eldest son. It came at an inflection point in the campaign, when Trump Jr., who served as an adviser and a surrogate, was ascendant and Manafort was consolidating power.
It is unclear whether the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, actually produced the promised compromising information about Clinton. But the people interviewed by The Times about the meeting said the expectation was that she would do so.
In a statement Sunday, Trump Jr. said he had met with the Russian lawyer at the request of an acquaintance. “After pleasantries were exchanged,” he said, “the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”
He said she then turned the conversation to adoption of Russian children and the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law that blacklists suspected Russian human rights abusers. The law so enraged President Vladimir Putin that he retaliated by halting U.S. adoptions of Russian children.
“It became clear to me that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting,” Trump Jr. said.
When he was first asked about the meeting Saturday, he said only that it was primarily about adoptions and mentioned nothing about Clinton.
Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the president’s lawyer, said Sunday that “the president was not aware of and did not attend the meeting.”
Lawyers and spokesmen for Kushner and Manafort did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In his statement, Trump Jr. said he asked Manafort and Kushner to attend, but did not tell them what the meeting was about.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian hackers and propagandists worked to tip the election toward Donald Trump, in part by stealing and then providing to WikiLeaks internal Democratic Party and Clinton campaign emails that were embarrassing to Clinton. WikiLeaks began releasing the material on July 22.
A special prosecutor and congressional committees are investigating the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with the Russians. Trump has disputed that, but the investigation has cast a shadow over his administration.
Trump has also equivocated on whether the Russians were solely responsible for the hacking. On Sunday, two days after his first meeting as president with Putin, Trump said in a Twitter post: “I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election. He vehemently denied it. I’ve already given my opinion ..... “ He also tweeted that they had “discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded ...”
On Sunday morning on Fox News, the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, described the Trump Tower meeting as a “big nothing burger.”
“Talking about issues of foreign policy, issues related to our place in the world, issues important to the American people is not unusual,” he said.
But Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the leading Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, one of the panels investigating Russian election interference, said he wanted to question “everyone that was at that meeting.”
“There’s no reason for this Russian government advocate to be meeting with Paul Manafort or with Mr. Kushner or the president’s son if it wasn’t about the campaign and Russia policy,” Schiff said after the initial Times report.
Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer invited to the Trump Tower meeting, is best known for mounting a multipronged attack against the Magnitsky Act.
The adoption impasse is a frequently used talking point for opponents of the Magnitsky Act. Veselnitskaya’s campaign against the law has also included attempts to discredit the man after whom it was named, Sergei L. Magnitsky, a lawyer and auditor who died in mysterious circumstances in a Russian prison in 2009 after exposing one of the biggest corruption scandals during Putin’s rule.
Veselnitskaya’s clients include state-owned businesses and a senior government official’s son, whose company was under investigation in the United States at the time of the meeting. Her activities and associations had previously drawn the attention of the FBI, according to a former senior law enforcement official.
Veselnitskaya said in a statement Saturday that “nothing at all about the presidential campaign” was discussed. She recalled that after about 10 minutes, either Kushner or Manafort walked out.
She said she had “never acted on behalf of the Russian government” and “never discussed any of these matters with any representative of the Russian government.”
The fact of the Trump Tower meeting was disclosed to government officials in recent days, when Kushner, who is also a senior White House aide, filed a revised version of a form required to obtain a security clearance.
The Times reported in April that he had failed to disclose any foreign contacts, including meetings with the Russian ambassador to the United States and the head of a Russian state bank. Failure to report such contacts can result in a loss of access to classified information and even, if information is knowingly falsified or concealed, in imprisonment.
Kushner’s advisers said at the time that the omissions were an error, and that he had immediately notified the FBI that he would be revising the filing.
In a statement Saturday, Kushner’s lawyer, Jamie Gorelick, said: “He has since submitted this information, including that during the campaign and transition, he had over 100 calls or meetings with representatives of more than 20 countries, most of which were during transition. Mr. Kushner has submitted additional updates and included, out of an abundance of caution, this meeting with a Russian person, which he briefly attended at the request of his brother-in-law Donald Trump Jr. As Mr. Kushner has consistently stated, he is eager to cooperate and share what he knows.”
