Sean Hannity made a promise to his listeners on Tuesday night in advance of his interview with Donald Trump Jr., the first conversation with the president’s son since emails showing his willingness to collude with Russia against Hillary Clinton were reported by the New York Times.
That promise? “We will ask him every single question I can think of on this topic,” Hannity said.
If what was offered was the full extent of what he could think of, Hannity suffers from a distinct lack of imagination. After posing a series of non-challenging questions leavened with more critiques of the left and the media than any follow-up on Trump Jr.’s answers, the younger Trump emerged unscathed, as one might from a pillow fight.
Trump’s father offered a glowing review on Wednesday morning.
My son Donald did a good job last night. He was open, transparent and innocent. This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political history. Sad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 12, 2017
That’s a claim worth evaluating. Was the younger Donald Trump truly open and transparent? We transcribed Hannity’s questions and Trump Jr.’s answers so that we might evaluate the president’s assertion.
Hannity began simply.
HANNITY: Who is Rob Goldstone?
Trump Jr. answered that Goldstone is a promoter who represents a singer named Emin Agalarov, who his family met in 2013 while preparing for the Miss Universe pageant that year in Moscow.
From there, Hannity gets into the subject at hand. (You can read the emails at issue here, if you haven’t yet internalized them.)
HANNITY: He sends you this email. … This is the one that says, the crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father, meaning Emin’s father, and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with documents, it’s information that could incriminate Hillary Clinton, etc. Obviously highly sensitive information. But it’s part of Russia and its government’s support of Mr. Trump. And they ask the best way to handle this.
This email comes in. What are you thinking?
TRUMP JR.: Honestly, my takeaway when all of this is going on? Someone has information on our opponent. You know. Things are going a million miles an hour. You know what it’s like to be on a campaign. We’d just won Indiana but we’re talking about a contested convention. Things are going a million miles an hour again. And, hey, wait a minute. I’ve heard about all these things, but maybe this is something. I should hear him out.
There’s a key point here that Trump revisits throughout the race: This was a tumultuous moment, he implies, and he has less bandwidth than normal to parse what’s being presented to him.
For example, he says, “we’d just won Indiana” — suggesting that this was the moment at which anti-Trump forces were at their apex, hoping to block Trump from the nomination. But, in fact, the Indiana primary was a month before the first email sent by Goldstone offering to connect Trump to the Russians. A month was a very long time in 2016, as you may recall. What’s more, nearly two weeks before that first email, the Associated Press reported that Trump had clinched the Republican Party nomination by securing unpledged delegate commitments for the convention. Two days before the meeting, he made it official, winning the California and New Jersey primaries and giving him clearly enough delegates to be the nominee.
In other words, this was likely a moment of relative calm for a campaign that had been pressing hard since the previous June.
What’s more, it’s not as though Trump Jr. didn’t read the email. He clearly acknowledged that he understood what was being offered, replying that “we have some time and if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.” He offers to have a call with Agalarov as soon as he’s back from traveling. More on this later.
HANNITY: When you read the parts about the Russian government or Russia supporting your father, did that put off any sirens in your head?
TRUMP JR.: Honestly, I don’t know. I mean, I think this was, again, just basic information that was going to be possibly there. I didn’t know these guys well enough to know if this talent manager from Miss Universe had this kind of thing so, you know. So I wanted to hear him out and play it out and see what happens. But, you know, people are trying to reach out to you all the time with this.
Trump is trying to downplay the email. This wasn’t information from a “talent manager from Miss Universe.” This is information from his client, who Trump knows to be someone of influence in Moscow.
HANNITY: So you spent a lot of time talking about it, and you actually said at one point, hey, if it turns out to say what you say it is … What did you think it might be?
TRUMP JR.: Listen, I’d been reading about scandals that people were probably underreporting for a long time. So maybe it was something that had to do with one of those things. I mean this was her, perhaps, involvement with the Russian government. Again, I didn’t know there was any credibility, I didn’t know there was anything behind it. I can’t vouch for the information.
Someone sent me an email! I can’t help what someone sends me. I read it. I responded accordingly, and I think if there was something interesting there, I think it’s pretty common.
This last line has justifiably been the subject of some mockery since it was released on Tuesday afternoon. It’s not as though Trump received the email and sent it to the trash. He took the bait! If someone got an email from a drug dealer offering his services and then replied with questions about pricing, you might be inclined to view that response as suggestive of guilt.
A broad theme of the interview, established at the outset by Hannity, was that all of this was a creation of the media. Trump plays into that here, too, as he will throughout his answers, suggesting that maybe this was one of an alleged glut of negative stories about Clinton that was never adequately reported. (Hannity focused on one such example on Tuesday.)
