On the 25th floor of Trump Tower in June 2016, Donald Trump Jr. met with a woman described to him as a “Russian government lawyer.”
Meanwhile, in that building, elsewhere in Manhattan, in Washington, and in Cleveland, Republican leaders were trying to pull off an intense persuasion effort — getting everyone to fall in line and get behind Donald Trump.
In public, the presumptive nominee had spent the early days of June attacking the heritage of an American-born federal judge whose parents immigrated from Mexico. His campaign was small, largely inexperienced, and chaotic (then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski had recently faced an assault charge, which was later dropped). Republican officials had been critical of the candidate and uneasy about the direction of his campaign. And while the Republican National Committee had announced in May that it would begin working with the Trump campaign to plan for that summer’s convention in Cleveland, sources told BuzzFeed News that those subsequent weeks were a slow and disorganized build.
Early June, then, was meant to be part of a “pivot” for Trump — to teleprompter speeches, real fundraising efforts, and House Speaker Paul Ryan announcing, at long last, that he would vote for the candidate.
The broad party message was clear: The rogue primary campaign was at its end. This campaign was worth getting behind.
The morning after Ryan’s announcement, music publicist Rob Goldstone emailed Donald Trump Jr.
Goldstone, who represents the son of a Russian billionaire and had first met Trump Jr. years before, offered that “incriminat[ing]” information could be made available to the campaign as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
“[I]f it’s what you say,” Trump Jr. responded less than 20 minutes later, “I love it especially later in the summer.”
Trump Jr., the most prominent Trump family surrogate on the campaign trail last year, would go on to pull in Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, two of the most senior people in Trump’s orbit at the time. The highest levels of the still-small Trump campaign would be present in this meeting — which Trump has since argued was merely "opposition research" — at Trump Tower.
At that point in the year, after coming in to wrangle delegates so Trump could actually win the Republican nomination, Manafort had visited Cleveland in mid-May, and was beginning to meet with Republican officials. The RNC was preparing to combine its digital and data operations with Trump’s in San Antonio, where Brad Parscale, the campaign’s digital director, lived and worked.
But the early discussions with the RNC were not about logistics and were instead “all very big picture,” according to one Republican familiar with the Trump campaign’s convention planning.
Still, the idea was that Manafort — a longtime Republican operative who’d spent the last decade working in places like Ukraine — was going to rein the candidate in after months of the wild, Lewandowski-era Trump. A key piece of evidence for the media that week was that, as Republican voters in the final states to hold primaries cast their votes on June 7, Trump would deliver his victory-night speech off a teleprompter. This was a rarity for Trump at that point in the campaign, and largely interpreted as a sign of the calming influence of Manafort, who by August would be gone from the campaign after a series of stories about his work in Ukraine.
A little past 5 p.m. on June 7, Trump Jr. confirmed a meeting for later in the week with the “Russian government lawyer” in an email to Goldstone.
Four hours later, a little past 9 p.m., Trump announced — reading from the teleprompter — “I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week and we're going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you're going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.”
Trump didn’t give that speech the next week, during which the Pulse nightclub shooting that took place in the early hours of Sunday, June 12, became the focus of the country and the campaigns.
Since the release of the emails, some have raised the question of whether that section of the June 7 speech had anything to do with the upcoming meeting at Trump Tower. White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders has disclaimed any connection between the meeting and Trump’s promise of a damaging speech. Just days before, Hillary Clinton had delivered an extremely critical, widely viewed speech, and the speech that Trump did ultimately give on June 22 culled from Peter Schweizer’s book Clinton Cash — which centers on the dealings of the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative. (The book is a favorite of now-White House aide and frequent speechwriter Stephen Miller, who would sometimes read passages aloud during speeches on the campaign trail in the spring of 2016.)
But there’s no clearer sign of just how much energy and effort Republicans were channeling toward Trump than the actual day of the meeting between Trump associates and the Russian lawyer.
Reince Priebus, the then-RNC chair and now-White House chief of staff, was in New York visiting Trump Tower. Manafort called into a closed-door House Republican conference as other Trump allies with ties to GOP legislators — Rick Dearborn and former speaker Newt Gingrich — tried to convince reluctant lawmakers that it was time to get on board with Trump (who, they insisted, was done going after the federal judge).
Later that day, major Republican donors got a similar spiel at a finance meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel. Trump, Manafort, and Priebus were among the attendees — as were John Catsimatidis, Chris Christie, and Woody Johnson.
Trump himself spoke to the wealthy Republicans — whom he had repeatedly bashed during the campaign — and talked a big game. He not only expressed confidence in winning the general election, but also announced that he could put traditionally blue states like New York in play for the party. Many of the donors in attendance had backed other GOP candidates in the primary, but were getting on board with Trump’s candidacy with the repeated promises of the big “pivot” from Trump allies. The conservative agenda — and defeating Hillary Clinton — was worth it, the argument went.
And, critically, it seemed at the time that the Trump campaign was ready to part with the Lewandowski era of the campaign.
The next week, Priebus would tell Trump “that relations between [the RNC] and Mr. Lewandowski had become increasingly strained, and that a change would be welcome,” according to a New York Times story at the time.
In private, the Trump children, too, were frustrated and urged their father to make immediate changes. Trump Jr. in particular, sources told BuzzFeed News, was convinced that Lewandowski, the campaign manager, had to go.
Even in his meeting with the Russian lawyer that week and in the email exchanges that set up the meeting, Trump Jr. left Lewandowski out.
When Lewandowski was eventually fired on June 20, Trump Jr. was the one who escorted him out.
By that time, the news story that has dominated a large part of the past year, and spawned the investigation into outside efforts to influence the 2016 election, had begun to break: The Washington Post reported that, for a year, “Russian government hackers penetrated the computer network of the Democratic National Committee."