WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Sunday denied reports that he’s privately fretting about his son’s legal jeopardy, yet acknowledged that Donald Trump Jr. met Russian representatives in June 2016 at Trump Tower “to get information on an opponent.”
That contradicted Trump’s past statements on the meeting’s purpose and was his most explicit declaration yet that his eldest son agreed to see the Kremlin-linked figures in hopes of obtaining damaging information on Hillary Clinton. The son’s own previously reported emails show he was told he’d receive “dirt” that was part of a Russian government effort to help his father.
The Trump Tower meeting has emerged as central to the wide-ranging investigation of the Trump campaign and Russia by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. At a raucous campaign-style rally in Ohio on Saturday night, Trump again referred to the inquiry’s purpose as a “hoax,” a characterization he has often made publicly despite U.S. intelligence agencies’ certitude of Russia’s election interference.
Trump has previously said he was unaware of the meeting beforehand, though his former lawyer is reportedly prepared to say otherwise. The president repeated his assertion in a series of Sunday morning tweets from his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., where he is spending 11 days on what the White House describes as a working vacation.
“I did not know about it!” he wrote.
In recent days, Trump’s allies have shifted from denying any wrongdoing to seeking to make the case that colluding with Russia would not have been a crime. Collusion is not found in criminal statutes, but legal experts say acts so described could fall under such offenses as conspiracy to defraud.
Those around the president have been disavowing their previous statements about the Trump Tower meeting and its aftermath, and the latest of those turnabouts came Sunday. Jay Sekulow, Trump’s attorney, said on ABC’s “This Week” that he had “bad information” when he denied that the president helped write a misleading statement about the purpose of the meeting after it was first reported last year.
The statement, attributed to the younger Trump, said the main topic of the gathering was U.S. adoptions of Russian children. Trump’s lawyers have since acknowledged to Mueller’s team that the statement was dictated by the president aboard Air Force One.
“Over time, facts develop,” Sekulow said.
The Trump Tower gathering was attended by the younger Trump; together with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and campaign manager Paul Manafort, who is on trial in federal court in Virginia for unrelated financial crimes.
The Russian contingent included Kremlin-linked lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.
In his Sunday tweets, Trump appeared incensed by weekend news reports by CNN and The Washington Post suggesting that he is increasingly worried about his son’s legal liability and that he fears Trump Jr. might have inadvertently acted illegally.
Apparently referring to those news stories, Trump tweeted: “Fake News reporting, a complete fabrication, that I am concerned about the meeting my wonderful son, Donald, had in Trump Tower.”
Then, for the first time, the president explicitly stated the gathering’s purpose. “This was a meeting to get information on an opponent,” Trump wrote, adding that this was “totally legal and done all the time in politics.”
U.S. law, in fact, prohibits foreign nationals from making contributions to American political campaigns, including not only money but also donations of other things of material value, such as a rival’s hacked emails.
Sekulow’s comments echoed Trump’s language in downplaying potential legal perils faced by the president’s son, although his phrasing was narrower and his wording more cautious.
The lawyer noted that he does not represent the younger Trump, but said he had “no knowledge at all of Don Jr. being told that he’s a target of any investigation, and I have no knowledge of him being interviewed by the special counsel.”
Trump, sounding another theme that he and his allies have frequently underscored, declared in one Sunday tweet that the June 2016 meeting “went nowhere.” Yet the meeting preceded the release that summer of material damaging to Clinton from purloined emails. Also, legal experts have pointed out that conspiring to commit criminal acts is illegal whether or not those acts come to fruition.
Trump’s former lawyer and legal fixer, Michael Cohen, who is under investigation in New York, has said he is prepared to testify that Trump was notified in advance about the Trump Tower meeting and signed off on it, according to multiple news reports. The younger Trump told the Senate Judiciary Committee last year that his father did not know ahead of time about the gathering. Some panel members lately have called for him to be re-interviewed on the topic.
Last year, Trump Jr. released a chain of emails that were exchanged before the meeting, having been told that The New York Times intended to publish them. In one, he responded to a proffer of damaging information about Clinton, extended by British music promoter Rob Goldstone, by writing, “If it’s what you say I love it.”
Goldstone was an emissary of Emin Agalarov, a Russian pop star who is the son of oligarch Aras Agalarov, and with whom the younger Trump was also in contact before the meeting. CNN last week quoted the elder Agalarov’s attorney as saying that Mueller is seeking to interview both Agalarovs.
The younger Agalarov recently released a music video spoofing the episode, complete with stand-ins for the president and others.
From his golf resort, Trump also pushed ahead Sunday with his running attacks on the news media, which have increased recently amid reporting on significant developments in the Mueller investigation and the start last week of Manafort’s trial.