HANNITY: What about the timeline here? This is pre-, for example, WikiLeaks …
TRUMP JR.: Honestly, this is pre-Russia fever! This is pre-Russia mania. This is 13 months ago, before I think the rest of the world was talking about that, trying to build up this narrative about Russia. So, I don’t think my sirens went up — or the antennas went up at this time because it wasn’t the issue that it’s been made out to be over the last nine months, 10 months, since it really became a thing. So I think there’s an element of context to that. At the time, it wasn’t this big news story.
This was, in other words, before suspicion had been raised publicly about Russia’s efforts to influence the election that would formally begin the following month. It was before something alerted federal authorities to the possibility that the Trump campaign might be willing to help move those efforts forward. It was apparently at the outset of all of that.
HANNITY: What did you know about Emin, about Emin’s father? What did you know about them from Moscow. Was it just the pageant you met them at?
TRUMP JR.: They’re successful real estate developers over there. That’s the extent of my knowledge with them. I’ve met Emin once or twice, and maintained a casual relationship there, talked about some potential deals and that’s about the extent of it. They didn’t really go anywhere.
HANNITY: What do you know about this Russian lawyer? What did you at the time know?
TRUMP JR.: I actually didn’t know anything about it. An acquaintance sent me this email. As a courtesy to him I said, okay, let’s meet. But I didn’t know who I was meeting beforehand. Never heard of the person. Never got the information until they were in the room.
Two days before the meeting, Goldstone emails Trump to say that he will “send the names of the two people meeting with you for security when I have them later today.” Any email with those names was not included in what the Times reported or what Trump released publicly shortly before the Times story. (More on this below, too.) But clearly at some point someone at Trump Tower knew who was coming, otherwise they would not have gotten in.
HANNITY: At any point were you told, either in a phone conversation or otherwise, what they might tell you? What Goldstone seemed to be implying you would receive.
TRUMP JR.: As I recall, it was all basically this email coordination. Let’s try to set up a meeting and see what happens. It’s going to be interesting information. In the end, it wasn’t about that at all.
This is a very important point, which the emails themselves suggest is untrue:
- On June 6 at 3:03 p.m. Trump asks Goldstone to connect him with Agalarov by phone. This, from the outset, was his preferred way of handling things, asking in his first reply to set up a call.
- At 3:37 p.m. Goldstone asks what number to use.
- At 3:38, Trump says to have Agalarov call his cellphone.
- At 3:43, Goldstone says that Agalarov is performing in a concert, but can call in 20 minutes.
- At 4:38, Trump thanks Goldstone for his help.
- The next morning, Goldstone emails to say that Agalarov “asked that I schedule a meeting with you and the Russian Government attorney.” He goes on to say that he believes Trump is aware of the planned meeting.
It’s hard not to look at that timeline and not assume that Trump and Agalarov spoke by phone at some point between 4 and 4:30 on June 7. This is important not only because it undercuts Trump’s point above, but because it also suggests that Trump may have been convinced by Agalarov to take the meeting that Goldstone was tasked with setting up the next day.
Hannity then mentions a “Today” show interview with the attorney at issue, Natalia Veselnitskaya. In that interview, she explains what happened at the meeting on June 9.
HANNITY: Did she describe it accurately?
TRUMP JR.: Fairly accurately. I was a little taken aback by her saying, talking about me pressing for the information. But as you can see from the emails, the pretext for the meeting was, hey, we have information. There was some small talk, I don’t even remember what it was. It just was sort of nonsensical and garbled and it quickly went on to a story about Russian adoption and how we could help.
Veselnitskaya wanted to talk about adoption because this was Vladimir Putin’s retribution for the passage of a bill leveling sanctions against Russia called the Magnitsky Act. Her work in Washington focused on getting the law overturned. One carrot she used in doing so was to note that repeal of the Magnitsky Act would mean that Russia would again allow Americans to adopt Russian children.
HANNITY: Did you even know what the Magnitsky Act was?
TRUMP JR.: I’d never even heard of it before that day. I think it became pretty apparent to Jared and Paul who — I think Jared left after a few minutes. Paul got on the phone.
HANNITY: She said that.
TRUMP JR.: Yeah, this is her account. We were all there. I was basically sitting there listening as a courtesy to my acquaintance who had set up the meeting and, in his own words, you can hear what he said about it. He apologized to me walking out of the meeting basically for wasting my time.
