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Conspiracy or coincidence? A Trump campaign timeline open to interpretation

  • Author: Peter Baker, The New York Times
  • Updated: July 13, 2017
  • Published July 13, 2017

WASHINGTON — At 6:14 p.m. Eastern time on June 7, 2016, Donald Trump Jr. clicked the send button on an email to confirm a meeting with a woman described as a "Russian government attorney" who would give him "information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia."

Three hours later, his father, Donald J. Trump, claimed victory in the final primary races propelling him to the Republican presidential nomination, and a general election contest against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In his victory speech, Trump promised to deliver a major address detailing Clinton's "corrupt dealings" to give "favorable treatment" to foreign governments, including "the Russians."

The White House said the timing was a coincidence. The younger Trump said this week that he never told his father about the meeting with the Russian lawyer, and the president said Wednesday that he did not know about it until a few days ago. But the time frame raised questions that investigators will presumably examine as they try to piece together who knew what, and when, last year during what U.S. intelligence agencies have called a Russian effort to influence the presidential election.

The meeting with the Russian lawyer came at a crucial stage in the elder Trump's against-the-odds campaign as he pivoted toward taking on Clinton, who was widely seen as the front-runner for the presidency. With Trump's party still divided, his team was eager for information that could be used against his Democratic opponent, just as any nominee would be at that stage. The difference was that the Kremlin, according to intelligence reports, was eager to play a role in the campaign, and was in the midst of unleashing an operation to damage Clinton.

Donald Trump Jr. and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump after Trump’s debate against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The younger Trump said the meeting with the Russian lawyer yielded no useful information about Clinton, and instead turned into a discussion about a Russian-American diplomatic dispute. By happenstance or not, in the days and weeks after the meeting with the Russian lawyer, emails purloined from Democratic computers were made public, which investigators tied to Russian hacking.

As a candidate, the elder Trump, who had expressed admiration of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, took positions that summer that caused head scratching. He expressed openness to lifting sanctions on Russia that were imposed after its annexation of Crimea, and suggested he might not defend NATO allies that did not spend enough money on their own security. The Republican platform at the party convention in July 2016 was crafted to keep out a call to provide arms to Ukraine to fight pro-Russian separatists.

The president's legal team declined to comment about the close timing of some of these events. A White House official said the president's threat to air allegations about Clinton on June 7 was part of a long-planned speech and was not related to his son's decision to meet with the Russian lawyer. At a briefing Wednesday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, dismissed the latest articles about the emails and meeting as "much ado about nothing."

Trump said on Wednesday that he was not aware of the June 2016 meeting with the Russian lawyer at the time. "No, that I didn't know until a couple of days ago when I heard about this," he told Reuters. He did not fault his son for sitting down with the lawyer. "I think many people would have held that meeting," Trump said.

Democrats said the timing of Donald Trump Jr.'s emails and his meeting with the lawyer showed an intent to collude.

"Going back now, a lot of things seem to be falling into place," said Jennifer Palmieri, who was Clinton's campaign communications director. She dismissed the president's assertion that he had known nothing about the meeting. "It's not plausible to me, understanding how much control Donald Trump exerts over whatever organization he's in charge of. How many times did he tell us, 'I'm in charge, I'm the only one who matters, I'm my own strategist'?"

Lawyers with experience in political inquires said the timetable would certainly interest investigators, but did not necessarily mean they would find a connection.

"You have two pieces of the puzzle, and they're important," said Cliff Sloan, who was an associate independent counsel during the Iran-Contra investigation. "But you have to see how all the pieces fit together before you can draw final conclusions."

Here is a look at how the emails and meeting fit into the timeline of other events last summer:

JUNE 2, 2016

In a speech in San Diego, Clinton castigated the elder Trump for his affinity for Putin, saying the Republican candidate had an "affection for tyrants" that would make him a poor commander-in-chief. "If you don't know exactly who you're dealing with, men like Putin will eat your lunch," she said.

JUNE 3

Donald Trump Jr. received an email from Rob Goldstone, a former British tabloid reporter who knew the Trumps and spent a lot of time in Russia in recent years. Citing a Russian contact, Goldstone offered to help provide "very high level and sensitive information" that would "incriminate Hillary" as "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."

