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Team Trump’s 2016 meeting with the Russians, the Air Force One response and why it all matters
President Donald Trump boards a Air Force One with Melania Trump on July 8, 2017. AFP Contributor/Getty Images

In the summer of 2016, Donald Trump Jr. and key members of his father’s presidential campaign met with Russians who were said to have dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton.

That Trump Tower meeting went undisclosed until July of last year, when the New York Times revealed the rendezvous in a bombshell report that the White House dismissed as a “nothing burger.”

At the time, Trump Jr. said that they had “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government.” But that statement was quickly found to be misleading — and to have been crafted by President Donald Trump and his staff aboard Air Force One.

That meeting, and the administration’s shady, conflicting explanation of it, have increasingly become the focus of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, the Times reported Wednesday — and the episode now may have ensnared White House communications director Hope Hicks in a possible obstruction of justice plot.

Here’s a quick refresher on how we got to where we are today — and why the whole episode is so important to the Russia investigation.

The meeting

Donald Trump Jr. attends the Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House in April 2017.
Donald Trump Jr. attends the Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House in April 2017. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Trump Jr. — the president’s eldest son — had allegedly been promised that Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya had damaging information about Clinton that had been collected by the Russian government.

“This is obviously very high-level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Rob Goldstone — the music publicist who set up the meeting — wrote to Trump Jr. in an email.

“If it’s what you say I love it,” Trump Jr. replied.

He met with Veselnitskaya at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016 — two weeks after his father clinched the GOP nomination.

Accompanying him was Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser, and Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman who has since been indicted as part of Mueller’s probe.

The group met with the lawyer, who had previously represented a Russian spy service once helmed by Vladimir Putin, along with other Russians, including Rinat Akhmetshin — a former Soviet intelligence officer some United States officials believe to still have ties to the Russian intelligence community.

Trump Jr. hinted to Veselnitskaya — an opponent of the Magnitsky Act — that his father would review the law in a possible quid pro quo for Clinton dirt, the lawyer said later.

But she said she didn’t have any such information, and both the lawyer and Trump Jr. have said the meeting was a failure.

The response

President Donald Trump returns to the White House July 8 after a trip to Europe.
President Donald Trump returns to the White House July 8 after a trip to Europe. Pool/Getty Images

Journalists from the Times asked the White House about the meeting on July 7, 2017, while Trump and members of his team were at the G20 summit in Germany, the paper reported Wednesday.

Trump and Hicks reportedly “huddled” in Air Force One, where he personally oversaw the drafting of the response his son would later give to the Times — a statement that would characterize the meeting as having been about Russian adoptions and that would make no mention of the promised dirt on Clinton.

But a separate statement by Mark Corallo, a spokesperson for the president’s legal team, described the meeting differently, suggesting it was related to the salacious dossier alleging collusion between Trump and the Russians.

“We have learned that the person who sought the meeting is associated with Fusion GPS, a firm which, according to public reports, was retained by Democratic operatives to develop opposition research on the president and which commissioned the phony Steele dossier,” Corallo told news site Circa.

According to the Times, Trump held a conference call with Hicks and Corallo shortly thereafter. Corallo said to colleagues that he told Trump and Hicks that their statement wouldn’t work because emails showing the true nature of the meeting would come out eventually, to which Hicks replied that the emails “will never get out.”

Sure enough, Trump Jr. would be compelled to release his email exchange with Goldstone in which the two set up the meeting.

“The information they said they had on Hillary Clinton I thought was Political Opposition Research,” Trump Jr. said in a statement July 11. “[Veselnitskaya] had no information to provide and wanted to talk about adoption and the Magnitsky Act.”

Why this all matters

Robert Mueller leaves a meeting on Capitol Hill in June 2017.
Robert Mueller leaves a meeting on Capitol Hill in June 2017. AFP Contributor/Getty Images

This is important for a few reasons.

Mueller’s investigation has for weeks seemed to be focusing more and more on questions about whether or not Trump attempted to obstruct justice in the Russia probe. The new reporting from the Times seems to suggest that such a case could hinge on that Air Force One response by the president to the Trump Jr.-Veselnitskaya reveal last summer. It would also seem to suggest that Hicks — a close ally of the president — may be legally vulnerable, as Corallo is reportedly preparing to tell FBI investigators about the conference call.

The Times’ report on the focus of Mueller’s investigation also brings the Trump Tower meeting back to the forefront of the conversation about the Russia probe as Republicans prepare to release a controversial memo by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) alleging misconduct by the FBI and the Department of Justice.

Republicans say the memo demonstrates anti-Trump bias among federal law enforcement — and the president has reportedly told confidantes that he believes the document will undermine Mueller’s investigation.

But the 2016 Trump Tower meeting, and the administration’s response to it, serves as a useful reminder that there are legitimate questions that still need to be answered about what happened during the 2016 campaign — and how the president has behaved during the investigation in the time since.