Senate investigators have obtained new information showing Donald Trump Jr.’s mysterious phone calls ahead of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting were not with his father, three sources with knowledge of the matter told CNN.
Records provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee show the calls were between Trump Jr. and two of his business associates, the sources said, and appear to contradict Democrats’ long-held suspicions that the blocked number was from then-candidate Donald Trump.
The information came to light recently and could answer one of the key questions over the meeting Trump’s eldest son set up to get Russian dirt on the Clinton campaign. Trump Jr.’s phone calls involving blocked numbers — meaning the numbers are private and do not appear in the phone records — have been a lingering issue as investigators have probed the meeting and whether Trump himself had advance knowledge through any means that his son, son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign chair Paul Manafort met with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Trump Jr.’s phone records included calls with two blocked phone numbers the same day he exchanged calls with Russian pop star Emin Agalarov, the son of a Russian oligarch who spearheaded the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. The calls came three days before the Trump Tower meeting, and an additional call with a private number occurred several hours after the meeting.
CNN has not confirmed the identity of the business associates who spoke with Trump Jr. nor what they discussed on the calls. The purpose of the calls and their relevance to the Trump Tower meeting and the Russia investigation is still unclear. Trump Jr. attorney Alan Futerfas declined to comment.
It’s not evident whether special counsel Robert Mueller has also obtained the phone records disclosing the identity of the private numbers, but the Trump Organization has provided both Mueller and Congress with a range of Russia-related documents.
The documents showing the calls were not with then-candidate Trump could resolve a key line of inquiry that House Democrats have said they want to get to the bottom of this year now that they are the majority party and have control of investigations.
Don Jr., like his father, doesn’t really have business associates, does he? This is peculiar.
According to reporting from the New York Times, Donald Jr. spoke instead to Brian France, the chief executive of NASCAR, and New York real estate developer Howard Lorber. Both men apparently have blocked phone numbers, which led to the suspicion that one or both calls had been made to the Trump Tower residence of the future president, which also has a blocked number. A bullet has been dodged but, in another sense, it doesn’t really change anything.
To begin with, Donald Trump Jr. testified that he could not recall who he had talked to in those calls, so he was never really vulnerable to a perjury charge based on these phone records. It’s true that he also testified that he never discussed the Trump Tower meeting with his father, but a mere record that he had called the family residence in this key time period would have proved nothing about who he spoke with there or what they had discussed. While it would have looked very bad, especially because (contrary to statements made by people like Corey Lewandowski) the president actually was at home at the time and not down in Florida at a campaign rally, it would not have represented the kind of slam-dunk evidence that could alter the landscape of the case.
The Trump Team has a talking point now. They can point to one theory that has been debunked. But, just as the phone records never could have provided true confirmation of a father-son conversation about the meeting with the Russians, the lack of phone records isn’t as exculpatory as they might wish.
We are only now learning the identities of the blocked callers, but the Office of the Special Counsel has known those identities for a year and a half. This revelation has no impact on them or their investigation. More than that, though, it’s very curious that Trump Jr. had a call with Howard Lorber.
Lorber is a peer to Don Jr.’s father. He’s also someone with extensive ties to Russia and Trump Sr.’s efforts to build real estate there.
One of those calls, according to the New York Times, went to a wealthy New York real estate developer and Bronx native named Howard Lorber, whom the elder Trump has described as one of his “best friends,” the NYT reported.
Lorber, 70, had even appeared with Trump on The Apprentice, the NBC TV reality show that launched Trump to national stardom, and, as Inquisitr has reported, fashioned Trump’s image as a hyper-competent, successful businessman despite having filed multiple bankruptcies.
But Lorber — who was named to Trump’s campaign economic advisory council about two months after the Trump Tower meeting between Trump, Jr. and the Russians — also has “deep ties to Russia,” according to a Washington Post profile.
Trump himself, according to a 1997 New Yorker profile, described Lorber as having “major investments in Russia.” Trump and Lorber traveled to Russia together in 1996 to explore “Trump building a huge luxury residential tower in Moscow as part of a project owned by a subsidiary of Lorber’s firm,” according to the Washington Post report.
That’s what they call a big coincidence. As far as I know, prior to the publication of this story, Howard Lorber’s name had not been publicly discussed in relation to the Russia scandal. No doubt, Robert Mueller’s team has investigated him thoroughly, and I imagine they were very interested to know some key facts. For example, where was Howard Lorber when he received this phone call? Was he with the president? What did Lorber say was discussed? Did he ever have other phone calls with Don Jr.? Did he have any role in the Trump Organization’s efforts to build a tower in Moscow after 1996? Did he know such efforts were ongoing at the time? Does he have any connections to the Agalarov family or other key Russian players in the Trump Tower meeting, like the Russian prosecutor general Yury Chaika who was the apparent mastermind behind the meeting?
The call with NASCAR CEO Brian France may have been related to a failed effort to recruit him to speak at the Republican National Convention or it may have been about his endorsement of the campaign or the endorsements of NASCAR drivers like Austin Wayne Self who ultimately decked out his truck with the Trump-Pence logo for an October 22, 2016 race at the Talladega Superspeedway. As far as I know, Mr. France has no suspicious connections to Russia or the participants at the Trump Tower Meeting.
It’s the call with Howard Lorber that is potentially incriminating. If nothing else, it provides some fresh leads for amateur sleuths and congressional investigators to pursue. But Congress is not the lead investigator on this case. They’ve been in the dark on these calls for a year and a half while Mueller and his team have been busy checking into them.
For now, the Trump Team can console themselves that a there’s still no record that Donald Trump Jr. told his father about the Moscow Trump Tower meeting. But, these phone records never could have proved that anyway.