It’s not common for President Trump to embrace reporting from CNN, but he did so with alacrity on Thursday when the network reported new information distancing him from the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between his campaign and a Kremlin-linked lawyer.
“The big deal, very mysterious Don jr telephone calls, after the innocent Trump Tower meeting, that the media & Dems said were made to his father (me), were just conclusively found NOT to be made to me,” Trump wrote on Twitter, in his trademark style. “They were made to friends & business associates of Don. Really sad!”
This may require some translation, so let’s translate. Trump is embracing a CNN report, later bolstered by ABC News, that identified the previously unknown people with whom Trump Jr. had spoken before setting up that meeting. Given the uncertainty, there was speculation that he’d spoken with his father (Trump) — indicating that the president probably knew about the meeting in advance.
This would be the second time that Trump has evaded being tied to foreknowledge of the Trump Tower meeting. The other time was in August, when reports emerged suggesting that Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen was ready to testify that Trump knew about the meeting before it happened. That story fell apart.
While the new reporting does answer one question about Trump Jr.'s conversations, it doesn’t answer all of them. To explain, it’s useful to consider a timeline of what happened in the days before the meeting. (The timeline below largely comes from Senate Judiciary Committee transcripts.)
Friday, June 3, 2016
10:36 a.m.: Trump Jr. receives an email from a music promoter named Rob Goldstone. Goldstone works for the singer Emin Agalarov, whose day job is as a developer, working with his father, Aras Agalarov, who, in turn, had at times worked with the Kremlin on development projects.
“Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting,” Goldstone wrote, offering to “provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”
10:53 a.m.: Trump Jr. replies with the infamous line, “if it’s what you say I love it.” He wants to talk to Emin Agalarov before moving forward, however, and says he can do so the next week.
11:09 a.m.: Goldstone emails Emin Agalarov. “He wants to speak personally on the issue with you early next week,” he writes.
11:26 a.m.: Agalarov replies, “Great.”
Monday, June 6
8:44 a.m.: Agalarov emails Goldstone. “Trumps son call,” he asks. “Any news?”
8:51 a.m.: Goldstone replies, “Not yet but he said when he returns to NYC which for sure is after tomorrow as it’s the Super Tuesday final elections tomorrow in California where trump will be ‘crowned’ the official nominee[.] Most likely he will return Wednesday and I will set up call."
9 a.m.: Agalarov replies, “O.K.”
12:40 p.m.: Goldstone emails Trump Jr.: “Let me know when you are free to talk with Emin by phone about this Hillary Info — you had mentioned early this week so wanted to try to schedule a time and day.”
3:03 p.m.: Trump Jr. replies: “Rob, could we speak now?”
3:37 p.m.: Goldstone says he’ll track Agalarov down and asks for Trump Jr.'s number.
3:38 p.m.: Trump Jr. provides his number.
3:43 p.m.: Goldstone contacts Agalarov’s band manager and replies to Trump Jr., telling him that Agalarov is onstage but will call in 20 minutes.
4:04 p.m.: Agalarov calls the number provided. The call lasts between one and two minutes.
4:27 p.m.: Trump Jr. receives a call from a blocked number. The call lasts between three and four minutes.
The reporting from ABC News suggests that this call was with either the chief executive of NASCAR, Brian France, or developer Howard Lorber. If this call was related to the Trump Tower meeting, Lorber seems like the more probable candidate. Trump had worked with Lorber on possible development projects in Russia going back to the 1990s. Lorber, at that point, had also contributed heavily to Trump’s election.
In a statement to ABC News, Lorber denied speaking with Trump Jr. about “any Russian matters.”
4:31 p.m.: Shortly after ending the earlier call, Trump Jr. calls Agalarov. The call lasts between two and three minutes.
In his testimony before Congress, Trump Jr. claimed not to remember whether the two spoke, suggesting that perhaps they traded voice mails. In an interview with Vice News, though, Agalarov said they did speak.
“I said, ‘Listen there’s some people that want to meet you,’ ” Agalarov told Vice. “They obviously want something that could potentially help them resolve things that you could be interested in or maybe not. If you can spare a few minutes of your time, I’d be grateful. If not, no problem. Obviously, Don Jr. being Don Jr. said: ‘Of course. I’ll do it if you’re asking.’ ”
4:38 p.m.: Trump Jr.'s claim that he didn’t speak to Agalarov is also undercut by the email he then sent to Goldstone: “Rob thanks for the help.”
At this point, the meeting has not been set up.
8:40 p.m.: Trump Jr. has another conversation with someone at a blocked number. This could again be Lorber or France.
Tuesday, June 7
12:44 p.m.: Agalarov calls Trump Jr. The call lasts between one and two minutes.
4:07 p.m.: Trump Jr. calls Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort. He later tells investigators that he doesn’t remember speaking to Manafort. Manafort, though, ends up attending the meeting.
4:20 p.m.: Goldstone emails Trump Jr. shortly after speaking with Agalarov.
“Emin asked that I schedule a meeting with you and The Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow for this Thursday,” he writes. “I believe you are aware of the meeting — and so wondered if 3pm or later on Thursday works for you?”
4:28 p.m.: Trump Jr. calls Manafort again, claiming later not to remember the content of the call.
Around 4:45 p.m.: Trump Jr. calls his brother-in-law Jared Kushner, who would also attend the meeting. Trump Jr. tells investigators he doesn’t know what they discussed.
5:16 p.m.: Trump Jr. emails Goldstone. “How about 3 at our offices?” he offers. “Thanks rob appreciate you helping set it up.”
9:13 p.m.: That night, Trump clinches the Republican presidential nomination. As he’s giving a victory speech, he makes an interesting comment.
“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,” Trump says. “I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.”
Wednesday, June 8
10:34 a.m.: Goldstone emails Trump Jr. to ask whether the meeting can be moved to 4 p.m. instead of 3 p.m. because the Russian lawyer who has the important information “is in court until 3.”
This court case, interestingly, involved a case in which the Kremlin-linked lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was working indirectly with an investigative firm, Fusion GPS — which was at the same time employing a former intelligence officer named Christopher Steele to look at Trump’s ties to Russia.
11:15 a.m.: Trump Jr. replies, saying that the change was fine unless a 3 p.m. meeting that day was easier.
11:18 p.m.: Goldstone emails to say that a meeting that day wasn’t possible.
12:03 p.m.: Trump Jr. forwards Kushner and Manafort the email, telling them that the meeting has been moved.
Thursday, June 9
4 p.m.: The meeting takes place. Kushner leaves shortly after it starts; Manafort takes notes on his phone. Trump Jr. expresses frustration at Veselnitskaya’s pitch, which apparently focused on purported tax crimes related to a businessman who had pushed for a law punishing Russian nationals involved in alleged underhanded activity. (That law resulted in Russia blocking Americans from adopting Russian children.)
At some point after the meeting, Trump Jr. had another call from a blocked number.
The speech Trump had teased about Clinton’s nefarious activity didn’t happen as planned the following week.
A through-line to this entire timeline is that Trump Jr. has been reluctant to offer much information about those with whom he spoke and what was said. You’ll recall that his initial statement about the meeting — later revealed to have been drafted by his father — insisted that it had focused on the issue of adoption. His testimony to Congress included insistences that he had no recollection of talking to Agalarov or to Manafort or to Kushner before setting up the meeting. He said he had made Kushner and Manafort aware of the meeting, though he didn’t say when or how, and said that he hadn’t told his father.
The revelation of Trump Jr.'s blocked-call contacts fills in one blank that distances Trump from knowledge of the meeting. It does not, however, definitively show that he didn’t know about it.