Donald Trump Jr. agreed to take a meeting during the 2016 presidential campaign with a woman he was told was a “Russian government attorney” who could provide damaging information about Hillary Clinton as part of “Russia and its government’s support” for his father’s presidential campaign, according to emails tweeted by the president’s son on Tuesday.
President Donald Trump’s eldest son posted on Twitter what he said was the entire exchange that led to a June 2016 encounter that has inflamed the controversy over potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
The email exchange showed clearly that Trump Jr. understood he was taking the meeting as a way of channeling information directly from the government of a nation hostile to the United States to his father’s campaign. It is the most concrete public evidence to date suggesting that top Trump campaign aides were eager for Russia’s assistance in the campaign.
“If it’s what you say I love it,” Trump Jr. responded to an intermediary pitching the meeting.
A White House spokeswoman read a brief statement from Trump about the issue on Tuesday afternoon in which he said: “My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency.”
Speaking to reporters in the White House briefing room, principal deputy White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said she would refer any questions to lawyers for the president and Trump Jr.
Later in the briefing, which was held off camera, Sanders said Trump was frustrated that Russia “continues to be an issue” and is eager to focus on other things, including tax reform and infrastructure. She declined to answer a question about whether the president is now aware of Russia’s efforts to help his campaign.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin directed a campaign to assist Trump, including the release of hacked emails stolen from Democratic officials.
Congress and a special counsel are investigating Russian interference with the presidential election and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign — a charge the president has repeatedly denied.
Democrats were quick to pounce on the latest revelation related to the probe.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said that everyone involved in the meeting should be “immediately summoned” to testify under oath between the House and Senate committees investigating Russian meddling.
“There’s no escaping it: The Trump Campaign’s inner circle met with an agent of a hostile foreign power to influence the outcome of the American election,” Pelosi said in a statement. “The American people face a White House riddled with shadowy Russian connections and desperate to hide the truth.”
Appearing on CNN, Brian Fallon, the former press secretary for Clinton’s campaign, stressed that the meeting Trump Jr. coordinated also included Paul Manafort, then the campaign’s chairman, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.
“I think it’s impossible to believe that the president himself was unaware of this apparent effort by the Russian government that was known to others in the Trump campaign,” Fallon said.
Most Republicans on Capitol Hill either declined to comment or were dismissive of Trump Jr.’s email exchange. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, was an exception.
“Anytime you’re in a campaign and you get an offer from a foreign government to help your campaign, the answer is ‘no,’” Graham told a group of reporters, adding that Trump Jr. “definitely” must testify as part of investigations into Russia’s election meddling.
“That email was disturbing,” Graham said. “On its face, this is very problematic.”
Another Republican, Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, weighed in on Twitter, saying, “I voted for @POTUS last Nov. & want him & USA to succeed, but that meeting, given that email chain just released, is a big no-no.”
The email came from a music publicist who represented Emin Agalarov, whose father, Aras, is a major real estate developer close to Putin.
“Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting,” publicist Rob Goldstone emailed Trump Jr. in June 2016. “The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting 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.”
“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government support for Mr. Trump — helped along by Aras and Emin,” Goldstone wrote.
Trump Jr.’s response made his enthusiasm clear: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” he wrote.
Goldstone offered to send the information directly to Trump, who had then largely sealed the Republican nomination for president, but said that because the information was “ultra sensitive” he wanted to contact Trump Jr. first instead.
A spokesman for the president’s lawyer has said Trump was not aware of the meeting and did not attend.
Marc Lotter, a spokesman for Vice President Mike Pence, said Tuesday that Pence was not aware of the meeting, which took place before he joined the campaign.
“The vice president is working every day to advance the president’s agenda,” Lotter said. “He was not aware of the meeting. He is also not focused on stories about the campaign — especially those pertaining to the time before he joined the campaign.”
Pence is among numerous White House officials who in recent months have dismissed the possibility of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. During a January appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Pence was asked if “any adviser or anybody in the Trump campaign have any contact with the Russians who were trying to meddle in the election?”
“Of course not,” he replied.
Trump Jr.’s willingness to accept incriminating information about Clinton could put him or others in legal jeopardy, analysts said, though investigators would likely have to do more work to substantiate any criminal charges.
