By Drew Long
Congressional investigators examining Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election are now focusing on whether the Trump campaign or the Republican National Committee received donations from Russian sources after a meeting involving two Russian lobbyists in Trump Tower last year, according to a Thursday NBC report.
President Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, attended the meeting, on June 9, 2016, with two Russian lobbyists: Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin. Donald Trump Jr., the president's eldest son, organized the meeting.
Manafort took notes during the meeting on his iPhone and submitted them to the Senate Intelligence Committee late last month. References to political donations and the RNC in the notes have "elevated the significance" of the meeting for congressional investigators, according to NBC.
NBC initially reported that the word "donations" appeared in the notes, but clarified later that the notes made a vague reference to political contributions but did not use the word "donations" specifically.
"A complete investigation will answer whether the Russians were working with the Trump campaign and whether that included financial assistance," said Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
"There are enough accounts out there that we should probe further to see if that was the case," Swalwell added, pointing to the meeting and the recent revelations about the Trump Organization pursuing a real-estate deal in Moscow during the election.
"Clearly, we have to keep following the money," he said.
In a statement later reported to have been dictated by his father in early July, Trump Jr. said the meeting centered on an adoption program that Russian President Vladimir Putin cut off in retaliation for the 2012 Magnitsky Act, a US law that blacklisted and sanctioned Russians suspected of human-rights abuses.
But subsequent reporting — and evolving statements from Trump Jr. — revealed that he had been offered damaging information on Hillary Clinton in exchange for taking the meeting, and that Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin used the rendezvous to push for a repeal of the law.
"The Russian approach to Trump Jr. via Veselnitskaya was truly carefully planned," said Bill Browder, the founder of the investment advisory firm Hermitage Capital who spearheaded the Magnitsky Act.
"Asking Donald Trump Jr. and the rest to withdraw the Magnitsky Act if Trump were elected was such a significant request that they would have come with various things to offer, and they would have thought carefully about what," Browder said. "They wouldn't have come to this meeting empty-handed."
The June 9 meeting has also come under intense scrutiny by Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the FBI's Russia investigation, whose grand jury interviewed Akhmetshin at length earlier this month.
Browder was less than optimistic about how useful Akhmetshin's testimony was to federal investigators.
"Akhmetshin is a known liar," Browder said. "So the testimony will be most useful in seeing where those lies contradict other people's lies."
Also at the meeting were Irakly "Ike" Kaveladze, a representative of Aras and Emin Agalarov, the wealthy Russians who first requested the meeting be arranged; Rob Goldstone, a British music publicist; and Anatoli Samachornov, a Russian translator.
Trump Jr. did not disclose the presence of Akhmetshin, Samachornov, or Kaveladze at the meeting. And it is unclear why a discussion of Russia's adoption policy would have required Kaveladze, who's based in Los Angeles, to be there.
Renato Mariotti, a longtime federal prosecutor, wrote on Twitter that Mueller could use Manafort's notes against Trump Jr., who issued multiple — and often inconsistent — statements about the meeting after it was made public.
"One thing this news indicates is that 'adoptions' weren't the only thing discussed at the meeting," Mariotti said, "and his attempt to characterize the meeting as concerning adoptions could be used against him if he was charged and took the witness stand, to undercut his credibility."
Trump Jr. also told Sean Hannity, the Fox News host, in an interview early last month that Manafort was "on his phone" during the meeting, Mariotti noted, in an attempt to indicate Manafort wasn't paying attention — though he was apparently taking detailed notes.
"This gives you a window into how Trump Jr.'s public statements will be picked apart," Mariotti said.