The June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between high-ranking members of the Republican presidential campaign staff and a Russian lawyer with Kremlin ties remains the cornerstone of claims that Donald Trump colluded with Russia to steal the election.
A growing body of evidence, however, indicates that the meeting may have been a setup -- part of a broad effort to tarnish the Trump campaign involving Hillary Clinton operatives employed by Kremlin-linked figures and Department of Justice officials. This view, that the real collusion may have taken place among those who arranged the meeting rather than the Trump officials who agreed to attend it, is supported by two disparate lines of evidence pulled together for the first time here: newly released records and a pattern of efforts to connect the Trump campaign to Russia.
The first line of evidence includes emails, texts, and memos recently turned over to Congress by the Department of Justice. They show how closely senior Justice Department officials and the Federal Bureau of Investigation worked with employees of Fusion GPS, a Washington-based research firm reportedly paid $1 million by Clinton operatives to dig up dirt on the Trump campaign.
They reveal that then-Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr, the fourth-highest-ranking official at DOJ, coordinated before, during and after the election with Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson, who did work for the Clinton campaign and Russians; and with former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who was employed by Simpson.
Those emails, which disclose the topics of discussions but not their details, revolve around two business executives: Donald Trump and Oleg Deripaska, a Russian aluminum magnate close to President Vladimir Putin. Steele was particularly interested in resolving issues concerning Deripaska's U.S. visa, which was revoked in 2006 because of his suspected ties to organized crime. In another sign of the overlapping strands of this story, when Special Counsel Robert Mueller was running the FBI in 2009, the bureau had asked Deripaska to contribute millions of dollars to help locate former FBI agent Robert Levinson, captured in Iran in 2007 while working for the CIA. Levinson remains missing.
The Ohr-Steele-Simpson correspondence appears to include references to the former British spy’s work for Fusion GPS on Trump’s ties to Russia. Months before the election, Steele wrote Ohr to say that he would be back in Washington soon "on business of mutual interest."
The cozy relationship was bolstered by the fact that the wife of the senior DOJ official, Nellie Ohr, was employed by Fusion GPS.
After Steele was dismissed by the FBI for speaking to the press for an October 31, 2016 report, Bruce Ohr took over the work of relaying Fusion GPS’ opposition research on the Trump campaign directly to the FBI.
The culmination of their combined efforts, the 35-page dossier of unverified Trump/Russia connections, was used by the FBI to secure a warrant to spy on the Trump campaign. The Department of Justice did not respond to RealClearInvestigations’ requests for comment, nor did Glenn Simpson's lawyer, Joshua Levy.
The second line of evidence reframing the Trump Tower meeting -- after the Ohr-Steele-Simpson correspondence – was first reported in June by RealClearInvestigations. It shows that, starting in March 2016, FBI confidential sources and other figures associated with Western intelligence services and the Clinton campaign approached the Trump team promising damaging information on Clinton. The Trump Tower meeting appears to have been the most successful of these approaches, since it was the one instance where the Trump campaign signaled it was willing to receive incriminating information on its opponent.
These two strands of evidence – the DOJ’s collaboration with Clinton-paid researchers and efforts to connect the Trump campaign to Russia – came together in midtown Manhattan on June 9, 2016 at Trump Tower.
At the center of it all was Fusion GPS, which had two clients whose interests were served by the Trump Tower meeting: the Russians and the Clinton campaign.
Even though no evidence has emerged from the meeting of any dark conspiracy, appearances were evidently enough. In sworn Senate testimony last year, Simpson claimed the meeting corroborated one of the key claims made in the reports filed by Fusion GPS contractor Steele: “Trump and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.”
Nonetheless, Simpson also testified that he had no knowledge of the meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and others until it was reported a year later. There is reason to doubt that account.
In fact, the Russian lawyer at the center of the meeting, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was his client.
She has publicly stated that she used talking points developed by Simpson for the Russian government in that discussion. Kremlin officials also posted the allegations on the Prosecutor General’s website, and shared them with visiting U.S. congressional delegations.
In addition, Simpson has testified that he had dinner with Veselnitskaya the night before the meeting and the night after.
Accompanying Veselnitskaya to the meeting was Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, who had served in the Soviet Union’s military counterintelligence service. His role remains unclear, but evidence suggests he may have been the source Simpson was alluding to in December 2016 when Ohr recorded that Simpson told him, “Much of the collection about the Trump campaign ties to Russia comes from a former Russian intelligence officer (? not entirely clear) who lives in the U.S.”
