News that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Kremlin-linked attorney last June evolved quickly over the weekend.
When the story was first broken by the New York Times on Saturday, the president’s son explained that the subject of the meeting — also attended by his brother-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort — was “adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government.” Since it was “not a campaign issue at the time,” there was no follow-up.
But that wasn’t the full story. It later emerged that this issue of adoptions — itself actually an issue related to anti-Russia sanctions — was secondary to the original intent of the meeting. Trump Jr.’s second explanation, offered on Sunday, made that clear.
“I was asked to have a meeting by an acquaintance I knew from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant with an individual who I was told might have information helpful to the campaign,” it read. But the information the lawyer claimed to have, alleging improper behavior by the Hillary Clinton campaign, didn’t pan out. The point of the meeting, Trump Jr. figured out, was that issue of adoptions after all.
In other words, the attorney, Natalia Veselnitskaya, wanted a meeting with Trump campaign officials at Trump Tower to discuss the sanctions against Russia — and used the lure of negative information about Clinton to get it.
While that, by itself, is remarkable, it’s important to note the broader context in which Trump Jr.’s story changed. This was not a one-off example of a staffer or ally loyal to President Trump being caught in a factual error or omission related to Russia. Instead, it’s part of a pattern of similar behavior.
We can start with Michael Flynn, who briefly served as Trump’s national security adviser earlier this year. During the transition period after the election, Flynn spoke repeatedly with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, including, Post reporting indicates, discussing sanctions on Russia that the Trump administration might lift.
At first, Flynn denied that the subject of sanctions had come up in a call with Kislyak in December. Twice in an interview with The Post in February he stated flatly that sanctions hadn’t come up. The following day, though, a statement from his lawyer watered that assertion down: “while [Flynn] had no recollection of discussing sanctions,” it read, “he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”
(When Vice President-elect Mike Pence was asked about the Flynn conversations in January, he denied that sanctions had been broached, a denial that was later attributed to Flynn misleading him. Pence also denied that there had been contacts between the campaign and people linked to the Kremlin.)
Jeff Sessions was similarly caught misrepresenting contacts with the Russian ambassador. During confirmation hearings for his nomination to serve as attorney general, Sessions was asked by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) if “anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign.” Sessions replied that “I did not have communications with the Russians.” In a follow-up letter from Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), Sessions was asked if he’d “been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after Election Day?” Sessions said, “No.”
But Sessions had repeatedly met with Kislyak. He met the ambassador at an event in Cleveland during the Republican convention in July of last year, well after he was acting as a surrogate for the Trump campaign. He also met with Kislyak in September in his Senate office. The subsequent revelation of these meetings prompted Sessions to recuse himself from the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling.
Kushner similarly buried meetings with Russian actors. Upon joining the Trump administration earlier this year, Kushner filled out a questionnaire that would grant him security status. That form requires that he disclose any meetings with foreign government officials.
But Kushner didn’t include several key meetings in his initial submission, including a meeting with Flynn and Kislyak in December at Trump Tower and a subsequent meeting with the head of a Russian bank — meetings revealed through news reports. Kushner’s initial filing also omitted the meeting with Veselnitskaya, though that and the other meetings were added in an amendment to his initial questionnaire.
It’s clear that Trump’s team recognizes that there is not much political value in admitting to interactions with Russian actors and Kremlin-linked individuals. But masking the truth of those contacts runs contrary to their efforts to downplay what happened: It serves only to make the interactions more suspicious.