Do Trump Jr.’s Russia Emails Live Up to the Hype?
Journalist Marcy Wheeler says Donald Trump Jr.’s newly released emails are a big development, but we should be careful to distinguish normal opposition research from collusion
Aaron Maté: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Donald Trump, Jr. has released emails that could become even more famous than those of Hillary Clinton. The emails showed Donald, Jr. agreed to meet with a Russian lawyer, as part of what he was told was a Russian government effort to help elect his father. A mutual contact told Trump the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, had documents that “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father,” to which Donald Trump, Jr. responded, “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
Donald Trump, Jr. released the email chain today after being told The New York Times was about to publish it. Joining me to discuss it is Marcy Wheeler, a journalist focused on national security and civil liberties. Her website is emptywheel.net. Marcy, welcome.
Marcy Wheeler: Thanks for having me.
Aaron Maté: Thanks so much for joining me. I know you’re busy today. I have to acknowledge, I’ve been skeptical of Russiagate to date, and I’m still skeptical now, but it is obviously very noteworthy that for the first time we have something. We have an email in which someone in the Trump campaign was told of a Russian government effort to help elect Donald Trump. Your thoughts on this email today?
Marcy Wheeler: It’s not even just that he got the email with that indication, but when he got it. Because this is, remember, when maybe one other intelligence service was telling the CIA that that was the case. That Russia was trying to help elect Trump is a conclusion that the intelligence community was pretty slow, all of them, to come around to and NSA until today was still in the moderate confidence. They weren’t in the high confidence, so this is new intelligence that came out of probably Jared Kushner’s efforts to fully disclose all of the meetings that he had had with foreigners.
It tells us that from the beginning of the general election Trump … Not only did Russia want … Set out with the general election to elect Trump, but from the beginning of the general election the Trump people knew that Russia wanted to get them elected, so the fact that this started before any of these emails from Hillary Clinton came out is really important.
Aaron Maté: Marcy, let me cast some doubt on the provenance here, okay? We’re talking about an email from an associate of the Trump family who’s not connected to Russia, who is relaying what he’s heard about a Russian government effort, so it’s his rendering of what he’s been told Russia is trying to do, and the lawyer who Donald Trump, Jr. met with was talking about information having to do with Hillary Clinton’s dealings with Russia, right? Not any of the stuff, as you say, that came out in the emails later on?
Marcy Wheeler: Well, we only are relying on … We don’t have a transcript of the meeting. We’re relying on the participants in the meeting, mostly Don Jr. and the lawyer and Rod Goldstone, who’s the one who set it up, to describe what happened in the meeting, and who’s to say? Who’s to say whether there was follow-up? I think it is at least evidence that Goldstone was told by basically a Russian oligarch, by somebody very close to both Trump-
Aaron Maté: The crown prosecutor?
Marcy Wheeler: Well, no. I mean that’s where the information was supposed to come, but the guy who this came from, the client that Goldstone was working with to give this to Trump, he’s an oligarch. He’s the guy who helped Trump set up Miss Universe in Russia. He’s got close ties to Putin as well, and so that guy told this music promoter basically that this was an effort on the part of the Russian government. Maybe he was trying to make Trump look bad, but nevertheless we know that Don Jr. took the meeting with the information and email saying that it was coming from the Russian government.
One of the interesting things about the email is in the email this same rock promoter guy is like, “Well, you know, I could take this to your father directly, but I really sent this to you first,” so there’s even the indication that Don Sr. was involved in this and knew from the beginning. So it raises a bunch of questions and it brings the timing of Russia’s sort of support for Trump much earlier than even the dodgy dossier and anything else it said.
Aaron Maté: Okay. Before we get to the implications of this email and what it means for perhaps comparing that to what Trump officials have said about what they knew about the alleged Russian meddling, I want to stress this point, that the email said, “The documents that they had for Trump family,” the documents would “incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to her father.”
I just want to stress that point, but this is … The information that they are presented with was not related to the DNC, which came later on, but about Clinton’s dealings inside Russia itself.
Marcy Wheeler: Again, maybe. The lawyer had said that … I mean she’s been all over the map already and it’s just been a day and a half, but she … And she may be trying to hang out the Trumps, because that’s … Russia … You know, Trump isn’t really helping Russia right now. They have every incentive to make Trump as discomforted by this as they can. They don’t love Trump, but the first story was about Russians funding the DNC. That could have come from stolen emails, it could come from Russia spying on Russia.