Trump Jr. replied with interest 17 minutes later. "If it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer," he wrote.

JUNE 7

After several more emails, Trump Jr. and Goldstone agreed to a meeting at Trump Tower on the afternoon of June 9 with what Goldstone described as a "Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow." Trump Jr. said he would probably be joined by Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman, and Jared Kushner, his brother-in-law, who would later become a White House senior adviser.

That evening, the Republican primary season wrapped up with contests in five states. Trump, the presidential candidate, took the stage in New York and focused on Clinton. "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," he said.

"Hillary Clinton turned the State Department into her private hedge fund — the Russians, the Saudis, the Chinese — all gave money to Bill and Hillary, and got favorable treatment in return."

JUNE 9

Donald Trump Jr., Manafort and Kushner met with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who, contrary to Goldstone's email, did not openly work for the state but was a former prosecutor with deep connections to the Russian government and a history of arguing for Russian interests. In an initial statement to The New York Times, the younger Trump said Veselnitskaya primarily discussed a ban on American families seeking to adopt Russian children imposed by Putin as retaliation for U.S. sanctions on Russians suspected of human rights abuses.

Trump Jr. later acknowledged that he had agreed to the meeting because he believed Veselnitskaya would provide the campaign with incriminating information about Clinton. Only after an inquiry by The Times prompted him to release his emails did it become clear that he had been told that the information was coming from the Russian government.

Veselnitskaya, for her part, has maintained that nothing about the campaign was discussed, and she said she provided no incriminating information about Clinton.

In an interview on Fox News on Tuesday night, Trump Jr. said that Veselnitskaya's discussion was "sort of nonsensical, inane and garbled," and that he had concluded the original email "was probably some bait and switch" to get him to take the meeting. He said Kushner left the meeting within 10 minutes, while Manafort spent most of the time looking at his phone. Trump Jr. said he did not mention the meeting to his father. "There was nothing to tell," he said. "It was literally just a wasted 20 minutes, which was a shame."

At 4:40 p.m. Eastern time that day, or roughly right after the meeting if it began at 4 p.m. as scheduled, the elder Trump posted a message on Twitter jabbing Clinton about email messages that had been deleted from her private server on the grounds that they were personal and not about government business. "Where are your 33,000 emails that you deleted?" he asked.

JUNE 13

Donald Trump ended up not giving the "major speech" about Clinton's dealings with Russia and other countries, despite his promise. Clinton's campaign spent the day waiting for the attack.

"We were very concerned about it," Palmieri said. "We put a team together." The campaign figured the attack would be a reprise of some of the allegations raised a year earlier in a book called "Clinton Cash" by Peter Schweizer, so Clinton's advisers drafted responses and recruited surrogates to go on television to defend her.

"Then the day came, and I was in the room with Hillary, and we're monitoring what he said, and he didn't do anything," Palmieri said.

On Wednesday, the White House said Trump had switched speeches because of the mass shooting at an Orlando, Florida, nightclub the day before.

JUNE 15

A hacker calling himself Guccifer 2.0 posted opposition research and donor documents stolen from the Democratic National Committee. A cybersecurity firm that investigated the breach concluded that Russia was behind it. "Too bad the DNC doesn't hack Crooked Hillary's 33,000 missing emails," Trump said in a statement.

JULY 22

The activist group WikiLeaks posted nearly 20,000 emails from senior Democratic National Committee officials. Intelligence officials have said that the emails were taken from the party's computer system by Russian hackers.

The same day, Trump delivered the speech denouncing Clinton's ethics that he had promised earlier, relying mainly on "Clinton Cash" and other known controversies linked to her.

JULY 24

In an interview on CNN, Donald Trump Jr. dismissed Democratic suggestions that the Russians were trying to hurt Clinton and help his father. "It's disgusting," he said. "It's so phony." He added: "I can't think of bigger lies. But that exactly goes to show you what the DNC and what the Clinton camp will do. They will lie and do anything to win."

JULY 27

Donald Trump publicly dared Russia to hack Clinton's emails. "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," he said. "I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press." Advisers later said he was only joking.

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