Trump appears to want to reinforce how little he remembers about the meeting by suggesting that the details about who did what came from the attorney, not him. It makes sense as a strategy: He will later insist that he barely remembers the meeting at all since it was so unhelpful.
HANNITY: He did say at the end of the statement today, you did point out, “as Goldstone said today, ‘The whole meeting was the most inane nonsense I’ve ever heard. And I’m actually agitated about it.’” He called and apologized to you?
TRUMP JR.: There wasn’t really follow-up because there was nothing to follow up. But as we were walking out, he said, listen, I’m sorry for that. He sort of goosed up, he puffed up, there was some puffery to the email perhaps to get the meeting, to make it happen. In the end, there was probably some bait-and-switch about what it was really supposed to be about. There is nothing there.
HANNITY: She is saying she had no information to provide. Do you remember when she suggested you were pressing her a little bit for information.
TRUMP JR.: I imagine I did. I was probably pressing because the pretext of the meeting was, hey, I have information about your opponent. It was this, hey, some DNC donors may have done something in Russia and they didn’t pay taxes. I was like, what does this have to do with anything. Especially in light of everything that was out there. I was like, this isn’t …
Trump’s overall defense centers on his argument that there was no anti-Clinton dirt to receive, which the above exchange centers on. It’s a nifty rhetorical trick, moving from his “I love it” response to the offer of dirt from the Russian government to “but there was no dirt!”
To extend our drug-dealer analogy above, this is like a guy showing up at a buy, money in hand, and arguing that there weren’t even any drugs to buy.
HANNITY: Did you ever have any contact with this woman again?
TRUMP JR.: No.
HANNITY: Did you ever have any contact with Goldstone again?
TRUMP JR.: Casual. Hey, how’s it going, Emin’s going to be in town performing. Something like that.
HANNITY: Did you ever see Emin again?
TRUMP JR.: I don’t think so, no. I don’t think I’ve seen Emin since this transpired.
Hannity here is carrying Trump’s water, helping to reinforce that this was the end of the interaction.
HANNITY: At any point in your mind, did Don Jr. have a siren saying, okay, they’re talking — again I go back to the first email — about Russia, Russian government, I meeting this person, we’re going to talk on the phone. Did you ever think that maybe this might not be …
TRUMP JR.: Look. In retrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently. Again, this is before the Russia-mania. This is before they were building it up in the press. For me this was opposition research. They had something, maybe concrete evidence to all the stories that I’d been hearing about that were probably underreported for years, not just during the campaign.
But, really, it went nowhere, and it was apparent that was not what the meeting was really about.
Veterans of political campaigns have made clear that this was not a normal process for conducting opposition research.
When Gore campaign was sent Bush debate brief book, they called FBI. If foreign interests offer you info on former SOS, you call the FBI.
— stuart stevens (@stuartpstevens) July 10, 2017
HANNITY: Did you ever meet with any other person from Russia that you know?
TRUMP JR.: I don’t even know. I’ve probably met with other people from Russia. Not in the context of a formalized meeting or anything like that. Because: Why would I? In the grand scheme of things, how busy we were? It was much more important to do than this. This was a courtesy to an acquaintance.
The “why would I” comment is pretty remarkable, given that his previous answer explained precisely why he would: If he thought they might offer negative information on Clinton. That’s why he took this meeting, as he argues throughout the interview.
At least when he’s not arguing that he only took the meeting as a favor to Goldstone.
At this point, Hannity showed a montage of Democratic politicians criticizing Trump.
HANNITY: Did you hand over any and all documents?
TRUMP JR.: Well, I will. I’ve said it publicly, I said it yesterday. More than happy to cooperate with everyone. I just want the truth to get out there. That’s part of why I released all the stuff today. I wanted to get it all out there.
They’re trying to drag out the story, Sean. In all fairness. They have it. They want to drip a little bit today, drip a little bit then. So I was like, here it is! I’m more than happy to be transparent about it and I’m more than happy to cooperate with everyone.
This is deeply disingenuous.
First of all, Trump released his email chain on Twitter solely to undercut a story that he knew was coming imminently from the Times. According to the paper’s reporters, they asked him for comment before an 11 a.m. deadline; he posted the emails at 11 on the nose. As the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg put it on Twitter (inadvertently reinforcing our running metaphor):
Because I hate the scourge of drugs so much, I flushed those 10 kilos of cocaine down the toilet the moment the DEA knocked on my door. https://t.co/tjMB1jaEC9
— Jonah Goldberg (@JonahNRO) July 12, 2017
What’s more, the story ran over multiple days precisely because Trump wasn’t forthcoming about it. In his first statement to the Times’ first report about the meeting, he said:
It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up.
