When the New York Times first learned that Donald Trump Jr. and other members of President Trump’s 2016 campaign had met with a Kremlin-linked lawyer at Trump Tower during the race, Trump Jr. dismissed the story in a written statement.
"It was a short introductory meeting,” he said, adding that "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.”
As more details about the meeting were discovered, this answer was quickly revealed as either incomplete or entirely misleading. Although the group in attendance -- including campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner -- may have touched on adoptions as a component of the fight over a U.S. sanctions law targeting people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the genesis of the meeting was the promise of negative information about Hillary Clinton, Trump’s general-election opponent.
It’s not clear, though, that adoptions ever came up at all — and new reporting from The Washington Post raises questions about why that was part of Trump Jr.'s explanation in the first place. Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment noticed how the timeline of Trump Jr.'s explanation overlapped with that reporting, which is worth walking through in detail.
In early July 2017, Trump made his second overseas trip as president, stopping in Poland for a summit and then traveling to Hamburg for a meeting of the Group of 20. He arrived on July 6, the day before the summit began.
July 7, 2017
Early the next morning, Eastern time, the Times contacted the White House to ask questions about the meeting. White House officials asked for additional time to respond, scheduling a conference call for the morning of July 8.
At 3:45 p.m. local time — a quarter to 10 on the East Coast — Trump and Putin held their first in-person summit. Also attending were then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and interpreters.
Over the weekend, The Post’s Greg Miller reported that Trump took unusual steps to keep private the details of that conversation. Trump, Miller reported, “[took] possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instruct[ed] the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials.” The sole report of the conversation came from Tillerson, who held a briefing with reporters.
That meeting with Tillerson wasn’t the end of the Trump-Putin conversations that day. That evening, the two presidents spoke for about 15 minutes during a dinner associated with the Group of 20 event. The only other person in attendance was Putin’s interpreter. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, learned of the meeting, which, he said, Trump hadn’t informed his advisers about afterward.
The content of that conversation?
"Really, pleasantries more than anything else. It was not a long conversation, but it was, you know, could be 15 minutes. Just talked about things,” Trump told the Times when the conversation came to light days later.
That interview with the Times also followed the first reports about the Trump Tower meeting.
"Actually, it was very interesting,” Trump added, “we talked about adoptions. ... We talked about Russian adoption. Yeah. I always found that interesting. Because, you know, he ended that years ago. And I actually talked about Russian adoption with him, which is interesting because it was a part of the conversation that Don [Jr.] had in that meeting.”
When Trump and Putin spoke at that dinner, Trump would not have necessarily known about the content of that meeting. Trump Jr. didn’t travel with him to Europe, though he and his father probably spoke on the phone.
July 8, 2017
That statement about the subject of adoptions was written the following day. The proposed conference call between the Times and the White House didn’t happen, so the Times sent a list of questions to be answered. As Trump and his coterie flew back to the United States on July 8, Trump drafted the initial response Trump Jr. offered to the Times, as The Post first reported at the end of that month.
“Flying home from Germany on July 8 aboard Air Force One,” we reported, “Trump personally dictated a statement in which Trump Jr. said that he and the Russian lawyer had ‘primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children’ when they met in June 2016, according to multiple people with knowledge of the deliberations.” In a memo sent to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team last year, Trump’s attorneys acknowledged that this was an accurate characterization of the development of the statement.
The Times article was published online on the evening of July 8. In short order, Trump Jr.'s statement about adoptions was shown to be misleading. The predicate for the meeting was, as released emails demonstrate, that promise of dirt on Clinton. Trump Jr. claimed — and the Russian lawyer with whom he met didn’t deny — that the conversation focused instead on the Magnitsky Act, targeting Putin allies, and Putin’s retaliatory ban on the adoption of Russian children by Americans.
That this is a central issue for Putin was reinforced by his mentioning it during the news conference after his (also largely private) conversation with Trump in Finland last year. That suggests that he may very well have both raised the subject with Trump during the brief, private conversation at the dinner in Hamburg and approved of the lawyer raising the subject during the Trump Tower meeting.
It’s possible that Trump, with the subject of adoptions fresh in his mind, changed a planned response to the Times story during that Air Force One flight to raise a subject that he knew was of interest to the Russians.
But there’s another intriguing possibility: that Trump and Putin, taking advantage of the privacy offered by their conversation at that dinner, discussed how to respond to the existence of the meeting.
Whether Trump knew about the Trump Tower meeting in advance has long been an open question. Shortly after the meeting was set, he made reference to giving a speech uncovering dirt on Clinton, the supposed intent of the meeting. Immediately before confirming the meeting, Trump Jr. spoke with someone calling from a blocked number — which Trump’s home number is.
If he and Putin discussed a response to the Times during that conversation in Hamburg, though, it raises the possibility that Putin, too, knew about the meeting. If so, it suggests that Putin’s involvement in that meeting may be more significant than has been suggested. (It took months before the lawyer admitted her own links to the Kremlin.)
This is speculative. But, as Weiss notes, it stems from the central question in The Post’s reporting: Why did Trump go to such extensive lengths to keep his conversations with Putin private?