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Trump White House in Crisis as Emails Confirm Campaign Embraced Russian Effort to Defeat Clinton

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The White House is in disarray following revelations that President Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., supported an effort by the Russian authorities to share information incriminating Hillary Clinton in an attempt to help Trump win the election. The latest development in the ongoing saga of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian authorities came from a series of emails that Trump Jr. personally released on Tuesday. The emails discussed a meeting he—as well as Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort—had in June 2016 at Trump Tower with a person described to him as a "Russian government attorney." We speak with Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The White House is in crisis mode following revelations that Donald Trump’s own son openly embraced an effort by the Russian government to peddle information incriminating Hillary Clinton in an attempt to help Trump win the presidency. The smoking gun comes in the form of a series of emails Donald Trump Jr. personally released on Tuesday dealing with a meeting he had in June 2016 at Trump Tower with a person described to him as a "Russian government attorney." The meeting has been the focus of a series of articles in recent days by The New York Times. Donald Trump Jr. released the emails shortly after the Times told him they were about to publish the content of the emails.

The explosive emails begin with a message from music publicist Rob Goldstone about how the crown prosecutor of Russia had offered to provide the Trump campaign with, quote, "some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary," unquote. Goldstone went on to say, quote, "This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump," unquote. Minutes later, Trump Jr. replied, "If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer," unquote.

Within a week, on June 9th, Trump Jr. met with a Kremlin-connected attorney at Trump Tower. Also at the meeting, his brother-in-law Jared Kushner as well as his father’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort. They were both included on the email chain made public by Trump Jr. on Tuesday. The meeting had been kept secret until Kushner recently made reference to it in a revised version of a form required to obtain a security clearance.

To help make sense of these recent developments, we’re joined by Marcy Wheeler in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties. She runs the website EmptyWheel.net.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Marcy.

MARCY WHEELER: Thanks for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about this latest series of emails that have been released by Donald Trump Jr., but only because The New York Times was about to release them itself?

MARCY WHEELER: Right, so, the email adds a bunch of remarkable new details to what we know, most importantly, that the Trump campaign knew that Russia was trying to get Donald Trump elected probably before even the intelligence community. We had known that the CIA had gotten a tip from a foreign partner sometime in June that even today NSA still doesn’t think was that great a piece of intelligence. But, meanwhile, we learned that on—you know, in early June, Don Jr. was getting this email saying, "There is an effort on the part of Russia to get your father elected. And as part of that, we’re going to sent this lawyer to you with dirt on Hillary Clinton." And Don Jr., having read that email, said, "Great! Bring it on! Give me that information."

AMY GOODMAN: And then, talk about what happened next.

MARCY WHEELER: Well, so, there was the meeting. And as you said, both Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner were also cc’d on this email, so they both knew, at least from reading the subject line, that this was—this was from Russia, that this was about information from Russia. So the lawyer came in. There was a conversation that—I mean, everyone is providing their version of what happened at this meeting, and these versions keep changing. You know, I was joking yesterday, I expect The New York Times to come out with what really happened by the end of the day today. But the claim is that the dirt that the lawyer had to offer wasn’t all that interesting, and, Don Jr. says, so he kind of tuned out.

But the reason the lawyer was there was she’s trying, and she has long tried, to get rid of the Magnitsky sanctions against a bunch of oligarchs for human rights violations. And he claims that he tuned out that portion, which would be a quid pro quo. It would suggest, "If we give you dirt on Hillary, will you get rid of the sanctions that Putin and all of his buddies have been trying to get rid of for some time?" We need to see what happened with this meeting.

But last night on Hannity, Don Jr. was sort of like, "Well, yeah, you know, I talked to some other Russians." It’ll be interesting to see both what the prior conversations to this email were—because, as you said, Don Jr. said, "Oh, if it’s what you told me," which makes it clear that he and Rob Goldstone were having conversations before the email—and what kind of follow-up there was. So, it’ll be interesting to see. Last night on Hannity, Don Jr. was sort of like, "Oh, he’s just an acquaintance," Rob Goldstone, which I suspect is going to make Goldstone be a little more chatty about what really went on.

AMY GOODMAN: And it isn’t just concern about was it a quid pro quo. I mean, there are those lawyers who are raising the issue of federal finance laws being broken, because you’re breaking the law if you’re getting something of value from a foreign national, you know, for a campaign.

MARCY WHEELER: And as you said, Jared Kushner didn’t disclose this until a couple of efforts to fully disclose his meetings with foreign—with foreign government people on his security clearance form. So, there is this sense that everyone was trying to hide this.

One subtext to this whole thing is that Jared Kushner has very competent lawyers: Jamie Gorelick, who used to work at DOJ, Abbe Lowell, who’s one of the best defense attorneys in the country. And as you said, Don Jr. and the rest of the Trump family keep lawyering up with mob lawyers, who are totally inappropriate to this task and also aren’t doing what Kushner’s lawyers seem to be doing, which is getting ahead of the issues. So, it’ll be interesting to see how the tensions in the White House play out, as Kushner follows a very competent legal strategy and Trump and his father just take to Twitter and start hurting their case on Twitter.

AMY GOODMAN: And a lot of questions being asked about whether—if Kushner is a person of interest and he’s being investigated in all these different ways, how he maintains the top security clearance a person can have at the White House.