I mean, you know, obviously there’s a lot of possible sources of dirt against anybody if you’re Russia, and who knows what is real? But I think Trump may … Don Jr. may say, “Well, I’m naïve an stupid and I was doing what everyone else was doing, like collecting oppo research.”
I made the point yesterday that Hillary Clinton too was going [inaudible 00:06:42] Russia and collecting oppo research, but she was doing it with … She wasn’t engaging in this kind of quid pro quo where there might be sanctions in response. Everyone collects oppo research. The Trump campaign, A, is so stupid that they can’t get credit separated from the principles, which is … I mean these people are stupid. Also that it’s in the context of the Russian government trying to get something from her.
Aaron Maté: Marcy, can you explain that point about Clinton, because I think that’s very important. Clinton and other Democrats, as well as some Republican opponents of Donald Trump early in the primary had dealings with someone who was offering up the content of this deal memo, which of course was related … Was partly based on claims that came from inside Russia, and you’re saying that that also could be somewhat evidence of collusion there too?
Marcy Wheeler: No. I’m saying we should be careful to distinguish regular oppo research from collusion, and when I wrote that I said we have no evidence that this woman, the lawyer, came from the Russian government. We have no evidence that the Trump people were willing to engage in this quid pro quo discussion about the Magnitsky sanctions.
I think we have more evidence of that now, and we have more evidence that this was the Russian government going out of its way to tamper or forge [inaudible 00:08:14] distinct from … So your listeners will remember that a Hillary Clinton supporter still unnamed paid an oppo research firm, who paid a British spy, who paid Russians, including people in the Kremlin, for dirt on Donald Trump. So there’s the difference, is that Hillary’s people were going out and getting this dirt. Trump’s people were getting it landed in their lap in the context of sanction relief discussions.
Aaron Maté: But the sanction relief discussions came way later on, right, when we know that Flynn spoke to the Russian ambassador after Trump was elected?
Marcy Wheeler: Not … Again, I don’t know that we can trust this Russian lawyer, because she has an incentive to make Don Sr., to make all of the Trumps as uncomfortable as possible. But she said that this was about adoptions, which is code if your Russian for the Magnitsky sanctions. What Putin did in retaliation for this set of sanctions which implicated a bunch of oligarchs, was say no more adoptions from Russia, as a way to try and make it look soft and cuddly.
That’s what she said the meeting was about. If that’s the case and if that’s what Don Jr. understood, and Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner … They all knew this was about Russia and Clinton when they went into the meeting. If that’s what they understood the meeting was about, then the context is already about sanction relief.
Aaron Maté: Right. Donald Trump, Jr.’s defense is that this lawyer only wanted to basically talk about Russian adoptions, and so he didn’t think much of the meeting. He didn’t think it was worth talking about.
Let me ask you about what some people in the Trump camp have said in defense of all this. They pointed to the fact that Ukrainian officials met with members of the DNC and they discussed potentially compromising information about people in the Trump camp. What do you make of that one?
Marcy Wheeler: I mean they’re right and the Ukrainians surely preferred Hillary over Trump in the same way that Putin preferred Trump over Hillary. You know, I don’t … We don’t have evidence of the same kind of policy quid pro quo. Maybe it’s there. Maybe Hillary promised that if she won then she would arm the Ukrainians. I don’t know. That sort of issue is … We’re now looking very closely at Trump.
The other thing of course is that as far as we know Ukrainians didn’t hack Trump and leak that information. They didn’t commit crimes in this country to hurt Donald Trump as far as we know. We know the intelligence community has said unequivocally that the Russians hacked Hillary and made those emails available to Trump.
Aaron Maté: Marcy, I have to push back on that. It’s four intelligence agencies said that, not all of them, and these again are just claims. On that front we have not seen evidence yet. We’ve heard the claims of these agencies, but not any hard evidence. It’s also not a unanimous consensus from the intelligence community.
Marcy Wheeler: Not, it’s not 17, and I don’t think I said it was 17. It’s the four main ones that would deal with this kind of investigation, although I’d say Homeland Security would be in there as well. What we do have is we have some good forensics even in the public sphere, so for example the way in which John Podesta was hacked, very much as the markings of Russian military intelligence. We may know less about the DNC and less about Hillary. I have talked to people personally who were involved who say that it was very clearly Russian, but they’re not the ones on TV every day.
