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How the Trump team's story has evolved on their New York meeting with the Russians

Jared Kushner, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump Jr. and Donald Trump. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP (4), Getty Images)

Throughout Donald Trump’s political rise to the presidency, he has remained adamant that his success has had nothing to do with help from Russia, punctuating almost every tweet about the investigation into the 2016 campaign with the catch phrase “No Collusion!”

But the explanations and defenses offered by Trump and his advisers have changed, as new facts have emerged in the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller and in Congress.

Here is a summary of some of the more notable twists:

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‘None of that was set up’

In March 2017, months before the Trump campaign’s meeting with a Russian operative was reported by the New York Times, Donald Trump Jr. assured the paper that his father’s team had not sought out or had official contact with any Russians.

“Did I meet with people that were Russian? I’m sure, I’m sure I did. But none of that was set up. None that I can think of at the moment, and certainly none that I was representing the campaign in any way shape or form,” Donald Trump Jr. told the New York Times.

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‘Discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children’

A story that appeared in the New York Times on July 8, 2017, revealed that Trump Jr.’s March statement was false. He had indeed arranged a meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin, at Trump Tower in Manhattan. The meeting took  place on June 9, 2016, just two weeks after Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination, and included Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and adviser Jared Kushner.

Confronted with the emails that showed he had planned the meeting, Trump Jr. claimed that the attendees “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children.”

A day later, the New York Times reported that the meeting had been arranged because Veselnitskaya had promised Trump Jr. damaging information about his father’s likely presidential opponent, Hillary Clinton.

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‘Was not a government official’

The New York Times reporting continued apace, and on July 11, 2017, the paper filled in the details of the promised dirt, releasing a June 3, 2016, email to Trump Jr. from an intermediary, British publicist Rob Goldstone, making it clear that the Kremlin was on Trump’s side.

“The Crown Prosecutor of Russia […] offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Goldstone wrote. 

In a statement released on July 11, Trump Jr. clarified that he believed that the information on Clinton would be “Political Opposition Research” and that it was OK to meet with Veselnitskaya because she “was not a government official.” 

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‘No part of the meeting I attended included anything about the campaign’

On July 24, Trump’s son-in-law Kushner testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee about the Trump Tower meeting with Veselnitskaya, claiming that he had not read Trump Jr.’s emails describing the Russian offer of political dirt on Clinton.

Kushner made a point of saying he wasn’t responsible for arranging the meeting. “In June 2016, my brother-in-law, Donald Trump Jr., asked if I was free to stop by a meeting,” his prepared statement began. And he emphasized that the agenda, as far as he was concerned, had nothing to do with the campaign.

“No part of the meeting I attended included anything about the campaign, there was no follow up to the meeting that I am aware of, I do not recall how many people were there (or their names), and I have no knowledge of any documents being offered or accepted,” Kushner testified in a prepared statement.

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‘You know this Trump is killing us’

In an interview with NBC News on April 27, 2018, Veselnitskaya disclosed what many in the U.S. intelligence community had already concluded, that she is an informant for the Russian government. That public declaration did not sit well with Trump, who, at a Michigan campaign rally one night later, floated a theory about her disclosure. 

“I guarantee you, I’m tougher on Russia. Nobody ever thought. In fact, have you heard about the lawyer? For a year, a woman lawyer, she was like, ‘Oh, I know nothing.’ … Now all of a sudden she supposedly is involved with government. You know why? If she did that, because Putin and the groups said, ‘You know this Trump is killing us,'” the president told his audience. “Why don’t you say that you’re involved with government so that we could go and make their life in the United States even more chaotic.’ Look at what’s happened. Look at how these politicians have fallen for this junk. Russian collusion. Give me a break.”

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‘You have a made up, phony crime, Collusion’

After months of denying that any collusion took place between his campaign and the Russians, Trump tried a new tack to blunt the impact of an April 30, 2018, story on the questions special counsel Mueller intended to ask the president in an interview. Some of those questions, the New York Times reported, focused on the help the Russian government offered to the Trump campaign.

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‘So I believe you have some information for us’

On Wednesday, May 16, the Senate Judiciary Committee released 2,500 pages of documents relating to its investigation of the Trump campaign’s Russian ties. Among the revelations was that Trump Jr. kicked off the meeting with Veselnitskaya by asking her directly for the dirt on Clinton.

“So I believe you have some information for us,” Trump Jr. told Veselnitskaya. 

The “opposition research” turned out to be fraud allegations made against Clinton by Democratic donors that Trump Jr. deemed underwhelming.

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‘They never used it is the main thing.’

In a May 16, 2018, interview with Fox News host Laura Ingraham, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani further adjusted the goalposts of guilt by arguing that the collusion rises to the level of a crime only if the information in question is acted upon.

“And even if it comes from a Russian, or a German, or an American, it doesn’t matter. And they never used it is the main thing. They never used it. They rejected it. If there was collusion with the Russians, they would have used it,” Giuliani said.

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