Don’t forget about Russia.
President Trump’s scheme to hold 800,000 federal employees hostage over border wall funding has dominated news coverage since the government began operating under a partial shutdown on December 21st, but Special Counsel Robert Mueller is still busy looking into his campaign’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. So is the media. On Friday, the New York Times reported that after Trump fired James Comey in May 2017, the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation to determine whether the president was working on behalf of Russia. Trump responded by attacking the Times, claiming that he’s been tougher on Russia than any present in recent history. A few days later, the Times reported that Trump “repeatedly” discussed pulling the United States out of NATO, an unconscionable move that would have defied advisers and delighted Putin, who has sought nothing more than to break up the alliance of Western nations.
In between the two stories came another revelation, this one from the Washington Post, which reported that Trump went out of his way to hide the details of his meetings with Putin. After convening with the Russian leader for the first time at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, in 2017, Trump even took his interpreter’s notes and instructed her not to discuss the meeting with any administration officials.
On Monday, Andrew S. Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment connected the dots between the Post‘s story and what has already been revealed about Trump’s efforts to conceal the nature of this relationship with Russia.
THREAD: Has anyone noticed the very disturbing overlap between Trump’s insistence on preventing his own staff from learning about discussions with Putin at the Hamburg G20 meeting in July 2017 and how he handled initial revelations about the infamous Trump Tower meeting? 1/ https://t.co/t60jRyrhis
— Andrew S. Weiss (@andrewsweiss) January 14, 2019
What Weiss goes on to lay out is startling. On the morning of July 7th, the New York Times informed the White House that it was preparing to publish a story about Donald Trump, Jr. meeting with Russians at Trump Tower prior to the election. The paper wanted a comment. That afternoon, Trump met with Putin for the first time, alongside then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian foreign affairs minister Sergey Lavrov. It was after this meeting, the Post reported on Sunday, that Trump took his interpreter’s notes and told her not to discuss the meeting with other senior administration officials.
During dinner that night, Trump had a second, informal summit with Putin. Only Putin’s interpreter was present. This meeting was not made public until days later, when Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer wrote in a memo to clients that Trump got up from his seat halfway into dinner and found Putin, with whom he spoke “privately and animatedly” for close to an hour. The White House didn’t officially confirm the second meeting until July 18th.
I found out about the conversation from other G20 members, who thought the Trump-Putin closeness was extremely odd.
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) January 13, 2019
The same day the White House acknowledged the meeting, Trump wrote on Twitter that the “Fake News story of secret dinner with Putin is ‘sick'” and that the “press knew” about the dinner. “Press didn’t know you spent an hour during dinner in 1-1 discussion w Putin (& his translator),” replied Bremmer. “Other G20 leaders found it…unusual.”
The next day, while flying home to Washington, Trump dictated the statement Trump, Jr. provided to the Times to explain the Trump Tower meeting. The statement claimed that Trump, Jr. and Natalya Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with deep connections to the Kremlin, “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children.” Trump later claimed that this is what he got up to covertly speak with Putin about during dinner, for nearly an hour. The statement did not mention that the meeting was arranged for Trump, Jr. to receive damaging information on Hillary Clinton, which was reported by the Times a few days later.
Taking what is known, it’s almost impossible to believe that during the second meeting Trump and Putin did not discuss a way for the campaign to respond to what Trump had just found out earlier that day: that the Times knew about his son’s meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer who had promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton.
On Monday night, Jack Weiss, a former federal prosecutor who helped his brother Andrew compile the Twitter thread piecing this together, went on CNN to discuss what they’d found. “You put all that together, and for me as a former federal prosecutor, it’s the crucible,” he said. “It’s the crucible when your defendants, your targets, are getting found out. What do they do when they learn that someone’s onto them, as the New York Times was onto them and notified the White House the morning of July 7th?
Trump has denied knowing about the Trump Tower meeting ahead of time, but this is dubious. Shortly after Trump, Jr. secured the meeting, he received a call from Emin Agalarov, a client of Rob Goldstone, who arranged the meeting, and whose father was connected to the Russian government. After the call ended, Trump Jr. placed a call to a private number. After that call ended, he called Agalrov back. When Trump Jr. was asked to whom the private number belonged by the Senate Judiciary Committee, he said, “I have no idea.” In separate testimony former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said that Trump uses a private number. When Trump Jr. was asked if this was true, he said he didn’t know.
“Republicans refused to look at the phone records so that we could find out [who the caller was] because they were afraid of what the answer might be,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) told USA Today in November. Schiff, who is now the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, has said he plans to investigate the nature of the call. If records show Trump was on the other end of the line, it would be the most air-tight evidence yet that Trump participated in his campaign’s collusion with Russia. But even if Trump Jr. was ordering pizza, the evidence is already close to insurmountable. There can only be so many coincidences.