President Donald Trump has long argued that reporting on his campaign’s ties with Russia is “fake news.” So let’s start with what he now admits is true:
Donald Trump’s son, son-in-law and then-campaign manager met in Trump Tower with a Kremlin-connected lawyer at the height of the 2016 campaign after being promised dirt on Hillary Clinton from the highest levels of the Russian government.
Next, let’s look at what Trump’s team now admits they said in the past that was not true:
Donald Trump Jr. falsely claimed that he never met any Russians in any campaign capacity, President Trump personally dictated a misleading statement to the New York Times on behalf of his son about the substance of the meeting and the president’s personal lawyer inaccurately claimed that the president was not involved in drafting the statement.
Over the weekend, the president tweeted out a new defense of the Trump Tower meeting, arguing that a) there was nothing wrong with the meeting, b) there was nothing illegal about the meeting, and c) that he did not know about it. That same day, the Washington Post had reported that Trump was concerned about the meeting and how it had ensnared his son in a legal quagmire.
But shortly after that tweet was sent, Trump attorney Jay Sekulow, admitted on ABC’s “This Week” that he was wrong when he denied Trump was involved in writing the misleading statement last year.
“I had bad information at that time and made a mistake in my statement,” Sekulow said. “I’ve talked about that before. That happens when you have cases like this.”
Here’s a quick look at what we know about the Trump Tower meeting.
Who attended the meeting in Trump Tower?
Eight people were present at the meeting. Trump associates at the meeting included Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort (Trump’s campaign manager at the time). Among the Russian attendees were a lawyer linked to the Kremlin, a businessman associated with a prominent Russian oligarch, a lobbyist with past connections to Russian intelligence organizations, a publicist for a Russian pop star (who organized the meeting) and a translator.
The lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, allegedly harbored damaging information about Hillary Clinton that served as the premise for the meeting. Although she initially denied having connections to the Russian government, emails surfaced this spring showing that she worked closely with Russia’s chief legal office on a case. She later called herself a “lawyer” and “informant” and acknowledged that “since 2014, I have been actively communicating with the office of the Russian prosecutor general.”
What has the Trump team said about the meeting that was untrue?
Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and Vice President Mike Pence all inaccurately claimed that the Trump campaign had no foreign contacts during the election. Trump Jr. specifically denied any official meetings with Russians, then when he was forced to admit the Trump Tower meeting, claimed that they “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children.” He was later forced to admit that he had, in fact, been promised dirt ahead of the meeting, testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he believed he “should at least hear them out.” Sekulow repeatedly claimed that President Trump was not involved in the drafting of Trump Jr.’s misleading statement about the substance of the meeting, which he now admits was untrue.
Could the meeting have broken any laws?
Trump’s attorney Jay Seukulow insisted on Sunday that the meeting was entirely legal. “The question is what law, statute or rule or regulation’s been violated?” he asked George Stephanopulos on ABC News’ This Week. “Nobody’s pointed to one.”
But legal experts have cautioned what Stephanopoulos immediately pointed out: the meeting has the potential to lead to several charges, including conspiracy to defraud the United States and aiding and abetting conspiracy.
“If you’re associated wth the campaign and trying to get aid from Russians, you’re likely committing a crime,” said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor,
Mariotti explained that Mueller’s team, however, needs to prove the Trump campaign was knowingly conspiring with the Russians to break U.S. law. For instance, US. law prohibits domestic campaign officials from receiving foreign contributions; if prosecutors can successfully argue that compromising information on Clinton was a contribution, even if it was monetary, that could put both Trump and his associates who took the meeting in legal jeopardy.
But Bradley Moss, an attorney in Washington D.C. who specializes in national security issues, said the lack of precedent could potentially benefit Trump’s team.
“This is not an open and shut case due in part to the fact that no one’s tried this before. Especially at this level,” said Moss. “There’s never been a similar precedent of a campaign taking a meeting with reported foreign government officials or their proxies to get damaging opposition research. So we don’t know how the courts would view it.”
“We’re all kind of theorizing in abstract what would suffice,” Moss added, “but no one knows for certain.”
Did Trump know about the meeting beforehand?
Critics also point to several inconvenient facts surrounding the meeting. Democrats noted that Trump Jr. called a blocked number in between two phone conversations about the meeting. Trump Jr. testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he did not remember who he spoke to at that time, but others testified that President Trump has used a blocked line.
Others have noticed that, two days before the Trump Tower meeting, Trump announced he would soon give a “major speech” discussing “all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons.” He did not end up giving the speech.
The question of whether or not Trump knew about the meeting is likely one that Special Counsel Robert Mueller explore as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Cohen is reportedly willing to tell special counsel Robert Mueller that Trump was in fact aware of Russians’ proposal, claiming to be present, along with several others, when Trump approved the meeting.
–With reporting by Alana Abramson/New York