NBC News may have just buried the lede in its new story about the Russia scandal.
The report from NBC focuses on some specific words that appeared in notes that Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort took during a meeting with a Russian lawyer in June 2016. This was the meeting before which Donald Trump Jr. had been promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
But perhaps the more significant development is how NBC reported that Manafort had taken those notes: On his smartphone.
The Washington Post's Rosalind S. Helderman and Karoun Demirjian had previously reported that Manafort took notes during the meeting — notes that naturally were of interest to investigators — but this appears to be the first report to indicate he did so using his phone.
Why is that significant? Because Manafort being on his phone was presented by both Trump Jr. and the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, as evidence of his disinterest in the meeting. It was used to suggest that the meeting was rather insignificant — a disappointment to all involved — and didn't go anywhere. Trump Jr. and others have said that the information promised was a bust and was never used by the Trump campaign, whatever their intent in accepting the meeting was.
“All the time [Manafort] was looking at his phone,” Veselnitskaya told NBC last month. “He was reading something. He never took any active part in the conversation.” She described Manafort as appearing “absent-minded.”
During an interview with Sean Hannity, Trump Jr. also referenced Manafort apparently being distracted by his phone during the meeting:
HANNITY: The whole contact took how long? How long was the meeting?
TRUMP JR.: About 20 minutes or so.
HANNITY: About 20 minutes. And Jared [Kushner] left after 5 or 10?
TRUMP JR.: Yes.
HANNITY: Like she said? And Paul Manafort was on his …
TRUMP JR.: On his phone.
HANNITY: The whole time?
TRUMP JR.: Pretty much.
HANNITY: Pretty much.
TRUMP JR.: It — it — listen, like I said …
TRUMP JR.: … pretty really apparent that this was not what we were in there talking about.
A word of caution here: Pretty much all we know right now is that Manafort took some notes, and investigators have them. NBC is reporting that they were “cryptic” and included some specific words — words that The Washington Post hasn't confirmed appeared in the notes.
It's entirely possible those notes had nothing to do with what was being discussed in the meeting and that Manafort was indeed distracted and not really paying attention. But if he was taking notes about the meeting on his smartphone, perhaps Trump Jr. and Veselnitskaya mistook that as Manafort tuning the whole thing out.
Manafort seems to be an increasing focus of the investigation, with the FBI raiding his home in Virginia a month ago. New reports this week indicate that New York's attorney general is involved. That's significant because President Trump cannot pardon people for state crimes. There is a growing perception that investigators are focusing on Manafort to get him to turn on Trump.
Precisely what this means is up in the air. But Trump Jr.'s version of the Russia meeting has been wrong before. And it doesn't seem far-fetched to think that maybe he misunderstood how closely Manafort was paying attention in that meeting in June 2016 — and documenting the proceedings.
(h/t Renato Mariotti)