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Why Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting to discuss damaging Clinton info matters

July 10, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
How does the news that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer to discuss damaging information about HIllary Clinton add to what we know about Russian meddling in the 2016 election? Former CIA officer John Sipher and Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times join John Yang.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, for a closer look at the meeting Donald Trump Jr. and other Trump campaign officials held with a Russian lawyer last summer, we go back to John Yang.

JOHN YANG: For more on this, we’re joined by Mark Mazzetti. He’s the Washington investigations editor for The New York Times. And by John Sipher, he’s a 28-year veteran of the CIA who was based in Moscow in the 1990s. He’s now with the consulting firm CrossLead.

John, Mark, thanks both for being with us.

Mark, let me start with you.

The defense from the White House, from Donald Trump Jr. is that nothing came out of this meeting, no useful information, as far as they’re concerned. But in the broad scope, in the context of what’s going on now, this investigation into Russian meddling into the election, what’s the significance that this meeting even took place?

MARK MAZZETTI, The New York Times: I think the significance is that it shows that the Trump campaign was at least open to the idea that Russians might have had some damaging information about Hillary Clinton, and that they agreed to have this meeting because — kind of on the promise of that.

And it was sort of a hastily arranged meeting in June of last year. And Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, brought in the campaign chairman and also Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, and there was at least a belief there might be something quite interesting here.

So, with all of the investigations going on and the swarming speculation about collusion with the Russian government, et cetera, I think it’s interesting that this is the first time that we have seen that the Trump campaign was at least amenable to this idea of getting something from Russians that might be damaging to President Trump’s opponent at the time.

JOHN YANG: And the White House also said today, Mark, that they would meet with a lot of people to get opposition research.

But meeting with someone like this, is this politics as usual?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, it’s certainly — there certainly is opposition research all the time in campaigns.

I think one of the things here is the sort of evolving story that has been going on about this meeting. Several months ago, we had asked Donald Trump Jr. about any meetings with Russians he may have had during the campaign. He said absolutely none and certainly nothing of any sort of policy dimension.

And then, on Saturday, we put the question to him about the meeting, and the answer was, well, it was primarily a meeting to discuss adoptions as it related to the Russian ban on adoptions after what’s called the Magnitsky Act, which was passed in the United States, which the Kremlin is very angry about.

And then, of course, Sunday is the other story, which is the latest story, which is that, OK, they had damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

So we’re still trying to get to the bottom of exactly what was proposed and why and what came out of it. But the story certainly has continued to change.

JOHN YANG: And, Mark, what do we know about this attorney, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and how this meeting came about?

MARK MAZZETTI: So, she is a well-connected lawyer in Russia who has been very active in the United States on the legal side, but also on the lobbying side to try to repeal the Magnitsky Act.

And so people in Washington — she knows people in Washington because she’s been active. And her lobbying and legal interests are certainly in line with those of the Kremlin. She is well-connected, as I said, back in Russia with family connections.

And we now understand that the meeting was brought up, brokered by an associate of Donald Trump Jr., a man named Rob Goldstone, who is a record producer. And it was brokered because Mr. Goldstone knows — works with someone in Russia named Emin Agalarov, who’s a pop star and whose father Donald Trump, President Trump worked with in 2013 during the Miss Universe Pageant.

So there is a sort of complicated cast of characters here, but it involves an associate of Donald Trump Jr., Goldstone, arranging this meeting with the lawyer and also these connected people back in Russia.

JOHN YANG: John Sipher, you know how these Russians work.

A lawyer, a well-connected lawyer from Russia, and another connection that goes back, this pop star’s father is a real estate developer who has ties to the Kremlin. Are there warning signs? Or how does this work in terms of how the Russians work? How does this fit in with how the Russians work?

JOHN SIPHER, Former CIA Officer: Well, I would look at it as part of a much larger mission that the Russians are involved in here.

We realize now there was a cyber piece to this. There was a piece to try to make Hillary Clinton look bad. We have seen some reporting that suggested they tried to get into voting machines, a number of these things.

But the thing the Russians that are focused on most of all here would be the human aspect. And so this lawyer was clearly tied to the Kremlin. This Magnitsky Act and this attack by Putin, Bill Browder, who involved with the death of Mr. Magnitsky, a big deal to Putin and the Kremlin.

So, she certainly has connections to the intelligence services and to the Russians. So, what they would be doing here, the notion that she came there to ask about Hillary Clinton, the substance of that meeting, whether it was about adoptions or not, is less important than the fact that by putting out what they wanted to talk about, they were testing the Trump campaign.

Are you willing to talk about things you shouldn’t talk about? When given the choice to make the right or wrong decision, are you willing to do that?

As an intelligence officer, what I want to do with anybody I’m targeting and looking at is to see, can I put them into small compromising positions? Can I make them make choices that I think might be the wrong decision so that next time I might try something else, I might try a business opportunity for you or something to put you in a position so I can get more information from you?

JOHN YANG: So, in other words, the very fact that they accepted this meeting, that Donald Trump Jr. accepted this meeting, the Russians achieved the goal there?

JOHN SIPHER: Absolutely.

This is exactly what they wanted to do is to see, were they willing to do this? Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Trump or Jared Kushner were sort of ignorant of how the Russians work and stepped into this without realizing what they were getting into.

But Mr. Manafort certainly knows. He spent a career working in Russia and with bad actors around the world. He would understand that taking this meeting would be a signal to Russians that, hey, we’re willing to play ball here.

JOHN YANG: But, of course, Donald Trump Jr. says that he didn’t tell Manafort about the substance of the meeting, he invited him to come, but didn’t tell him the context.

JOHN SIPHER: Well, then what will be interesting for FBI and through doing the investigations is to find out what happened subsequently, what further meetings and future meetings with the Russians took place and how they were orchestrated by the campaign.

JOHN YANG: John Sipher, thank you very much.

Mark Mazzetti from The New York Times, thank you both for talking to us about this.

MARK MAZZETTI: Thank you.

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