President Trump’s media and congressional opponents continue to see great significance in the now-famous June 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer. Since the meeting was revealed, over year ago, it has provoked Trump’s opponents to feats of overstatement previously achieved only by Trump himself. Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate, called it “treason” and the New York Times and other media critics of the president have warned darkly that the meeting is evidence of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia.
This is odd. If anything, the circumstances surrounding the meeting demonstrate that, at least in June 2016—less than two months before the FBI opened its investigation of the Trump campaign—there had been no collusion. And logic dictates there was none afterward, as noted below.
In its most recent iteration, Trump has put the story on the front pages by tweeting that his son had met with the Russian lawyer to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, but he said that the meeting was perfectly legal and no information about Clinton was ever provided.
Nevertheless, the mere fact that the president admitted that the meeting had been held to get negative information on Clinton was significant enough for The New York Times to report in its front page story that “the meeting is being examined as part of Mr. Mueller’s investigation into whether Mr. Trump’s campaign conspired with the Russians to undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”
Although this is not the inference the Times wanted its readers to draw, if the Mueller investigation is in fact looking closely at the Trump Tower meeting, it is doing so because the evidence is exculpatory.
Indeed, everything about the meeting demonstrates that, as of June 2016, the Trump campaign had no relationship with the Russian government. According to the Times report itself, a British entertainment publicity agent named Rob Goldstone, an acquaintance of Donald Trump Jr., sent him an email message that a Russian lawyer with Kremlin connections had negative information about Hillary Clinton and wanted to set up a meeting. Trump Jr. replied, in part, “if it’s what you say I love it.”
What is significant about this exchange is not Trump Jr.’s response but the fact that Goldstone, according to the Times, was writing on behalf of the father of a Russian pop star (apparently another acquaintance of Trump Jr.) who had heard from the “Crown prosecutor” of Russia (a nonexistent office) that the Russian government had documents that would “incriminate” Clinton.
This kind of introduction itself demonstrates that there had been no previous contact between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. If any prior contact had occurred, there would have been no need to use a third-hand intermediary to set up a meeting. Everyone in public life has had introductions like this—from a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend—and they occur because no one on the side that is trying to make contact has any other way to get in touch with the people he or she is trying to reach.
This, then, is strong evidence that at least in early June 2016, there had been no contact between senior levels of the Trump campaign and anyone representing the Russian government—at least no sufficient contact to establish a channel of communication.
A communication channel is an essential element of anything labeled “collusion” because the word means “cooperation” with a connotation of conspiracy and illegality. Thus, it implies two parties working toward a common purpose for which regular communication would be essential. If, in June 2016, the Trump campaign and the Russians were already in collusion, there would have been an existing communication channel and no need for someone like Goldstone to suggest a meeting to a senior figure in the Trump campaign.
Nor would it have been necessary for other top figures in the Trump campaign—Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner—to be lured to a meeting by the promise of dirt on Hillary Clinton. That would have been a routine part of any collusive activity, and whatever information the Russians had would have been imparted through the communication channel already established. The fact that all the top figures of the Trump campaign came to the meeting shows that no such channel existed; they knew nothing at that point about any help the Russians might provide and were interested in finding out what it was.
The Times report says that an effort to get “help” from a foreign person in a U.S. political campaign is illegal, but if going to a meeting to find out what help the Russians could provide is illegal, how have the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee avoided prosecution? They paid $10 million for information about Trump Sr. from a foreign person—Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent.
Less than two months after the Trump Tower meeting, on July 31, the FBI opened its investigation of the Trump campaign on the collusion issue. It is of course possible that after June 2016 some form of communication channel between the campaign and the Russians was established, but if so it was unknown to Steele, who provided it to the FBI and was reputed to have excellent Russian sources.
Nor was it apparently known to the FBI, which used the information in the Steele dossier—as late as October 2016–to set up surveillance of Carter Page, a low-level adviser to the Trump campaign. If the FBI had found a communications channel, there would have been no point in surveilling Page. The communications channel itself would have been targeted. We know that Page, who would certainly have been interviewed by Mueller, was not the communications channel; he is walking around free, testifying to Congress under oath and otherwise acting as though he had no role in collusion, while Manafort, Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos have been charged with crimes so they ostensibly could be offered lighter sentences in exchange for information about the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia.
Finally, the recently released version of the FISA application, even though it contains many redactions, gives no hint that the FBI or anyone else could confirm the creation of a communication channel between the Russians and the Trump campaign after the June meeting at Trump Tower.
Thus, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that no communication channel was ever established, and that there could not have been collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
It is therefore something of a mystery why the Times, other media opponents of Trump, and congressional figures like Adam Schiff continue to cite the June 2016 meeting as evidence of collusion when, if anything, it tends to prove the opposite.