It could be the most investigated and costliest 20-minute meeting in political history. I’m talking, of course, about the infamous June 9, 2016 encounter between top Trump campaign associates—including the president’s son and namesake—and Russian surrogates. The prodigious amount of time and energy devoted to analyzing that brief confab, which allegedly represented the vertex of the Kremlin and Team Trump, never will be fully tallied.
The “official” narrative about the Trump Tower meeting goes like this: Don Jr. met with Russians connected to the Kremlin to get dirt on Hillary Clinton a few months before the election. He spoke with his father before and after the meeting; even though the Russians didn’t reveal any scuttlebutt about Clinton, the mere fact Don Jr. arranged the meeting is evidence of criminal collusion with Vladimir Putin’s regime to influence the outcome of the presidential election.
The Trump Tower meeting has been probed by Congress and the special counsel’s office for months while pundits and lawmakers insist that Don Jr.’s participation in the meeting somehow amounts to a crime that will result in his imminent arrest. Mysterious phone calls made by Don Jr. around the time of the meeting were said to have been between father and son, further proof that Putin and Trump were in cahoots before Election Day. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) seems disturbingly fixated on the president’s son, threatening to keep investigating all of Don Jr.’s communications related to the meeting.
But now, to the chagrin of Democrats and the news media, that story line is falling apart. And with it, so is much of the Trump-Russia collusion fable.
According to phone records released last week by the Senate Intelligence Committee, Don Jr. did not call his father either before or after the meeting. The calls instead were made to two friends unrelated to the Trump Tower meeting.
“The revelation that he had not called his father was seen among Trump allies as a victory over Democrats at a crucial moment in the investigation,” reported the New York Times on January 31. The president’s eldest son openly mocked Schiff on social media after the news broke: “Has anyone heard from Adam Schiff?” he tweeted that same day. “I imagine he’s busy leaking other confidential info from the House Intelligence Committee to change the subject?!? #FullOfSchiff.”
Further, far from proof of any nefarious collusion, emerging details indicate the meeting was a set-up orchestrated by operatives tied to Fusion GPS and the firm’s chief, Glenn Simpson. At the same time as the meeting was being arranged in early June 2016, Simpson—working on behalf of the Hillary Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee—was ramping up his efforts to link Candidate Trump to the Russians. He had just hired Christopher Steele, a consultant and former British spy, to uncover any dubious connection between Trump, his campaign, and the Kremlin. A few weeks after the Trump Tower meeting, Steele issued the first installment of what later would be known as the “Steele dossier.”
Ironically, Simpson himself was working for Russian interests on a legal matter pending before the U.S. government while he was enlisting Steele’s help in digging up Russian dirt on Trump. Simpson’s client was Prevezon Holdings, a real estate company owned by a Russian tycoon who had been charged by U.S. authorities for violating a federal law known as the Magnitsky Act. Simpson was hired in 2014 to provide “litigation support” for the Russian company in its fight with the Justice Department.
The Russian associates helping Simpson with that effort? Natalia Veselnitskya and Rinat Akhmetshin—both of whom attended the Trump Tower meeting. In fact, Simpson met with Veselnitskya, a.k.a. “the Russian lawyer,” on June 8, 2016 and had dinner with both Veselnitskya and Akhmetshin in Washington, D.C. on June 10, 2016—yet Simpson told investigators he was unaware of the Trump Tower meeting at the time, only learning about it from the news in the summer of 2017.
Simpson, Veselnitskya, and Akhmetshin all had been retained by an American law firm to settle the Prevezon case and lobby for the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, which punished Russian officials and companies for human rights violations. (Russian President Vladimir Putin strongly opposes the Magnitsky Act and retaliated by suspending American adoptions of Russian children in 2012. According to Don Jr., these issues, and not Clinton gossip, were the actual topics of discussion during the Trump Tower meeting.)
Simpson’s simultaneous work with Prevezon and the Democrats was questioned by then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley in a 2017 letter to the Justice Department. “It is highly troubling that Fusion GPS appears to have been working with someone with ties to Russian intelligence [Akhmetshin]—let alone someone alleged to have conducted political disinformation campaigns—as part of a pro-Russia lobbying effort while also simultaneously overseeing the creation of the Trump/Russia dossier,” Grassley wrote. “The relationship casts further doubt on an already highly dubious dossier.” Grassley also suggested all three might have run afoul of foreign lobbying rules.
In his congressional testimony, Simpson admitted he has known Akhmetshin, a Russian-American lobbyist who lives in Washington, for at least a decade and met with him several times in 2016 regarding the Prevezon case. On Monday, BuzzFeed reported that Akhmetshin received mysterious payments around the time of the Trump Tower meeting. (The former Soviet military officer told Congress that he just happened to be in New York City on June 9, 2016 and received a last-minute invitation by Veselnitskya to meet with the Trump campaign team.)
“In the months before and after the meeting with the Trump campaign, documents show that Akhmetshin made unexplained cash deposits totaling $40,000, and received a wire transfer of $100,000 directly from Katsyv [Prevezon’s owner] along with $52,000 from a foundation funded by Katsyv and other wealthy Russians to try to undermine that law,” BuzzFeed confirmed. “Bankers examining the lobbyist’s accounts flagged these transactions for a variety of reasons, including the inability to explain them, their overseas origin, and a suspicion that they showed Akhmetshin had violated federal lobbying law.”
While the BuzzFeed reporters tried hard to suggest the payments were sourced by people close to Trump, the more likely story is that he was paid by operatives connected to the Trump-Russia collusion conspiracy, perhaps even by Simpson himself. When asked by congressional investigators whether Fusion had ever paid Akhmetshin, Simpson replied, “not to my knowledge.”
Not exactly a convincing answer.
In December, Veselnitskya was charged by Robert Mueller’s office for making a false statement to the court in 2015 about her involvement in the Prevezon matter, although it’s unlikely she will ever be brought to trial. The Justice Department settled the Prevezon case in 2017.
And now that all the facts are available, it’s clear the Trump Tower meeting had nothing to do with the Trump campaign working with the Russians to sway the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. Most likely, it was an attempt by paid political operatives preemptively to lobby a presidential candidate’s top advisors on a controversial issue in the off-chance he won the election. In the worst case scenario, it was a carefully-crafted event designed to bolster the fictional Trump-Russia collusion tale in its early stages.
As one lawmaker said to Simpson during his testimony, “it’s quite something that you would have been investigating Trump for eight months, and one of your colleagues from this other litigation had, in fact, met with Trump Jr. and other high ranking Trump associates on a related topic in the same time period.”
Quite something, indeed.
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