Donald Trump Jr. said that he never told his father about a meeting last year with a person he was told would be a Russian government lawyer with potentially damaging information on Hillary Clinton.
“There was nothing to tell,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News on Tuesday. “I wouldn’t have even remembered it until you started scouring through this stuff. It was literally just a wasted 20 minutes, which was a shame.”
The younger Trump on Tuesday released his email exchanges with a British publicist who set up the meeting just after the New York Times told him the newspaper was about to publish an article about them. The uproar over the episode intensified amid questions about whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian government representatives seeking to influence the election.
“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for” Donald Trump’s White House bid, Rob Goldstone, a former British tabloid journalist and marketing executive, told the younger Trump in the chain of emails. It is not clear from the emails that Trump posted how Goldstone knew the information came from the Kremlin.
Donald Trump Jr. responded: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.” He forwarded the correspondence to Trump’s then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, who both also attended the meeting.
“This was, again, just basic information that was gonna be possibly there, I didn’t know these guys really enough to understand that if this talent manager from Miss Universe had this kind of thing so, I wanted to hear him out and play it out,” Trump Jr. said, according to excerpts of the interview Fox News released. “Things are going a million miles an hour again, and, hey wait a minute, I’ve heard about all these things, but maybe this is something, I should hear him out.”
Goldstone, who was linked to the Trumps through the Miss Universe pageant, was brokering a meeting with the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya. He called her a “Russian government attorney” in a subsequent email to the younger Trump before their meeting.
The “Crown prosecutor of Russia” has "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,” Goldstone wrote.
Goldstone was connected to Veselnitskaya through a Russian pop singer, Emin Agalarov, whose father Aras Agalarov is a developer in the country and a former business partner with Donald Trump. Scott Balber, a lawyer for the Agalarovs, said there was “no reason to believe” that Veselnitskaya was a representative of the Russian government and said Goldstone had misinterpreted the intent of the meeting.
It is “simply not the case that the Agalarovs were in any way intermediaries with regard to the Russian government, communicating about the election,” Balber said. “Rob Goldstone is not a lawyer, he’s an entertainment industry person. I suspect maybe some degree of confusion or misstatement on his part.”
Goldstone didn’t respond to requests for comment emailed to him and relayed through a business partner, David Wilson. Veselnitskaya also didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The episode focused attention on the president’s oldest son as several congressional committees and special counsel Robert Mueller examine possible ties between Russian election meddling and the Trump campaign.
Mueller is expected to examine the emails as part of his investigation, according to a person familiar with the inquiry. Mueller’s office declined to comment. CNN reported earlier Thursday on Mueller’s plans to pursue the issue. In addition, senators on the Intelligence Committee said they’ll seek to speak with Donald Trump Jr. about the meeting.
Trump Jr. said in the Fox News interview that he “probably would have done things a little differently.”
The younger Trump’s explanations of the meeting have shifted since Saturday, when he told the New York Times that the session with Veselnitskaya was about Russian adoptions. The next day, he acknowledged that he had been told the lawyer might have “information helpful to the campaign” ahead of the meeting.
Donald Trump Jr. said in a statement on Tuesday that he had released the emails “in order to be totally transparent” about the June 9, 2016 meeting. “The information they suggested they had about Hillary Clinton I thought was Political Opposition Research,” Trump said.
Before the meeting, Trump Jr. forwarded the email correspondence to Trump’s then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and to his brother-in-law Jared Kushner.
Kushner and his representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment. A person close to Manafort said that he had disclosed the meeting to congressional investigators probing Russian interference in the 2016 election but that Manafort doesn’t remember if he saw or read the email between Trump Jr. and Goldstone.
Alan Futerfas, a New York criminal defense attorney retained by the younger Trump, called the New York Times reports on the meeting “much ado about nothing.” The Times first reported the meeting on Sunday and first reported on the communications with Goldstone on Monday.
“Don Jr. had no knowledge as to what specific information, if any, would be discussed” in the meeting, Futerfas said in an email Monday evening. He said there was no commitment made about accepting or using the information and that after the 20- to 30-minute meeting “nothing came of it.’’
Veselnitskaya told NBC News in an interview that aired Tuesday that she never worked for the Russian government and had no damaging information about Clinton.
“It’s quite possible that maybe they were looking for such information, they wanted it so badly,” Veselnitskaya said. “I did not have Clinton info they wanted.”
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, told reporters Monday on a conference call, when asked about Veselnitskaya: “We don’t know who this is and, of course, we can’t keep track of the meetings of all Russian lawyers either in Russia or abroad.”
White House officials said they realize it was unwise for three top-tier managers on the campaign to have agreed to meet with Veselnitskaya, two people familiar with the matter said. They said they expect more trouble is coming, especially for Kushner, the only one of the three who transitioned from the campaign into the West Wing.
The White House plan for this week was to focus on nominations. Trump stuck to that script on Monday and in his first tweets of the day on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump Jr. is facing two complaints from watchdog groups of possible violation of election laws that prohibit campaigns from knowingly accepting from a foreign national money, contributions or any “other thing of value.” That could include information or opposition research, election lawyers said.
Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said the panel should interview the younger Trump as part of its investigation of Russian interference in the campaign.
“This is the first time that the public has seen clear evidence of senior level members of the Trump campaign meeting with Russians to try to obtain information that might hurt the campaign of Hillary Clinton,” said Senator Mark Warner, the top-ranking Democrat on the intelligence panel. “Rest assured, Donald Trump Jr. will be somebody that we want to talk to.”
The president and his top lieutenants, including Vice President Mike Pence, have previously denied there were any meetings between his campaign and Russians. Their argument now is that the meetings weren’t out of the ordinary. The younger Trump responded with a sarcastic Twitter post earlier Monday, before the New York Times report.
“Obviously I’m the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent,” Donald Trump Jr. said in the post. “Went nowhere but had to listen.”
Lawyers and Republican campaign operatives say there is nothing routine about foreigners meeting with a campaign on such matters — and in particular with top campaign officials. Presidential campaigns typically would have an entire department dedicated to vetting venues, surrogates and meetings for political risks, as well as a chain of command to prevent freelancing and scheduling mistakes, said Kevin Madden, a former spokesman for Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
“A foreign source, or someone with a questionable background, approaching a campaign with a proposal would ideally receive a caution flag if those vetting and chain of command protocols are in place,” he said in an email.
While the Trump campaign was always a lean operation compared to a traditional presidential campaign, by the time the meeting took place in June, Trump had all but secured the Republican nomination and was gearing up for the general election.
The watchdog group Common Cause filed a complaint with the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission on Monday alleging that Donald Trump Jr. “in his role with the Trump campaign, illegally solicited a political contribution from a foreign national — in the form of opposition research he believed would be damaging to the Hillary Clinton campaign.”
The Campaign Legal Center, another watchdog group, said it would file a similar complaint on Tuesday. “There’s certainly strong enough evidence to open up an investigation,” Brendan Fischer, director of federal and FEC reform for the group, said in an interview.
Kate Belinski, an election lawyer with Nossaman LLP, said she thinks the complaints are unlikely to succeed. FEC rules allow foreign nationals to volunteer their services to campaigns, she said, and Veselnitskaya offered the information to Trump’s campaign. According to his son’s statement, the campaign didn’t find it credible. “Can you solicit something that doesn’t exist?” she asked.
Another hurdle is whether negative information on an opponent has monetary value.
"I’ve never seen a matter where the FEC has actually quantified the value of opposition research," said Belinski, who served as senior counsel at the agency. “It’s difficult to say that this piece of dirt was clearly worth $10,000.”
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