That’s appears to all be true — but it’s hardly a full, transparent depiction of what happened.
HANNITY: So as far as you know, as far as this incident is concerned, this is all of it?
TRUMP JR.: This is everything. This is everything.
HANNITY: Was anybody else at any point in the campaign said, oh, I’ve got information about Hillary that you remember?
TRUMP JR.: No.
Again, Hannity helps to nudge the door shut.
Notice, by the way, that Hannity hasn’t challenged Trump on any of his claims. Not the release of the emails. Not the call with Agalarov. Not the names that were given to security. Not the timing of the meeting.
All of these things were readily obvious to those paying attention to how the story unfolded on Tuesday. Hannity ignored them.
HANNITY: Let me go back to what Tim Kaine said [in the montage]. Well, if it is what you said it is, especially you’d want it released in the summer. Do you think that’s unusual for a campaign to want opp research …?
TRUMP JR.: Well, like I said, I think we had more important things to worry about. I wasn’t sure about the credibility of any of this stuff. At the time, I’m sitting there, Indiana had probably just happened. I’m worried about hearing, contested convention, contested convention. So we’re in a fight. This is the first time we’ve ever done any of this. I’m still way in the learning curve on all of this. So it wasn’t that urgent to me, if I’m saying it can wait until the end of summer.
But, obviously, I want to hear the information. That’s what we do in business. If there’s information out there we want it, and then we make what we do with it. If there was something that came from it that was shady, if it was a danger to national security, I would obviously bring it right to someone. But I didn’t know what anything was. Turns out, it was nothing! And therefore there is nothing to be able to actually talk about.
We addressed this “Indiana just happened” claim above.
More interesting here is this: “If there was something that came from it that was shady, if it was a danger to national security, I would obviously bring it right to someone.”
Some might consider an offer of dirt from the Russian government by way of a pop star’s agent somewhat shady.
HANNITY: The whole contact took how long? How long was the meeting.
TRUMP JR.: Twenty minutes.
HANNITY: And Jared left after five or 10, as she said?
TRUMP JR.: Yes.
HANNITY: And Paul Manafort was …
TRUMP JR.: … on his phone.
HANNITY: The whole time?
TRUMP JR.: Pretty much. Listen, like I said, it became pretty apparent that this was not what we were in there talking about.
Notice that, this time, Trump doesn’t attribute these details to the attorney.
HANNITY: A lot of people are going to want to know this about your father. Did you tell your father anything about this?
TRUMP JR.: No. It was such a nothing, there was nothing to tell. I mean, I wouldn’t even have remembered it until you start scouring through the stuff. It was literally just a wasted 20 minutes, which was a shame.
Ten seconds earlier he remembered what Paul Manafort was doing in the meeting. Now he says he would never have remembered it at all. Do with that what you will.
At this point, Hannity asks an off-topic question giving Trump a chance to bash the media. He then continues:
HANNITY: Anyone in your team, I guess you have a staff of people who work for you, did anyone research the lawyer or anyone involved in this?
TRUMP JR.: No, well, again, we didn’t know who it was before the meeting. Apparently she’s a prosecutor in Moscow who hasn’t done that since 2002. Fourteen years ago, at the time of the meeting, she was a prosecutor. It was such a nothing, I literally wouldn’t have remembered the meeting.
HANNITY: Were you annoyed, based on …
TRUMP JR.: It was a waste of time. But sometimes you do things differently for acquaintances and friends.
HANNITY: If the meeting resulted in information that you felt in any way was illegal or compromising or collusion to use the media’s term?
TRUMP JR.: I said it earlier: 100 percent, I would bring it to the proper authorities. There’s nothing that I would do to ever endanger this community. I think the reason we fought so hard during this campaign, whether it was my father and the work that he put into it, whether it was the rest of our family and the efforts that we put into it — and you know those efforts well.
We’d do anything for this country. We’re never going to put this country in jeopardy. Ever.
The most important part of this interview came right at the end.
“You know those efforts well.”
As soon as Trump says this, he appears to catch himself a little. After all, it’s not that helpful to, mid-interview, remind viewers that the journalist asking the questions advised and endorsed the politician at the center of the dispute.
From there, the interview is basically over. Hannity offers a few other cleanup questions. No other emails on this subject. No follow-up. One last question about Clinton and Ukraine that wasn’t worth asking.
But before that, Hannity announces that his job is complete.
“I wanted to ask every question I could think of regarding this issue,” he says. “I can’t think of any more, in all honesty.”
Another interviewer probably could. Which is why Trump Jr. wasn’t subjected to another interviewer.