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Mueller Report Includes New Details About Trump Tower Meeting


Now for a closer look at an episode of intense focus during the Russia investigation - the Trump Tower meeting in 2016. That's when Donald Trump Jr. hosted a Russian delegation after he had been promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. The meeting was often discussed as a possible example of conspiracy between Trump's campaign and the Russians.

Joining us now to talk more about what the special counsel's report says about this is NPR's national security editor, Phil Ewing. Welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: This was the meeting about which Donald Trump Jr. now - got that now-famous email promising, quote, "dirt" on Clinton. And he responded, if it's what you say, I love it. So what did we already know and what do we know now?

EWING: Yeah. This was one of the best-known subplots of the whole Russia saga that we've been following for so long, in part because Donald Trump Jr. released his own emails about it. There was that thread that you described about how he expected to get dirt on Hillary Clinton that he could use in the campaign.

And Donald Trump Jr. did set up a meeting. He - and got a political tip from a Russian attorney, a woman named Natalia Veselnitskaya. But it wasn't what he expected. And the Trump campaign leaders, we understand - including Donald Trump Jr. - didn't do anything with this information they got. Another reason this got so much attention is that when it came to light by The New York Times, the Trump camp initially said it was about adoptions, using the Russian kind of code phrase for sanctions that had been opposed by the United States on Russia, which also were discussed in the meeting.

Democrats especially keyed into this. They said it was the clearest evidence there was that somebody close to Trump, his own son, had met with the Russian representative to talk about the campaign. And now today, we know a lot more about it from the Mueller report.

CORNISH: Right. One of the questions this raised was whether it all meant that Trump might have known about the Russian interference at the time it was taking place. Is that in the report?

EWING: It says no, he didn't. People who worked for Trump have said since then that nothing took place in Trump world without him knowing about it. He authorized everything in the campaign or his business life. But according to the Mueller report, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort - these big, important figures on the campaign - said none of them recalled talking about it in real time before the fact with Trump.

There was this subplot about whether phone records might connect Trump with this meeting, and that didn't go anywhere. And Trump himself gave these written answers to the special counsel in which he said he had no recollection, as he wrote, of learning at the time about the meeting. Since then, the president has acknowledged it happened. And he said, you know, this is just politics. You always take a meeting with people if you think you're going to get something out of it.

CORNISH: Did the special counsel's office explain why all this didn't amount to lawbreaking?

EWING: It did, and it said this wasn't about the term we've been using a lot - collusion - but about the legal meaning of the word conspiracy in the law. And based on that, according to this, a law wasn't broken. The special counsel's office also said no one involved in this case effectively acted as a foreign agent in the meeting. Paul Manafort has faced other charges. He's going to go to prison, but not in connection with this specific meeting.

And there was an open question about whether this might have violated the law that makes it a crime for foreigners to give contributions to American political campaigns. The answer is no, according to the special counsel's office. People involved in those cases have to know what they're doing is a crime, we learn, and these people didn't, so there's not going to be any charges.

CORNISH: We've talked about the Trump meeting a lot. But what else does the Mueller report say about just direct contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians?

EWING: Well, as we just heard, there were a lot of them. And I'll read you specifically one thing the report says. In some instances, the campaign was receptive to the offer, while in other instances, the campaign official shied away. Ultimately, this investigation did not establish that the campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

So the contacts were there, they took place. But all the people involved, according to this report, stayed on the right side of the law.

CORNISH: You've been watching this for a long time. Does the report seem very different from how Barr summarized it?

EWING: The implications for the president in terms of obstruction of justice give a different view than the one the attorney general has. The interesting thing about this study today was the section about alleged collusion included a lot of stuff we already knew, meaning that most of that had already been established.

CORNISH: That's NPR national security editor Phil Ewing? Phil. Thank you.

EWING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.