Questions about links between President Donald Trump and Russians seeking his election no longer depend on anonymous sources generating what Trump calls “fake news.”
The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. now admits he gathered his brother-in-law and his father’s 2016 campaign chairman to learn damaging information about Hillary Clinton from a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer. The younger Trump, who may face an inquiry over the meeting and has retained a lawyer to manage the situation, says he did not know the name of the person he was meeting before he attended the appointment.
Combined with statements and actions by the president and numerous associates, Trump Jr.’s grudging acknowledgment fills out an extraordinary, on-the-record picture of the U.S. president’s financial entanglement and political deference toward Russia, one of America’s oldest adversaries.
It begins in 1987, before the Soviet Union crumbled, when Trump mused in “The Art of the Deal” about building a hotel “across the street from the Kremlin,” in partnership with the Soviet government. The hotel never got built, but Trump didn’t give up on Moscow. By 2008, Trump Jr. told a real estate conference that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” That same year, a Russian businessman paid the senior Trump $95 million for a Florida mansion — more than twice what Trump paid for it four years earlier.
In 2013, Trump staged a beauty pageant in Moscow and talked of friendship with Vladimir Putin. “TRUMP TOWER-MOSCOW is next,” he tweeted.
In 2014, a prominent golf journalist says, Eric Trump boasted that despite tighter U.S. credit, “We have all the funding we need out of Russia” for golf-course projects. Eric Trump denies saying that.
After entering the presidential race, the senior Trump got foreign policy advice from Lt. General Michael Flynn — who received $45,000 from a Russia propaganda outlet for a December 2015 speech where he sat with Putin at dinner. Trump later named Flynn national security advisor.
In May 2016, Trump made Paul Manafort his campaign chairman. The Republican campaign veteran had received $17 million from 2012 through 2014 for representing a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine.
In June 2016, Manafort, Jared Kushner and Trump Jr. met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Her clients have included a Russian businessman sued for money laundering by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of New York.
In July, after the Democratic Party said Russian hackers invaded its computers, Donald Trump publicly called on Russia to find missing emails belonging to Clinton. In August, longtime Trump associate Roger Stone warned that Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta faced his “time in the barrel” soon.
Stone noted that he had communicated with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. A few weeks later, Wikileaks released emails from Podesta that U.S. intelligence officials say Russian hackers stole.
In September, Trump campaign advisor Jeff Sessions met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in his U.S. Senate office. Sessions – later named attorney general by Trump — failed to disclose the meeting during his confirmation hearings.
That same month, Trump defended his praise for Putin, a leader denounced as a thug by members of both parties over events such as the murder of journalists and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him,” Trump said.
Last December, Kushner met with Kislyak and the head of a Russian state-owned Russian bank. Kushner failed to disclose those meetings, and the one with Veselnitskaya, when he sought a security clearance as a top White House aide.
Flynn talked to Kislyak that month about sanctions the outgoing Obama administration had levied as punishment for election interference, although Flynn and White House officials initially denied that Flynn discussed that topic. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates then warned the White House that its national security advisor was vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
Trump fired Flynn in February after Flynn backed off his denial in news reports. But Trump praised Flynn, recommending he seek legal immunity from an investigative “witch hunt” led by the FBI.
By May 9, Trump had also fired Yates, Bharara and FBI Director James Comey.
Top U.S. intelligence officials say unequivocally that Putin ordered Russian computer hacking to boost Trump. The president sidestepped that conclusion again last week, saying “nobody really knows.”
After meeting with Putin at a gathering of world leaders, the president tweeted about “working constructively” with his Russian counterpart rather than punishing him. He talked of forming a “cybersecurity unit” with Putin – an idea so broadly ridiculed that Trump disavowed it within hours.
As for the campaign’s meeting with the Russian lawyer, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus called it “nothing-burger” news. “Not unusual,” he said.
But that’s not true. Like the broader chain of financial, political and governmental events involving the American president and Russia, it was highly unusual.
“If you can find someone in other presidential campaigns who has received [opposition research] from foreign interests, please share,” wrote Stuart Stevens, a former strategist for George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. Bush’s former White House ethics lawyer, Richard Painter, said the meeting might even constitute treason.
Nor was it true in January when Vice President Mike Pence denied any contact at all between Russian operatives and the Trump campaign. “Of course not,” Pence told Fox News. “Why would there be any contact?”
That question – why? – lies at the heart of investigations by congressional committees and special counsel Robert Mueller. It hasn’t been asked of any president’s ties to Moscow before Donald Trump.