Veselnitskaya hired Simpson in spring 2014 for work that lasted, according to Simpson’s Senate testimony, until “mid to late 2016.”
Fusion GPS assisted Veselnitskaya -- representing Pyotr Katsyv and his son Denis, both Kremlin-tied businessmen -- in her campaign to repeal U.S. legislation sanctioning Russian officials under the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which was named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian corruption whistleblower who died in police custody. Simpson, sources told RealClearInvestigations, was tasked with running a smear campaign against the driving force behind those sanctions, Chicago-born financier William Browder, who had employed Magnitsky.
Although the Trump campaign agreed to meet Veselnitskaya to receive dirt on Clinton, she succeeded in turning the meeting’s focus instead to the Magnitsky Act and Browder – including Simpson-generated claims accusing Browder of tax evasion and embezzlement. Citing her public acknowledgement, Browder told RealClearInvestigations, “It seems to me that Simpson wrote the talking points about me that Veselnitskaya used in her meeting with Donald Trump Jr.”
Although Browder was unaware of the Trump Tower meeting, he was so concerned about Fusion GPS’s work on behalf of Russian interests that in July 2016, he lodged a complaint with the DOJ against both Simpson and Akhmetshin, for failing to properly register as foreign agents while working for the Russian government.
Instead of raising red flags, Browder’s concerns appear to have been ignored. Ohr continued to work with Fusion GPS. Records show he quickly responded to Simpson’s Aug. 22, 2016 email whose only text was the chummy subject line “Can u ring?” And the DOJ and FBI used the dossier prepared by Simpson’s firm – which drew on Russian sources -- as evidence to obtain a warrant in October 2016 to monitor the communications of Trump team adviser Carter Page.
The warrant was renewed three times, twice after Sen. Charles Grassley, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, sent an inquiry to the Justice Department in March 2017 on the status of Browder’s complaint. It has still not responded to Browder’s complaint.
With Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen reportedly speaking to Special Counsel Robert Mueller about the Trump Tower meeting, congressional Republicans are pushing back on the interpretation of the meeting as evidence of Trump collusion with Russia. They argue that the meeting shows the collusion is between Russia and the Clinton campaign.
“Simpson approached the Clinton campaign through its law firm and said he could dig up dirt on Trump and Russia,” said one congressional investigator. “The difference between the Trump and Clinton campaigns’ willingness to take dirt on its opponent is that the Clintons went through with it and paid for it. While their source, Glenn Simpson, was working for a Russian oligarch” -- a reference to the Katsyv connection.
A lingering mystery of the Trump Tower meeting is the man who helped arrange it, British music publicist Rob Goldstone. On June 3, he emailed Donald Trump Jr. with an offer originating in a meeting in the office of the prosecutor general—Veslenitskaya’s point of contact with the Kremlin. Goldstone promised “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father."
Trump Jr. promptly responded: "If it's what you say I love it."
The specificity of the phrasing in Goldstone’s email appears designed to establish the case for collusion: “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Even more curious than the wording of Goldstone’s email is the role he played in arranging the meeting. Goldstone, who has kept a low profile since news of the meeting broke in July 2017, testified before Congress that he now regrets his part in it.
According to the dossier, Trump himself as well as aides Paul Manafort and Carter Page were in clandestine contact with the Russian government. “If that was really the case,” former FBI agent Mark Wauck told RealClearInvestigtions, “it’s not clear why the Russian government needed a British music publicist to make an overture. And why would Moscow need to send a Russian lawyer who didn’t speak English to Trump Tower? That tends to confirm that the meeting was intended as a setup.”
On June 9, 2016, Goldstone brought Veselnitskaya to meet with Trump Jr., Manafort and Jared Kushner at Trump Tower. The senior Trump campaign officials were disappointed to find out that she wanted to talk about Browder and his associates.
Trump Jr. cut the appointment with Veselnitskaya short. But if this were a sting operation, engineered by Simpson, with likely assistance from Justice Department officials he is now known to have been in regular contact with, the damage had already been done.
“The purpose of the meeting,” one congressional investigator told RCI, “was to substantiate the Clinton-funded dossier alleging that Trump was taking dirt on his rivals from the Russians.”