Trump Jr.’s Explanation For Russia Meeting Raises More Questions
Donald Trump Jr. spoke to investigators and staffers on the Senate Judiciary Committee behind closed doors yesterday, and the reports about what he had to say raise far more questions about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials than it answered:
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump Jr. told Senate investigators on Thursday that he set up a June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer because he was intrigued that she might have damaging information about Hillary Clinton, saying it was important to learn about Mrs. Clinton’s “fitness” to be president.
But nothing came of the Trump Tower meeting, he said, and he was adamant that he never colluded with the Russian government’s campaign to disrupt last year’s presidential election.
During five hours of questioning, investigators for the Senate Judiciary Committee pressed Mr. Trump on numerous topics related to the meeting with the Russian lawyer, including how the president’s aides this summer drafted a statement aboard Air Force One in response to queries from The New York Times about the meeting.
Mr. Trump said he did not speak to his father about the draft statement because he did not want to involve him in something he “knew nothing about,” according to one person briefed about parts of his testimony. Lawmakers have wanted to know what, if anything, President Trump knew about the June 2016 meeting and whether he was involved in preparing the draft statement to The Times.
In his prepared remarks on Thursday to Congress, the younger Mr. Trump said he was initially conflicted when he heard that the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, might have damaging information about Mrs. Clinton. Despite his interest, he said, he always intended to consult with his lawyers about the propriety of using any information that Ms. Veselnitskaya, who has links to the Kremlin, gave him at the meeting.
A copy of Mr. Trump’s statement was obtained by The New York Times.
The acknowledgment by the president’s eldest son that he intended to seek legal counsel after the meeting suggests that he knew, or at least suspected, that accepting potentially damaging information about a rival campaign from a foreign country raised thorny legal issues.
“To the extent they had information concerning the fitness, character or qualifications of a presidential candidate, I believed that I should at least hear them out,” he said. “Depending on what, if any, information they had, I could then consult with counsel to make an informed decision as to whether to give it further consideration.”
Mr. Trump’s lengthy interview took place in the basement of the Capitol, with Mr. Trump successfully evading reporters as he left and returned for bathroom breaks. The interview was conducted by committee staff, with Democratic and Republican teams of investigators taking turns questioning Mr. Trump in one-hour blocks. A handful of senators also attended portions of the meeting.
The June 2016 meeting was arranged after the younger Mr. Trump received an email from a family associate saying that potentially damaging information was being provided as part of the Russian government’s support for his father. But in his statement on Thursday, he described his decision to agree to the meeting as the byproduct of the chaotic, seat-of-the-pants campaign assembled by his father, rather than any attempt to collude with Russia.
Mr. Trump has given differing accounts of his contacts last year with Russians. He told The Times in March that he never met with Russians on behalf of the campaign, a statement his lawyer has since said was meant to refer to Russian government officials. In July, he described the Trump Tower meeting as primarily focused on the issue of Russian adoptions, before eventually acknowledging that he took the meeting because he was told Ms. Veselnitskaya had damaging information about Mrs. Clinton.
But intentionally misspeaking to Congress is a crime, giving his statement on Thursday added weight. If there were any doubt about the stakes, the office of Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware and a member of the panel, made them clear in an email to reporters on Thursday afternoon that included the text of the so-called False Statements statute.
Mr. Trump told investigators that working for his father’s campaign consumed his life. “I had never worked on a campaign before, and it was an exhausting, all-encompassing, life-changing experience. Every single day I fielded dozens, if not hundreds, of emails and phone calls.”
In his statement, Mr. Trump said he had some reservations about the June 2016 proposal from the meeting’s facilitator, Rob Goldstone, whom he described as a “colorful” music promoter he had come to know through the son of a Russian oligarch. Mr. Goldstone asked Mr. Trump to take a meeting that would include potentially damaging information about Mrs. Clinton.
“Since I had no additional information to validate what Rob was saying, I did not quite know what to make of his email,” he said. “I had no way to gauge the reliability, credibility or accuracy of any of the things he was saying.”