MARCY WHEELER: Well, it’s—I mean, unfortunately, clearance in this country ultimately comes from the power of the president. The president hasn’t been held to account for a number of things, including all of his financial conflicts. And I think the clearance form is another side of this. I think we’ll see more pressure from the intelligence community about what Kushner gets included in and what he doesn’t get included in. But, you know, he is central to this purported peace plan in the Middle East, which is—looks more like an effort to start a war against Iran. And so, taking him out of that or taking him out of any kind of cleared efforts would be central to what the Trump campaign is trying to do on a larger foreign policy issue. So, yeah, it’s a big question. And we really have heard crickets from most Republicans about what is now, I think, real evidence that Trump was working with the Russians to get elected and that he was happy to collude with them or to cooperate with them on his election effort.

AMY GOODMAN: During the interview you referred to with Sean Hannity on Fox News last night, Donald Trump Jr. said his father knew nothing about the email exchange or his meeting.

SEAN HANNITY: Did you tell your father anything about this?

DONALD TRUMP JR.: No. It was such a nothing. There was nothing to tell. I mean, I wouldn’t have even remembered it, until you start scouring through this stuff. It was literally just a wasted 20 minutes, which was a shame.

AMY GOODMAN: But many commentators have questioned Trump Jr.’s claim, pointing to remarks Donald Trump made on the campaign trail just hours after Trump Jr. confirmed the meeting with the Russian attorney.

DONALD TRUMP: I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week, and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Marcy Wheeler, the timing, from June 3rd to June 7th to—that was, I think, June 7th, that speech. June 9th was the meeting. And it went on from there.

MARCY WHEELER: And June 15th is the first day that leaked DNC emails came out, with the Guccifer 2.0 figure in the United States. Shortly after the meeting, Trump started emphasizing more and more the 33,000 alleged emails that were floating out there on the internet. So, there’s a lot of data points to suggest that the Trump campaign and Trump himself were acting on the hopes or the expectation that they would get this dirt on Hillary Clinton.

So—and there’s another reason to doubt that he was out of the loop, and that’s because, in the email, Goldstone, who set up the meeting, said, "I could go to your father, through his assistant, but this is so sensitive, I’m going to go through you first." So, it’s clear that Goldstone had the intent of bringing Trump himself into the loop. And the first pushback strategy on this meeting, where Don Jr. came out and kind of did a half-admission that the meeting happened, that was approved by Trump himself. So, you know, Trump was intended to be in the loop from the beginning, based on the email that we saw yesterday, and Trump is okaying the response that we’re seeing today.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, Trump was friends with, had worked with the musician, the Russian musician, who Goldstone represented. In the first part of the email, "Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting," Goldstone wrote to Trump Jr.—knows both the musician himself, Emin, as well as his Russian developer father. But I want to go back to Donald Trump Jr. being in interviewed on CNN by Jake Tapper in July 2016, just weeks after he met with the Russian attorney.

JAKE TAPPER: I don’t know if you were hearing earlier, but Robby Mook, the campaign manager for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I asked him about the DNC leak, and he suggested that experts are saying that Russians were behind both the leak—the hacking of the DNC emails and their release. He seemed to be suggesting that this is part of a plot to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. Your response?

DONALD TRUMP JR.: Well, it just goes to show you their exact moral compass. I mean, they’ll say anything to be able to win this. I mean, this is, time and time again, lie after lie. You notice he won’t say, "Well, I say this." We hear experts. You know, his house cat at home once said that this is what’s happening with the Russians. It’s disgusting. It’s so phony. I watched him bumble through the interview. I was able to hear it on audio a little bit. I mean, I can’t think of bigger lies. But that exactly goes to show you what the DNC and what the Clinton camp will do. They will lie and do anything to win.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Donald Trump Jr. speaking to Jake Tapper in July of 2016, just weeks after he met with the Russian attorney. And, Marcy, I’d like you to comment on that, but then also your thoughts before the email trail was released, these specific emails—an interesting piece you wrote this weekend—though your views have changed once you see the email.

MARCY WHEELER: Sure. With regards to the Don Jr. comment in July, I mean, I think he is luckier than Kushner in that his earlier statements about whether or not he met with Russians are just press statements. They’re not legal documents, as they were with Kushner’s, that carry penalty of perjury. But it’s very clear that he was lying. And so, that behavior, Kushner’s behavior—Manafort also didn’t disclose this stuff and has since had to officially disclose it to Congress. It’s clear they’re hiding this meeting. It’s clear all of them were hiding this meeting, and so I think that really raises the importance of it.

You referenced my comments before the email came out. And I raised this question about what the difference is between meeting with a lawyer—and at that point, we knew she was a lawyer with a bunch of oligarch clients, we did not know that she was introduced to Don Jr. as somebody with the Russian government—and as the—as a Hillary surrogate, so somebody, you know, degrees separate from Hillary, a Hillary surrogate paying Christopher Steele to pay Russian entities, including people in the Kremlin, for dirt on Trump. And I think that’s a fair question. We now have a lot more evidence that, A, Don Jr. knew that this was—or was at least informed that this was tied to a Russian government effort, and we know that it was tied to this kind of quid pro quo, which was never the case for this Steele dossier, which is where the Peegate, the pee tape, is supposed to have come from. But, I mean, underlying it, our politics has become such that both sides spend a lot of money and a lot of effort to find dirt on their opponents. Where that, I think, crosses a new line—and Don Jr. pretends to be naïve: "Well, you know, this happens all the time"—where it crosses a line is when the dirt is being dealt in the context of things like policy changes on sanctions reliefs.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Marcy Wheeler, we’re going to break. And when we come back, I want to quickly ask you about a hearing that’s not getting much attention at all, because this is taking up all of the, to say the least, the media attention. And that is the hearing for the next director of the FBI. Stay with us.

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