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Senate Judiciary Panel Releases Documents Related To 2016 Trump Tower Meeting

May 16, 2018
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee has just released transcripts of its interviews relating to a June 2016 meeting between top Trump campaign officials and a Russian lawyer who was offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas has been sifting through these documents and is here to talk about them.

Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

GREENE: Can we start with you just reminding us about this meeting in the summer of 2016, why it's important?

LUCAS: So this is the meeting that took place at Trump Tower in early June, so in the thick of the presidential race. On the Trump campaign side, there was Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and campaign manager Paul Manafort. The Russian delegation was led by this lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya. And she had come promising damaging information on Hillary Clinton. The meeting has attracted a lot of attention since it was first reported about in the summer of 2017, so a year after it actually took place.

Democrats say that this meeting shows that the Trump campaign did indeed have contacts with Russians during the race, and more importantly, that they were willing to actually accept information from the Russians. Now, the president's supporters, of course, say that there is nothing to see here. They argue that the meeting ultimately fizzled, nothing came of it. The Trump campaign didn't get anything out of it, and so it's no big deal. Either way, however, this is a meeting that is certainly of interest to congressional investigators, as well as special counsel Robert Mueller.

GREENE: OK. So we've known a lot about this meeting for all of this time. And as you say, both sides have their own interpretations of it. Now we have the Judiciary Committee having interviewed people who were actually in the room. Are we learning anything new, different?

LUCAS: At first read, we aren't learning a whole lot new. I will add the caveat, of course, though, that this is, you know, 2,500 pages in total. So we're still working our way through.

GREENE: You haven't gotten through all this yet.

LUCAS: We haven't. But the transcripts, as you said - like, these are interviews with Donald Trump Jr., with Rob Goldstone, the man who helped arrange the meeting, and other participants. So many of them have spoken publicly about it. We've reported extensively on it. So we already do have a pretty good idea of what happened. Now, we do get some greater detail on the conversation at the meeting itself. We hear that Trump Jr. started the meeting by saying, I believe you have some information for us.

The participants all say that the Russian lawyer talked about what she believed was damaging information on Clinton. The Trump team was unimpressed. She then talked about U.S. sanctions on Russia and wanting to get them lifted. Now, Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort all appeared disappointed. The meeting ended. But Trump Jr. reportedly said that they could discuss this again after Trump won the election. We also get a better kind of behind-the-scenes look at the administration's response when reports of the meeting broke out. And that, of course, is of interest to investigators.

GREENE: So Trump's team was disappointed, you said, but did the Trump campaign get anything at all from this lawyer?

LUCAS: They did, yes because Veselnitskaya nice guy gave them information on what she said were basically questionable potentially illegal campaign contributions from the Ziff Brothers, who are these billionaire investors. She didn't have evidence that tied it directly back to Clinton but basically suggested that the Trump team should track it down. Now, Trump Jr. and others seemed disappointed by this. They wanted an actual kind of paper in hand, it seems. But while this isn't, you know, Hillary Clinton's emails or emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee, this is a Russian lawyer who was offering something by all accounts that she thought was substantive and damaging.

GREENE: Anything else standing out so far in what you have looked at?

LUCAS: One thing that caught my eye is an offer by the Russian social media company VKontakte, which is kind of their version of Facebook, to try to assist the Trump campaign with voter turnout among Russian-speaking Americans. So Rob Goldstone recounts discussing this with Paul Manafort. Manafort reportedly welcomed the idea. And the idea was to create kind of a voting registration page and a Trump campaign voter page. Goldstone says ultimately, nothing came of it. But there's still a lot more to sift through, as we said earlier, and so more details may come out as we dig through it all.

GREENE: All right. Happy sifting.

LUCAS: Thank you (laughter).

GREENE: NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thanks a lot, Ryan.

LUCAS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.