(Bloomberg) -- When news first broke in July 2017 about the now-famous Trump Tower meeting, it looked like just the caught-in-the-act moment critics thought could ensnare Donald Trump.
The 20-minute gathering in Manhattan seemed to have everything: Donald Trump Jr. meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer. The supposed promise of dirt on Hillary Clinton. The president personally dictating parts of a statement that smacked of cover-up.
Collusion with Russia, obstruction of justice -- Robert Mueller’s twin targets -- all seemingly taking place right inside Trump’s signature landmark, just a few months before the election.
In Mueller’s final report, however, the Trump Tower meeting is little more than a blip, just one of a host of incidents that drew his attention. His analysis tells the story of how Trump, his son and many of those in the White House came to escape being charged -- due to the difficulty of making indictments stick and the high legal bar Mueller faced to establish criminal intent.
Put simply, it’s hard to catch someone red-handed committing collusion, obstruction or even campaign finance violations -- no matter how suspicious or unpatriotic it might look to a legal layperson.
Read Mueller’s 448-page report on Russia interference
The meeting, Mueller concluded, ultimately didn’t amount to illegal collusion because the Trump campaign officials weren’t well-versed in the law and the information that was promised by the Kremlin-linked lawyer didn’t pan out. There’s nothing illegal about meeting with a Russian with ties to Vladimir Putin, even if you’re the candidate’s son.
If anything, the offer of valuable information on Democrat Clinton from a foreigner was a potential campaign-finance violation, but Mueller said even that would have been too hard to prove. For one thing, he would have had to show that the promised “dirt” was worth more than $25,000. And when it came to obstruction, Mueller said that he couldn’t establish that Trump “intended” to prevent the special counsel from obtaining information about the meeting.
Mueller spends 14 pages of his 448-page report laying out the chronology of the June 9, 2016 meeting, and an additional 10 detailing Trump’s efforts to prevent the disclosure of emails related to the encounter.
The Pop Singer
The gathering was the brainchild of Emin Agalarov -- the pop singer son of Russian real estate developer Aras Agalarov who had known Trump for several years.
Emin Agalarov called his then-publicist, Rob Goldstone, on June 3, 2016, and suggested setting up a meeting between the Trump campaign and Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer, to offer Russia’s aid, according to the report. Several details about the genesis of Agalarov’s idea were redacted due to a grand jury proceeding.
The same day, Goldstone reportedly emailed Trump Jr. to say that the Crown Prosecutor of Russia wanted to offer the Trump campaign "official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia," according to the report.
"This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and Its government’s support for Mr. Trump -- helped along by Aras and Emin," Goldstone said.
Trump Jr. shot back minutes later to say he appreciated the offer. "If it’s what you say I love it," he said. A few days later, Trump Jr. and Emin Agalarov had multiple brief phone calls about the "Hillary info."
Mueller’s dry conclusion: "The written communications setting up the meeting showed that the Campaign anticipated receiving information from Russia that could assist candidate Trump’s electoral prospects, but the Russian lawyer’s presentation did not provide such information," Mueller said.
By the time the meeting was held, the participants included Trump Jr.; the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner; campaign chairman Paul Manafort; Veselnitskaya; and Rinat Akhmetshin, a lobbyist and former Soviet counterintelligence officer.
Rick Gates, who was the deputy campaign chairman at the time, testified that Trump Jr. announced at a regular planning meeting that he "had a lead on negative information about the Clinton Foundation," according to the report. But Gates also recalled inexplicably that the meeting involved Kyrgyzstan, Mueller said.
According to Gates, Manafort warned everyone that the meeting "likely would not yield vital information and they should be careful."
That turned out to be the case, and it may have been a blessing in disguise for Trump. When the meeting got underway at 4 p.m. that day, Trump Jr. and Kushner quickly grew impatient as they realized the dirt wasn’t the bombshell they were hoping for.
Read More: Russian at Trump Tower Is Said to Have Gathered Ziff Details
Veselnitskaya instead offered what she said was evidence that members of the wealthy Ziff family had engaged in tax evasion and money laundering in Russia and the U.S. and donated ill-gotten gains to the Democratic National Committee or the Clinton campaign.