Manafort, the former campaign chairman, also recently disclosed the meeting, and Trump Jr.’s role in organizing it, to congressional investigators who had questions about his foreign contacts, according to people familiar with the events. Neither Manafort nor Kushner was required to disclose the content of the meeting.
A spokesman for Manafort declined to comment.
Since the president took office, Trump Jr. and his brother Eric have assumed day-to-day control of their father’s real estate empire. Because he does not serve in the administration and does not have a security clearance, Trump Jr. was not required to disclose his foreign contacts. Federal and congressional investigators have not publicly asked for any records that would require his disclosure of Russian contacts.
Veselnitskaya is a formidable operator with a history of pushing the Kremlin’s agenda. Most notable is her campaign against the Magnitsky Act, which provoked a Cold War-style, tit-for-tat dispute with the Kremlin when President Barack Obama signed it into law in 2012.
Under the law, some 44 Russian citizens have been put on a list that allows the United States to seize their U.S. assets and deny them visas. The United States asserts that many of them are connected to the fraud exposed by Magnitsky, who after being jailed for more than a year was found dead in his cell. A Russian human rights panel found that he had been assaulted. To critics of Putin, Magnitsky, in death, became a symbol of corruption and brutality in the Russian state.
An infuriated Putin has called the law an “outrageous act,” and, in addition to banning U.S. adoptions, he compiled what became known as an “anti-Magnitsky” blacklist of U.S. citizens.
Among those blacklisted was Preet Bharara, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who led notable convictions of Russian arms and drug dealers. Bharara was abruptly fired in March, after previously being asked to stay on by Trump.
One of Veselnitskaya’s clients is Denis Katsyv, the Russian owner of Prevezon Holdings, an investment company based in Cyprus. He is the son of Petr Katsyv, the vice president of the state-owned Russian Railways and a former deputy governor of the Moscow region. In a civil forfeiture case prosecuted by Bharara’s office, the Justice Department alleged that Prevezon had helped launder money tied to the $230 million corruption scheme exposed by Magnitsky by putting it in New York real estate and bank accounts. Prevezon recently settled the case for $6 million without admitting wrongdoing.
Veselnitskaya and her client also hired a team of political and legal operatives to press the case for repeal. They also tried but failed to keep Magnitsky’s name off a new law that takes aim at human-rights abusers across the globe. The team included Rinat Akhmetshin, an emigre to the United States who once served as a Soviet military officer and who has been called a Russian political gun for hire. Fusion GPS, a consulting firm that produced an intelligence dossier that contained unverified allegations about Donald Trump, was also hired to do research for Prevezon.
Veselnitskaya was also deeply involved in the making of a film that disputes the widely accepted version of Magnitsky’s life and death. In the film and in her statement, she said the true culprit of the fraud was William F. Browder, a U.S.-born financier who hired Magnitsky to investigate the fraud after three of his investment funds companies in Russia were seized.
Browder called the film a state-sponsored smear campaign.
“She’s not just some private lawyer,” Browder said of Veselnitskaya. “She is a tool of the Russian government.”
John Brennan, the former CIA director, testified in May that he had been concerned last year by Russian government efforts to contact and manipulate members of Trump’s campaign. “Russian intelligence agencies do not hesitate at all to use private companies and Russian persons who are unaffiliated with the Russian government to support their objectives,” he said.
The FBI began a counterintelligence investigation last year into Russian contacts with any Trump associates. Agents focused on Manafort and a pair of advisers, Carter Page and Roger Stone.
Among those now under investigation is Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign as Trump’s national security adviser after it became known that he had falsely denied speaking to the Russian ambassador about sanctions imposed by the Obama administration over the election hacking.
Congress later discovered that Flynn had been paid more than $65,000 by companies linked to Russia, and that he had failed to disclose those payments when he renewed his security clearance and underwent an additional background check to join the White House staff.
In May, the president fired the FBI director, James Comey, who days later provided information about a meeting with Trump at the White House. According to Comey, the president asked him to end the bureau’s investigation into Flynn; Trump has repeatedly denied making such a request. Robert S. Mueller III, a former FBI director, was then appointed as special counsel.
The status of Mueller’s investigation is not clear, but he has assembled a veteran team of prosecutors and agents to dig into any possible collusion.