WASHINGTON >> President Donald Trump’s eldest son told a Senate committee today he’d been open to receiving information about Hillary Clinton’s “fitness, character or qualifications” in a meeting with a Russian lawyer last year.
However, Donald Trump Jr. insisted that neither he nor anyone else he knows colluded with any foreign government during the presidential campaign.
His description of a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, delivered in an opening statement at the outset of a closed-door Senate Judiciary Committee staff interview, provided his most detailed account of an encounter that has attracted the attention of congressional investigators and special counsel Robert Mueller.
It is also the first known instance of Trump Jr. giving his version of the meeting in a setting that could expose him to legal jeopardy. It’s a crime to lie to Congress.
Multiple congressional committees and Mueller’s team of prosecutors are investigating whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the outcome of the election. A grand jury used by Mueller as part of his investigation has already heard testimony about the meeting, which besides Trump Jr., included the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
Trump Jr. spoke to the committee for about five hours, leaving midafternoon out of view of reporters. In a statement released afterward, he appeared to suggest he would not testify publicly before the committee, saying that he trusted that “this interview fully satisfied” the panel’s inquiry.
In July, the committee’s chairman, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa, said he wanted Trump Jr. to appear at a public hearing, though in recent days he’s declined to say whether that will still happen.
Trump Jr. and the Judiciary Committee had negotiated for him to appear privately and be interviewed only by committee staff today. Senators were allowed to sit in but not ask questions.
According to one person with knowledge of what was said, Trump Jr. told committee staff that he didn’t inform his father about the June 2016 meeting.
Trump Jr. also said he didn’t know or didn’t recall the details of White House involvement in his response to the first reports of that meeting, the person said. The Washington Post reported in July that the president dictated a statement saying the meeting primarily concerned a Russian adoption program.
The person declined to be identified because the meeting was private.
Trump Jr., in his prepared remarks , which were obtained by The Associated Press, did not address the drafting of the statement. Instead, he sought to explain emails he released two months ago that showed him agreeing to the meeting, which had been described as part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign.
He said he was skeptical of the outreach by music publicist Rob Goldstone, who said he had information that could be damaging to Clinton. But Trump Jr. said he thought he “should listen to what Rob and his colleagues had to say.”
“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,” Trump Jr. said in the statement.
At one point during the email exchange, Trump Jr. had told Goldstone, “If it’s what you say I love it especially in the summer.”
Trump Jr. sought to explain that remark today by saying it was “simply a colloquial way of saying that I appreciated Rob’s gesture.”
That mirrored his previous statements that sought to dismiss the meeting as a bust. He said the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, gave vague information about possible foreign donations to the Democratic Party but then quickly changed the subject to a sanctions law, known as the Magnitsky Act, which the Russian government opposes.
The statement also provided additional detail in how Trump Jr. knew Goldstone, whom he said he met through the family of Aras Agalarov, the Trump Organization’s partner on the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.
Trump Jr. said he did not attend the Moscow pageant, noting he hasn’t traveled to Russia since 2011. But he later met Goldstone when Aras Agalarov’s pop singer son, Emin, performed at a March 2014 golf tournament at Trump’s course in Doral, Florida.
Trump Jr. said that Goldstone would “intermittently” contact him including during the campaign when he would offer congratulations or support. But when he received the initial email that ultimately led to the Russian meeting, Trump Jr. said he hadn’t heard from Goldstone in “quite some time.”
On the day of the meeting, Trump Jr. said he didn’t know who would be attending because Goldstone didn’t give him a list ahead of time. He said Trump Tower security also didn’t keep a record. Goldstone was able to bring the “entire group up” by only giving his name to a guard in the lobby, he said.
“There is no attendance log to refer back to and I did not take notes,” Trump Jr. said.
Trump Jr. said he only remembers seven people in the meeting, though eight have been publicly reported.
The attendees Trump Jr. identified were himself, Goldstone, Manafort, Kushner, Veselnitskaya, a translator, and Irakli Kaveladze, who worked for the Agalarovs.
Trump Jr. does not mention Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, who has told multiple news outlets, including the AP, that he attended the meeting at Veselnitskaya’s invitation. In recent weeks, Akhmetshin has testified about his recollection of the meeting before a Washington grand jury used by Mueller.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who attended part of Trump Jr.’s interview, said it was “cordial,” but there are “a lot of areas that need to be pursued for more information.”
Chris Coons, D-Del., who briefly sat in on the interview, released a statement later today containing the federal statute barring lying to Congress. The statement was addressed to “Interested parties” regarding “Donald Trump Jr. testimony today.”