“As it later turned out, my skepticism was justified,” Mr. Trump added. “The meeting provided no meaningful information and turned out not to be about what had been represented.”
In an email response to Mr. Goldstone, Mr. Trump wrote that if the promised information about Mrs. Clinton was as advertised, “I love it.”
“As much as some have made of my using the phrase ‘I love it,’ it was simply a colloquial way of saying that I appreciated Rob’s gesture,” he said in his statement on Thursday.
When asked why, shortly after the Trump Tower meeting was set up, his father promised to deliver a “major speech” about Mrs. Clinton’s “corrupt dealings,” Mr. Trump said that that was merely the way his father speaks, according to a person familiar with the interview.
If this is an accurate representation of what Trump Jr. had to say to committee investigators, then it seems to me to raise just as many questions as it answers.
For example, what was it that would lead him to believe that a purported representative of the Russian government would have credible information about Clinton that the Trump campaign could use against her in the upcoming Presidential campaign? Notwithstanding Trump Jr.’s claims about being a political neophyte who was overwhelmed with campaign-related duties as well as his private sector responsibilities at The Trump Organization, we’re talking about a man in his thirties who is well-educated and who was groomed to be at his father’s side. He’s negotiated complex real estate and business deals, engaged in business negotiations, and has no doubt sat in on a countless number of meetings. Are we supposed to believe that he took a random meeting with some woman he’d never met before on a whim without having at some idea of why the initial claim that she had potentially damaging information about Clinton had some ring of plausibility to it?
Additionally, if there was nothing of substance to the meeting, then why did his father claim that there would be damaging information about Clinton would be coming out soon the day after his meeting with Russian lawyer? The younger Trump says he never talked to his father about the meeting either before or after the meeting and that this is just another example of the way Trump Sr. talks. Yes, it’s true that the senior Trump has a long history of spouting off at the mouth, especially at a campaign rally, but the fact that he just happened to mention damaging information the day after his son took a meeting with someone who had been represented as having damaging information. It’s possible that this is just a coincidence, of course, but as a character on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine once put it, I believe in coincidences. Coincidences happen every day. But I don’t trust coincidences.
Finally, if there was ultimately nothing to this meeting, then what is to explain the fact that both Trump Jr. and the Trump Administration were initially so evasive about the reason for and results of the meeting when the story broke earlier this year. Trump Jr., for example, insisted that the meeting was about the issue of Russian adoptions and the fact that current sanctions and the Russian response to them had made it more difficult for Americans to adopt Russian orphans, a practice that had become quite common in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Trump Jr. repeated this claim in an appearance on Sean Hannity’s television show, and the Trump Administration issued a statement that essentially repeated what Trump Jr. claim. Within a matter of days, however, we learned that these claims were untrue and Trump Jr. himself released the email chain that revealed the true purpose of the meeting. Later, we learned that the President himself was personally involved in the drafting of the initial statement that repeated what Trump Jr. had claimed. If the meeting was as useless as Trump Jr. claimed, then why did he and the Trump White House lie about the initial purpose of the meeting? And what made him think he could get away with it given the fact that his own emails revealed that the meeting was taken for the purpose of finding derogatory information about Clinton?
As noted, Trump Jr. was not under oath when he made these statements. Notwithstanding that, it is still a Federal claim to lie to a Congressional Committee or to investigators for such committees regardless of whether or not one is under oath. Additionally, it seems likely that Senators and Members of Congress investigating this mess will want to question Trump Jr. himself in public before television cameras, and at this point, he would be under oath. Additionally, special counsel Robert Mueller will obviously want to speak to Trump Jr. and the other participants in the meeting, including Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, as well as the people involved in crafting the initial response to the reports about the meeting when it became public knowledge earlier this years. No doubt, the questions I’ve asked here, as well, as others, as will Mueller. At that point, we’ll all be able to judge just how plausible Trump Jr.’s explanation for all of this actually is. At this point, though, the reports about what he said yesterday indicate that he’ll be spending much more time being questioned in the future.
Update: Newsweek raises similar questions about Trump’s purported testimony before Senate investigators.
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