“The emails tell me that he’s aware that the Russian government is trying to influence the election in favor of Trump, and they also indicate an intent, at least on the part of Donald Trump Jr., to entertain the idea of working with the Russians in their efforts,” said Barak Cohen, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice at Perkins Coie. “It raises a number of potential areas of liability.”
Among those are campaign finance laws. In the United States, it is illegal for foreign nationals to donate things of value in connection with an election, and it is similarly illegal for people to solicit or accept a contribution or donation from a foreigner.
The emails show that Trump Jr. arranged to meet with the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, along with two of the campaign’s most important advisers.
“It will likely be Paul Manafort (campaign boss) my brother in law and me,” Trump Jr. wrote.
Trump Jr. appeared to have forwarded the entire exchange to Manafort as well as Kushner, who is now a top adviser in the West Wing.
In a statement accompanying his tweets, Trump Jr. said he was releasing the entire chain “in order to be totally transparent.”
“The information they suggested they had about Hillary Clinton I thought was Political Opposition Research,” Trump Jr. said in the statement. “I first wanted to just have a phone call but when that didn’t work out, they said the woman would be in New York and asked if I would meet.”
“I decided to take the meeting. The woman, as she has said publicly, was not a government official,” he said.
The New York Times reported that Trump Jr.’s tweets Tuesday came after the newspaper informed Trump Jr. that it had reviewed the emails and intended to publish their content.
A Kremlin spokesman has denied knowing who Veselnitskaya is.
In an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday, she said she was not working on behalf of the Russian government but was interested in talking to Trump Jr. about Russian adoptions.
“I did not have an assignment from the Kremlin, there were no orders from the government,” Veselnitskaya said, adding that “someone in America really wants to overthrow their president.”
“We sat and talked to each other for a few minutes and it was clear we were talking about two different things,” she said.
In his statement, Trump Jr. said that the meeting should be put “in context,” adding that “this occurred before the current Russian fever was in vogue.”
While Trump Jr. said the meeting took place before scrutiny on the Russia issue, in fact his father’s warm comments toward Putin had started a year earlier and had grabbed significant attention among his opponents and foreign policy experts.
As early as July 2015, Trump had spoken during a campaign town hall in Las Vegas about his confidence that he could improve U.S.-Russia relations.
“I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin,” he said.
Five days after the June meeting in Trump Tower with the Russian lawyer, The Washington Post reported that hackers believed to be associated with the Russians had penetrated the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee and stolen internal records a few months earlier.
The next day, the first DNC documents were released publicly by Guccifer 2.0, an online persona the U.S. government has concluded was Russian-controlled.
WikiLeaks dumped a much larger cache of internal DNC emails on July 22, as the Democratic National Convention opened, causing internal party dissension that led the party chair to resign.
Trump’s reaction was to ask Russia at a public news conference if it could locate the 30,000 emails Hillary Clinton had deleted and failed to turn over the State Department from her time as secretary of state, deeming them purely personal.
In a July interview on CNN — the month after the meeting with Veselnitskaya — Trump Jr. vociferously dismissed as “disgusting” and “phony” a suggestion that the Russians were attempting to aid his father’s presidential campaign.
He told the Times in March that while he was sure he had held meetings with Russians, there were “certainly none” in which he “was representing the campaign in any way, shape or form.”
In recent days, Trump Jr.’s explanation for what transpired has evolved.
On Saturday, when the meeting was first reported by the Times, Trump Jr. said that the meeting was about an adoption program that the Kremlin had cut off in retaliation for a U.S. law that targeted Russian human rights abusers.
But in a statement Sunday, Trump Jr. said an acquaintance asked him to meet with someone who “might have information helpful to the campaign.” Trump Jr. said the meeting was set up by an acquaintance and that he was not told the name of the person he was meeting.
“It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information,” Trump Jr. said in his Sunday statement. “She then changed subjects and began discussing the adoption of Russian children.”
Goldstone on Tuesday confirmed he has hired an attorney, Bob Gage, to handle Russia-related inquiries. A spokeswoman for the Agalarovs said they too have hired American legal counsel to handle the inquiries, engaging Scott Balber in New York.