I think yes, we haven’t seen all of the forensics … We have seen a lot of the public forensics and that all tends to lead towards Russia, and the aftermath tends to lead towards Russia, so I think that … I get why people are skeptical. That CrowdStrike report was pretty crummy.
Aaron Maté: CrowdStrike is the private firm contracted by the DNC?
Marcy Wheeler: Right. That’s some of what we’re relying on, but there is actually a bunch more evidence out there that it was Russia.
Aaron Maté: Okay. Well, look, I’m one of those people who remain skeptical, but moving on … So given what public statements have been made by people in the Trump camp and in terms of disclosures that they’ve filed as part of joining the government, this is an aspect of the story I haven’t followed very well. Is there anything from these emails that came out today that could add credence to the charge that Trump officials have engaged in some sort of incriminating cover-up of some kind?
Marcy Wheeler: Sure, because both Paul Manafort … Well, both Don Jr. … He had been asked did you have any conversations with the Russians and he said no. “Nothing about the campaign,” he said. Most importantly, Jared Kushner, when he first applied for his security clearance he did not include any of these Russian meetings, so add another Russian meeting that Jared Kushner attended that he did not disclose at first.
I suspect that’s one of the reasons we know about this meeting, because in the interim period both Kushner and Paul Manafort have disclosed this either to Congress or to the FBI, so I suspect that that’s how we can nail down this meeting so well. I think Kushner is trying to clean up his act. One of the really interesting questions is who are the sources for these stories? Is Paul Manafort hanging out the Trumps or something like that? I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I do find it pretty interesting.
Aaron Maté: Okay. In terms of the issue of evidence again, if as you say there’s reason to believe that it was Russia who hacked the emails, do you think we have any hard evidence yet on the issue of collusion, which is a big part of this, that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in that effort?
Marcy Wheeler: Well, I think we’re closer to that than we were because of the timing. This meeting was on June 9th. The first leaked files came out on June 15th. If you look at … There’s already been some really interesting tracking of Don Sr., of the President, who of course runs his mouth on Twitter all the time. He was saying some really interesting things on Twitter about some dirt that was going to come out on Hillary, so I think that we’re a lot closer. We’re a lot closer to Trump’s people knowing and expecting those emails were going to come out.
Aaron Maté: Okay. If you were interviewing Donald Trump, Jr. today, what questions would you have for him?
Marcy Wheeler: I’d ask him why he’s so dumb. No, I mean, why did he release the email? One of the points I made is not only does that email hurt him badly, like [inaudible 00:15:47] are going. “Whoa, this is really bad stuff,” but the email makes it crystal clear that President Obama did not wiretap the Trump campaign, because had they wiretapped the Trump campaign, there are certainties that Russia was affirmatively trying to elect Donald Trump would have come much earlier than it did, because even the CIA was just getting around to this viewpoint later in June, so after this meeting.
But the NSA is still on the record as being only moderately confident that Russia was affirmatively trying to get Trump elected. Now we’ve all seen an email that makes it crystal clear that Russia was definitely trying to get Trump elected, so we know that-
Aaron Maté: Marcy, I’m sorry … Marcy, I have to cut it … Marcy, we have an email in which someone says second-hand that Russia is trying to get Trump elected.
Marcy Wheeler: Yeah, an associate of Trump. You’re right. But it’s an email that Don Jr. responded to, right? And it’s an email that implies a certain contact that Don Jr. understood. I mean it was clear that there had been some conversations going on with this guy before the emails started and it was clear when this guy said, “Hey, this is part of Russia trying to get your dad elected,” it’s not like Donald Jr. was like, “What? I have never heard of that.” He instead said, “Bring on the meeting. I want to do the meeting.”
So I get what you’re saying, that I think that we should assume certainly the Russians here may be spinning this and may have presented it in the way that would be most compromising to Trump, but nevertheless I mean Don Jr. responded in a way that appears to suggest he knew there was this effort, and that’s pretty damning stuff.
Aaron Maté: I think that’s a fair point and we’ll leave it there. Marcy Wheeler, journalist focused on national security and civil liberties. Her website is emptywheel.net. Marcy, thank you.
Marcy Wheeler: Thanks so much.
Aaron Maté: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.