"According to Akhmetshin, Trump Jr. asked follow-up questions about how the alleged payments could be tied specifically to the Clinton Campaign, but Veselnitskaya indicated that she could not trace the money once it entered the United States," Mueller said.
Kushner became aggravated and asked "[w]hat are we doing here?" according to the report. Akhmetshin then turned the conversation to U.S. sanctions imposed under the Magnitsky Act and Russia’s retaliation prohibiting the U.S. adoption of Russian children, according to the report.
"Several participants recalled that Trump Jr. commented that Trump is a private citizen, and there was nothing they could do at that time," Mueller said. "Trump Jr. also said that they could revisit the issue if and when they were in government."
Manafort took notes on his phone that reflect the general flow of the conversation, Mueller said.
Trump told Mueller in written answers to the special counsel’s questions that he had "no recollection of learning at the time" that Trump Jr. or Kushner were planning the meeting.
The younger men both told Mueller that Trump wasn’t told in advance about the gathering.
The special counsel said evidence showed Kushner sent an iMessage to Manafort during the meeting saying it was a "waste of time." Kushner sent two emails to assistants at his company asking them to call him "to give him an excuse to leave," the report says.
Goldstone apologized to Trump Jr. after the meeting, Mueller said.
A year later, in June 2017, participants in the meeting began to get questions about the gathering from lawyers with the Trump Organization, including from its general counsel, Alan Garten, according to the report. Goldstone eventually met the lawyers and then emailed Emin Agalarov to say he was worried because the meeting "links Don Jr. to officials from Russia -- which he has always denied meeting," Mueller’s report says.
Goldstone stressed that he "did say at the time this was an awful idea and a terrible meeting," according to the report. The next month, Goldstone reported in a text message that the FBI was now investigating.
"I hope this favor was worth for your dad -- it could blow up," Goldstone said. He later lamented that their relationship with "mr T has been thrown down the drain," according to the report.
When news of the meeting emerged a month later, Veselnitskaya claimed to reporters that she had no connection to the Russian government and that she hadn’t referred "to any derogatory information concerning the Clinton Campaign when she met with Trump Campaign officials," Mueller said.
Trump Jr. was also feeling the heat. In a July 2017 television interview about the meeting, he said he had "no way to gauge the reliability, credibility, or accuracy of what Goldstone had stated was the purpose of the meeting," but that if "someone has information on our opponent ... maybe this is something. I should hear them out," according to Mueller’s report.
Trump’s ‘Major Speech’
Mueller, in his attempt to find out who knew what and when, said his team weighed whether Trump was telling the truth when he said he didn’t know about the meeting. The special counsel weighed a sequence of events surrounding a speech Trump gave at the time that "suggested that candidate Trump had contemporaneous knowledge of the June 9 meeting," according to the report.
At issue was Trump’s public assertion on June 7, 2016 -- just as Trump Jr. was completing arrangements for the meeting with Veselnitskaya -- that he would give a "major speech" the following week "discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons," according to Mueller’s report.
After the Trump Tower meeting failed to produce the dirt Trump Jr. was seeking, Trump’s speech changed course. Mueller wanted to know if those developments were connected.
"The Office did not find evidence that the original idea for the speech was connected to the anticipated June 9 meeting or that the change of topic was attributable to the failure of that meeting to produce concrete evidence about Clinton," Mueller said.
Instead, Trump told Mueller in written answers to questions that he’d changed the topic of the meeting to respond to a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, carried out by a man claiming loyalty to Islamic State, according to the report.
"The Pulse Nightclub terrorist attack took place in the early morning hours of Sunday, June 12, 2016," Trump wrote in his answer about the speech. "In light of that tragedy, I gave a speech directed more specifically to national security and terrorism than to the Clintons."
Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen offered the only evidence suggesting Trump might have known about the Trump Tower meeting, according to the report. Cohen recalled being in Trump’s office on June 6 or 7 when Trump Jr. "told his father that a meeting to obtain adverse information about Clinton was going forward," according to the report.
However, Cohen didn’t recall Trump Jr. saying the meeting had anything to do with Russia.
To contact the reporter on this story: Erik Larson in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kevin Whitelaw at email@example.com, Larry Liebert
For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.