What You Could Not Learn from NYT and WSJ on Kushner’s “Russian Backdoor” Email

If you read only the New York Times or Wall Street Journal stories on the latest Jared Kushner correspondence—email subject line: “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite”—you’d be missing an important piece of the puzzle. Other outlets, like NBC News  which broke the story, did not miss the piece. They emphasized it.

The key question here is whether any senior-level Trump campaign aide met with Aleksander Torshin, deputy head of Russia’s central bank and close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially following the emails under scrutiny.

This question is even more important since it implicates the defense that Kushner’s lawyers have staked out for his failure to turn over the emails to Congress. “Kushner’s lawyers said the committee never asked their client for records of proposed meetings that never happened – but the episode gave the impression Kushner had something to hide,” according to the Washington Post.

According to all accounts, Torshin asked to meet a high-level Trump campaign official during the National Rifle Association annual convention in Louisville, Kentucky in May 2016. His purpose was apparently to pass on some information from Putin to Donald Trump and to see if the presidential candidate would meet with Putin at a later date. Kushner waived off top campaign aides like Rick Dearborn, saying “Pass on this,” and Kushner added, “Most likely these people then go back home and claim they have special access to gain importance for themselves.”

According to the New York Times, however, “Mr. Torshin’s outreach fizzled”—though it is ambiguous whether the Times is referring to a meeting with Putin or simply Torshin’s attempt to meet with a top campaign official during the NRA convention. (I read it to mean the latter.) Here’s how the paper described the result of Torshin’s efforts:

“Neither Mr. Trump nor his campaign officials attended the veterans’ dinner, Mr. Clay said. Donald Trump Jr. attended a separate dinner that night, hosted by the National Rifle Association, that Mr. Torshin also attended. Both dinners were in Louisville.”

Similarly, the Wall Street Journal wrote:

NBC News reported Friday that the Russia-linked individual in the email was Aleksander Torshin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wanted to meet with a top Trump campaign official during a National Rifle Association convention and suggested he had a message for Mr. Trump from Mr. Putin. Mr. Torshin didn’t meet with Mr. Trump at the NRA convention but went to a dinner there that was also attended by Donald Trump Jr., Bloomberg has reported.”

But NBC News and Bloomberg had reported one further step: Torshin said he met and had dinner with Don, Jr. that evening at an NRA side event.

NBC News reported:

“However, Torshin was seated with the candidate’s son, Donald Trump Jr., during a private dinner on the sidelines of a May 2016 NRA event during the convention in Louisville, according to an account Torshin gave to Bloomberg. Congressional investigators have no clear explanation for how that came to be, according to sources familiar with the matter. “

Torshin discussed the NRA dinner in an interview with Bloomberg in April 2017. Bloomberg wrote, “Torshin said in the interview he stayed clear of then-candidate Trump at last year’s N.R.A. event to avoid controversy, dining with Donald Trump Jr. instead.”

Admittedly, Torshin’s statement is uncorroborated, and some may think that’s a reason for the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal not to print it. But really? Don’t reporters routinely print the statement of one side of an interaction if the person is willing to go on record, especially if the individual is a principal participant and thus it’s not second-hand information? What’s uncorroborated is whether the two were seated together at dinner. A “fact” in the record is that Torshin said they were. Readers would want to know Torshin said this, and they deserved to know it.

The Bloomberg story in April also included a denial of Torshin’s statement, and that should be noted too. But even that denial acknowledged that the two men—Torshin and Don Jr.—did, in fact, meet at the NRA dinner, and not just by happenstance. They were introduced by a mutual contact.  According to Bloomberg’s April story:

“A person familiar with the encounter disputed Torshin’s account, saying Trump Jr. recalls meeting a Russian that night but doesn’t recall if it was Torshin. When mutual acquaintances introduced the two men, the pair exchanged pleasantries, then the Russian sat at a table nearby, this person said.”

In the past 24 hours additional media outlets are now reporting an on-the-record statement by Alan Futerfas, an attorney representing Don Jr., who admits the two men met through an “acquaintance” but says that “they made small talk for a few minutes and went back to their separate meals.”

We may have not even wrestled that admission out of Don Jr. had the only reports been the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. I understand reasons to be cautious in reporting information about potential contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians without sufficient support. This was not the occasion to hold back on what readers needed to know to reach their own views about the interactions and about Kushner’s decision to withhold the email exchange from Congress.

It is also notable that news reports prior to the revelations of Kushner’s emails also included reference to Torshin’s dining with Don Jr.:

“Torshin had fleeting contact with the future president, who only went so far as to shake his hand. With his son, Donald Trump Jr., things went further: he sat by his side during a private dinner in a restaurant in Kentucky.”
El Pais

“At the most recent NRA Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, in May of this year, Sheriff Clarke tweeted a picture of himself with Donald Trump Jr., who was sitting at special guest Torshin’s table.”
The Daily Beast

“May 21: Donald Trump Jr. dines with Russian banking official … A White House official confirmed the two interacted but denied that they dined together”
Washington Post

A next question to ask is whether Mr. Kushner was ever aware that Don Jr. had met with Torshin at the NRA dinner after all. If so, it could provide a very different interpretation of what he intended by waiving off Dearborn and why he failed to notify Congress of the “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite.”

 

Image: Alexander Torshin, National Rifle Association annual convention, Louisville, KY, May 2016. 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016) Follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.