President Trump doubled down on his stance, proffered last year, that pursuing damaging information on Hillary Clinton was the focus of a questionable 2016 meeting between his son Donald Trump Jr. and a lawyer with ties to the Kremlin.
Trump Jr. is a subject in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia’s investigation for his role in a meeting at Trump Tower with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible coordination with Trump campaign aides.
In a tweet early Sunday morning, Trump said the meeting was arranged “to get information on an opponent,” and is “totally legal.”
“Fake News reporting, a complete fabrication, that I am concerned about the meeting my wonderful son, Donald, had in Trump Tower,” he said in tweet early Sunday. “This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics – and it went nowhere.”
He concludes the tweet by saying, “I did not know about it!”
It is not the first time the president acknowledged the existence of the meeting using this line of defense, but it is the president’s most blunt admission that the purpose was to obtain damaging information against his then opponent, Hillary Clinton, in the presidential election.
Last year, shortly after Donald Trump Jr. released an email thread arranging the meeting, the president said it was a meeting “in order to get info on an opponent” and said there was nothing unusual about it. He tweeted in July 2017: “Most politicians would have gone to a meeting like the one Don jr attended in order to get info on an opponent. That’s politics!”
The meeting, first reported by The New York Times, happened two weeks after Trump secured the Republican nomination. The meeting — set up by an intermediary Rob Goldstone, a music publicist — was also attended by Trump’s then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who now serves as a White House senior adviser. As NPR’s Jessica Taylor previously reported, Trump Jr. waffled on his own reasoning as to the purpose behind the Trump Tower meeting:
“Citing multiple sources, the Times reports that Trump Jr. “was promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton before agreeing to meet” with the Kremlin-connected lawyer.
Trump’s eldest son confirmed the meeting in June 2016, but claimed the lawyer provided no useful information and eventually turned the subject toward policies on Russian adoption that had been curtailed in response to U.S. sanctions …
“On Saturday, Trump Jr. had offered a different explanation for the meeting, focusing solely on the adoption issue.”
But at the time, the Trump administration broke from the president’s story when it maintained the focus of the meeting was related to policies about adoption of Russian children. White House Press Secretary, at the time, Sean Spicer said there was no evidence to believe “there was anything except for discussion about adoption and the Magnitsky Act.”
What is new from the president’s comments Sunday is his declaration that the meeting is “totally legal.” The veracity of which is challenged by campaign finance law that states it is illegal for a foreign national to “directly or indirectly, make a contribution or a donation of money or other thing of value.”
Later Sunday, Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s lawyers, defended the 2016 meeting. “The question is: How would it be illegal?” Sekulow asked on ABC News’ “This Week,” implying no laws prohibit campaign aides from meeting with foreign agents. “Nobody’s pointed to one.”
Trump has repeatedly expressed his desire to shut down the Mueller investigation. On Wednesday, he urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions — who recused himself last year from all matters related to the Justice Department investigation — to “stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further.”
It’s unclear whether Trump’s latest admission bears any weight in Mueller’s probe. But, as NPR’s Brian Naylor reports, if Mueller could prove Trump was aware of the meeting in advance, “or cast doubt on denials by Trump and Trump Jr., it would be a dramatic addition to Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference in the 2016 presidential race and possible collusion by the Trump campaign.”