WATCH: A Meeting in Trump Tower. A Response Dictated on Air Force One.
For months, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, President Donald Trump’s fury about it, and the president’s unprecedented confrontations with the Department of Justice and the FBI have dominated the headlines.
FRONTLINE’s October 2018 documentary, Trump’s Showdown, goes behind those headlines. The documentary methodically reveals how an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election grew to threaten Donald Trump’s presidency — and how Trump, as Jane Mayer of The New Yorker tells FRONTLINE in the film, “has been waging a deliberate war on the whole idea that there is such a thing as independent justice.”
From filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team, this two-hour special traces key moments in the ongoing, high-stakes saga — key moments like the revelation of a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Kremlin-linked lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and Trump campaign members including Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
In the above excerpt from Trump’s Showdown, go inside the sequence of events surrounding the meeting’s existence going public — including why the way the president decided to respond, in the words of Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig, had his lawyers “losing their minds,” and why Mueller was paying close attention.
It was July of 2017, and as The New York Times prepared to break the story, they reached out to the White House for comment. While traveling back to Washington aboard Air Force One following the G-20 summit in Hamburg and his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Trump took matters into his own hands, dictating a statement with Hope Hicks — and without his lawyers present.
Much to their chagrin: “They are not on Air Force One, they are not in Germany, but they are hearing secondhand that a statement is about to be issued to The New York Times,” Leonnig says in the above excerpt.
Trump’s statement, written for his son, said the meeting was about the adoption of Russian orphans. But as Trump’s Showdown recounts, there was a reason for the meeting that the president’s statement did not mention, and that would be revealed in the days following The New York Times’ first report: an intermediary’s emailed offer to Trump, Jr. to set up a meeting regarding “official documents and information” that would incriminate Hillary Clinton, as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump…”.
“Seems we have some time and if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” Trump, Jr. said in his emailed response.
“There is no ambiguity about this. This is there in black and white. And whatever they actually talked about in the meeting, the advertised intent of the meeting was collusion,” Peter Baker of The New York Times says in the above excerpt from Trump’s Showdown.
For his part, the president would downplay the importance of the meeting, saying, “Nothing happened from the meeting, zero happened from the meeting. And honestly, I think the press made a very big deal over something that really a lot of people would do.”
The shifting reasoning behind the meeting, and the president’s role in developing the initial statement, would fuel speculation — and draw Mueller’s attention.
“If the President’s up there, and he’s deliberately crafting a lie to cover the purpose of the meeting, is that another step in the obstruction investigation? Is it also another step in terms of the conspiracy/collusion investigation?” Frank Montoya, Jr., a former FBI special agent in charge, tells FRONTLINE of Mueller’s likely mindset.
This story has been updated.