Once it became clear the meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer would become public knowledge, senior aides scrambled to respond.
Special counsel Robert Mueller's office "found no documentary evidence" that showed President Donald Trump knew about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between top campaign officials and a Kremlin-connected lawyer ahead of time, according to his redacted report released Thursday.
Trump, Mueller's redacted report reveals, became aware of the emails arranging the meeting between his son Donald Trump Jr., then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and the Russian attorney, by June 2017. The president sought to keep those emails secret, according to the report, though once it became clear the meeting would become public knowledge, Trump dictated a misleading statement to the press, which the report notes doesn't constitute obstruction of justice.
"According to written answers submitted by President Trump, he has no recollection of learning of the meeting at the time, and the Office found no documentary evidence showing that he was made aware of the meeting — or its Russian connection — before it occurred," Mueller wrote in his report.
That controversial meeting, which was coordinated by Trump Jr., was pitched as the opportunity for the Trump campaign to receive damaging information about 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton from Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Kremlin-connected lawyer.
But Veselnitskaya, according to accounts of the meeting, did not ultimately provide such information as was initially pledged. Once the meeting was disclosed publicly in 2017, Trump Jr. said its purpose was to discuss Russian adoption policy, only to shift his story in subsequent days. Trump Jr. days later released emails between him and Rob Goldstone, a British music publicist who helped coordinate the meeting. Goldstone emailed Trump Jr. on behalf of Emin Agalarov, a Russian pop star and son of Russian real estate developer Aras Agalarov.
In an email with the subject line "Russia - Clinton - private and confidential" to Trump Jr., Goldstone said the "crown prosecutor of Russia" would provide official documents and information that would incriminate Clinton and her connections with Russia as "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."
Trump Jr. wrote of the possible dirt, "Seems we have some time and if it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer."
Rick Gates, Trump's former deputy campaign chairman who pleaded guilty conspiracy against the U.S. and making false statements to the FBI, told Mueller's office that in the lead-up to the Trump Tower meeting, Trump Jr. announced at a gathering of senior campaign staff and Trump family members that "he had a lead on negative information about the Clinton Foundation."
Gates "believed that Trump Jr. said the information was coming from a group in Kyrgyzstan and that he was introduced to the group by a friend," Mueller added.
A central question regarding the meeting was whether Trump knew of the meeting in advance. In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Trump Jr. said he could not remember if he told his father in advance. Last year, Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, said he "would be surprised if [Trump] could remember" if he was informed in advance of the meeting.
The president's former longtime attorney Michael Cohen, who is set to start a three-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to a list of federal felonies, including two relating to paying off women who alleged affairs with the president on Trump's behalf, told Congress this year that he remembered Trump Jr. telling his father in advance.
Mueller wrote that although Cohen "believed that Trump Jr. had previously discussed the meeting with his father," the attorney "was not involved in any such conversation."
Mueller also explained in a detailed analysis why he did not charge anyone involved in the meeting with a campaign finance violation, saying his team was not sure it could prove that the information offered by the Russians was a "thing of value" under campaign finance law, which would constitute such a violation. Mueller added that investigators did not believe they could prove Trump Jr. acted "willfully."
"On the facts here, the government would unlikely be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the June 9 meeting participants had general knowledge that their conduct was unlawful," he wrote. "The investigation has not developed evidence that the participants in the meeting were familiar with the foreign-contribution ban or the application of federal law to the relevant factual context. The government does not have strong evidence of surreptitious behavior or efforts at concealment at the time of the June 9 meeting."
Trump's misleading statement to the press
When senior White House aide Hope Hicks informed the president in July 2017 that The New York Times planned to publish a story about the meeting, Trump became involved in the effort to craft a response. The statement ultimately given to The Times for their story on July 8, 2017 declared that the meeting was entirely about adoption policy, which it was not.
In the days leading up to that statement to The Times, senior aides sought to fill Trump in on just how damaging the emails between Trump Jr. and Goldstone were, and scrambled to coordinate a response.
"According to Hicks, Kushner said that he wanted to fill the President in on something that had been discovered in the documents he was to provide to the congressional committees involving a meeting with him, Manafort, and Trump Jr." Mueller wrote. "Kushner brought a folder of documents to [a] meeting and tried to show them to the President, but the President stopped Kushner and said he did not want to know about it, shutting the conversation down."
Hicks, Mueller wrote, "recalled being shocked by the emails because they looked "really bad." She expressed her concerns to Trump in private, according to the special counsel's report.
Trump "seemed upset because too many people knew about the emails," indicating "he did not think the emails would leak, but said they would leak if everyone had access to them," according to the report.
Hicks warned Trump that the emails were "really bad" and the story surrounding them would be "massive" once it broke, Mueller wrote, but Trump was "insistent that he did not want to talk about it and said he did not want details."
Once informed of the upcoming Times story by Hicks, Trump instructed her to provide no comment, which she thought was "odd because he usually considered not responding to the press to be the ultimate sin," Mueller wrote.
Trump asked Hicks what the meeting had been about, to which Hicks said she was told it was "about Russian adoption."
"Then just say that," Trump responded.
Trump Jr. wanted to amend a line Trump approved that said the meeting was to discuss adoption policy. Trump Jr. wanted the line to say it was to "primarily" talk about that issue.
In text messages provided to Mueller, Hicks agreed with Trump Jr. but said his father didn't want that in the statement because "he was worried it invites questions."
Trump Jr. said that if the caveat was not included it would appear "as though I'm lying later when they inevitably leak something."
Trump Jr. had to issue subsequent statements once it became clear the initial response was misleading, and eventually disclosed the emails publicly once he became aware The Times was about to publish them.
But Mueller concluded that because each of these misleading efforts was directed at the press — and that there was not evidence Trump sought to withhold information from or mislead Congress or the special counsel, it did not constitute obstruction of justice.