Senate report shows oligarch gave Trump a 'sizable birthday gift'

Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty
Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty

WASHINGTON — The day after a fateful 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between a Russian-led delegation and top Trump campaign officials, the influential Russian oligarch who had requested the session sought to deliver a “fairly sizable” birthday gift to the Republican presidential candidate, according to previously secret testimony released by a Senate committee Wednesday.

The delivery of the birthday present — a large painting along with a personal note from the benefactor, billionaire businessman Aras Agalarov — is among a wealth of new details about the now notorious June 9, 2016, meeting contained in the 2,500 pages of transcripts released by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The transcripts show that the relationship between Trump and Agalarov was far cozier than previously known, helping to explain why top Trump campaign aides jumped at the chance to meet — at Agalarov’s request — with the visiting Russians after being told they would bring “sensitive” information about Hillary Clinton straight from internal Kremlin files.

The meeting itself appeared to have been a dud: The visiting Russians, led by Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, provided no “smoking gun” about Clinton, and she instead wanted to talk only about the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, a law passed by Congress to blacklist Russian human rights abusers. This visibly agitated Trump son-in-law and campaign adviser Jared Kushner, according to the closed-door testimony of one of the attendees, Rob Goldstone, the music publicist for Agalarov’s pop singer son, Emin Agalarov, and an intermediary between the Russians and the campaign.

But the fact that the meeting was unproductive apparently did little to diminish the appreciation of the Agalarovs for Trump.

“I have a delivery question,” Goldstone wrote in an email the next day to Rhona Graff, Trump’s secretary. “Emin and Aras have a fairly sizable birthday gift for Mr. Trump and I would like to know exactly how and where we should deliver it on Tuesday.”

Goldstone later in his testimony described the gift as a large painting. After being told by Trump’s security chief, Keith Schiller, that there was now “TSA-style scanning and security” at Trump Tower, Goldstone arranged to have a New Jersey-based friend of Emin Agalarov deliver the gift, along with a personal note from Aras Agalarov to Trump.

The Trump Tower meeting has been a key focus of congressional committees and special counsel Robert Mueller in the investigation of ties between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin’s government in Moscow. Democrats have said that even agreeing to the meeting was evidence that the GOP candidate’s campaign, and his son, Donald Trump Jr., were, at a minimum, willing to collude with the Russian government by accepting “dirt” on their political rival.

The release of the transcripts, of interviews conducted behind closed doors over many months, is unlikely to resolve the lingering questions about the meeting, chief among them why the Trump camp agreed to the meeting in the first place. A separate report released by the ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., noted: “Top campaign officials Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump Jr. did not reject the offer of election assistance from a foreign government. Nor did they report this offer to law enforcement authorities. Instead, they attended the meeting…We still do not know the full story about the June 9 meeting at Trump Tower or, more broadly, the degree to which the campaign cooperated or communicated with Russia.”

But Trump Jr. in his testimony was adamant he and the other Trump campaign officials had done nothing wrong. After initially receiving the email from Goldstone telling him that the Russians were offering derogatory information as part of the Russian government’s “support” for his father, Trump Jr. replied: “If it’s what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer.”

“And what about the thing that says, ‘It is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,’ did you also love that?” Trump Jr. was asked by a committee lawyer.

“I don’t know. I don’t recall,” he replied.

“Did you understand that that would be problematic?”

“I didn’t think that listening to someone with information relevant to the fitness and character of a presidential candidate would be an issue, no.”

But Trump Jr. insisted during his testimony that he never told his father about the session, saying he did not want to bother him with the “unsubstantiated” claim that the Russians had compromising information about Clinton. “I did not,” he said definitively at one point.

But on a related matter, the misleading statement about the purpose of the meeting that Trump Jr. issued last year when it first became known to the public, he admitted that his father may have weighed in.

“He may have commented through Hope Hicks,” Trump Jr. said, referring to the president’s former spokeswoman and communications director.

In his closed-door testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept 7, 2017, Trump Jr. said his father’s comments “may have” been incorporated into his initial statement, which falsely suggested that the meeting primarily concerned a Russian adoption program.

Trump Jr. was asked by Senate investigators if he had asked his father for assistance in crafting his response.

“No,” Trump Jr. replied. “[Hicks] asked if I wanted to actually speak to him, and I chose not to because I didn’t want to bring him into something that he had nothing to do with.”

Trump Jr. was also pressed about two phone calls he had with an unidentified individual with a “blocked number” on June 6, 2016, three days before the Trump Tower meeting, on an afternoon when he was reaching out to and trading calls with Emin Agalarov, seeking information about the agenda.

Donald Trump Jr. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Donald Trump Jr. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Trump Jr. was asked whether the elder Trump used a “blocked number.”

“I don’t know,” he replied.

At 4:31 p.m. that day, about 27 minutes after placing a call to Emin Agalarov, Trump Jr. called the person with the blocked number.

“So you don’t know whether or not this might have been your father?” a Senate judiciary committee investigator asked.

“I don’t,” he replied.

Overall, the younger Trump said “I don’t know” in his testimony at least 72 times, “I don’t [or can’t] remember” 25 times, and “I don’t [or can’t] recall” 67 times.

The origins of the meeting date back to June 2013 when Trump first met Aras Agalarov and his son in Las Vegas during the Miss USA Pageant. They made plans to hold that year’s Miss Universe pageant in Moscow with the assistance of Agalarov, a billionaire developer who owned the largest theater in Moscow, Crocus Hall, and had done so many construction projects for the Kremlin that he had earned the nickname “Putin’s Builder.”

But as soon as the deal to hold the pageant in Russia was made, it created tension over what Trump’s associates knew the developer really sought: face time with Putin. “Oh God, he’s going to want to meet Putin,” Paula Shugart, the president of Miss Universe, said to Goldstone, according to Goldstone’s testimony.

Trump’s insistence on meeting with Putin became what Goldstone described as “the gorilla in the room.” A formal request for a meeting was sent to the Kremlin, and Trump repeatedly pressed for the session. In the end, on the day of the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow on Nov. 9, Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s press spokesman, called Agalarov on his cellphone with a message for Trump — the Russian president was tied up in a meeting with the King of Holland, but invited Trump instead to come as his guest to the upcoming Sochi Olympics.