Trump Jr. completes five-hour interview with Senate staffers

Trump Jr. completes five-hour interview with Senate staffers
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL freezes policy barring players from protesting during anthem McConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Petition urges University of Virginia not to hire Marc Short MORE’s eldest son answered questions from Senate investigators for just more than five hours on Thursday, in one of the most sensitive and sought-after interviews yet in the congressional investigations into Russia's election meddling.

In a 10-minute opening statement, Donald Trump Jr. told Judiciary Committee staffers that he accepted a meeting with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonProminent Putin critic: If Trump turns me over, I'm dead Dems unveil slate of measures to ratchet up pressure on Russia Trump tweets old video of Clinton talking up 'a strong Russia' MORE because he wanted to assess her “fitness” for office.

He insisted that he always intended to speak to his lawyers before using any of the information — the clearest indication yet that he was aware the offer could be legally problematic.

The marathon session, which took place behind closed doors and was not under oath, began shortly before 9:30 a.m. and did not conclude until 2:30 in the afternoon. Trump Jr. slipped in and out of a conference room in the basement of the Capitol like a shadow, out of sight of the press and shielded by a folding partition placed in front of the doorway.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who strode in and out of the interview multiple times, described the atmosphere as “cordial.” Trump Jr. largely spoke for himself rather than through counsel, he said, but declined to comment on the specifics of his testimony.

The interview did raise other avenues of inquiry, Blumenthal said.

“There are a lot of areas that have been opened for future witnesses and questioning,” he said. “There will be a lot of areas to be pursued.”

Democrats are pushing for the unclassified transcript of the interview to be made public — a move that could require a committee vote — as well as a public, under-oath hearing with Trump Jr. The committee’s chairman and ranking member, Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenate GOP breaks record on confirming Trump picks for key court Deal to fix family separations hits snag in the Senate Election Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas MORE (D-Calif.) respectively, have previously said that they intend for Trump Jr. to appear before the panel publicly and would subpoena him if necessary.

Lawmakers have been vying for the first crack at Trump Jr. after news broke of the meeting with the Russian lawyer. The White House and Trump Jr. have staunchly defended the June 2016 meeting as appropriate but offered evolving explanations of its purpose.

That the interview was not under oath isn’t unusual in Senate investigations, and it does not allow Trump Jr. to mislead investigators with impunity. Lying to Congress is still a crime, and staff interviews are often used to lay the groundwork for a public testimony. Senate Minority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSenate approves resolution warning Trump not to hand over US officials Deal to fix family separations hits snag in the Senate Senate Democrats block resolution supporting ICE MORE (D-Ill.), a member of the committee, characterized the interview as “preliminary.” 

"There are a lot of gaps that will need to be filled,” Blumenthal said. "My being there gives me a sense of his demeanor, his willingness to answer questions, his pauses and reluctance on some questions and eagerness on others.”

Staffers conducted the interview with Trump Jr.; lawmakers were allowed to observe, but not ask questions. The questions were prepared by staffers for Grassley, Feinstein, and Sens. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseSenate panel advances Trump IRS nominee Senate Dems protest vote on controversial court pick Who is Andrew Wheeler, EPA's new acting chief? MORE (D-R.I.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria Polling analyst: Changes to legal immigration ‘the real sticking point among Democrats’ Graham would consider US-Russia military coordination in Syria MORE (R-S.C.).

At least five senators attended the interview for at least a few minutes — Blumenthal and Durbin, as well as Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharGOP seeks separation from Trump on Russia Hillicon Valley: EU hits Google with record B fine | Trump tries to clarify Russia remarks | Sinclair changing deal to win over FCC | Election security bill gets traction | Robocall firm exposed voter data Election security bill picks up new support in Senate MORE (D-Minn.) and Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsAnti-Trump protesters hold candlelight vigil by White House Hillicon Valley: EU hits Google with record B fine | Trump tries to clarify Russia remarks | Sinclair changing deal to win over FCC | Election security bill gets traction | Robocall firm exposed voter data Overnight Defense: More Trump drama over Russia | Appeals court rules against Trump on transgender ban | Boeing wins Air Force One contract | Military parade to reportedly cost M MORE (D-Del.). One Republican, Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchSenators introduce bipartisan bill to improve IRS Senate panel advances Trump IRS nominee Don't place all your hopes — or fears — on a new Supreme Court justice MORE (Utah), dropped by briefly but did not stay long.

Trump Jr. is one of the first members of Trump’s inner sanctum to come before congressional investigators and the only immediate member of his family to do so. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, has interviewed previously before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Grassley’s panel is investigating a number of issues linked to the Russian interference campaign, including “attempts to influence U.S. elections” and whether there have been any violations of foreign lobbying laws.

The committee first called on Trump Jr. to testify publicly in July, when the meeting with the Russian lawyer came to light.

According to emails released by Trump Jr. days after the story broke, an intermediary offered to set up a meeting between him and a “Russian government lawyer” offering 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's support for Mr. Trump,” the intermediary wrote.

“If it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” Trump Jr. responded.

President Trump reportedly personally dictated the White House’s original statement, which claimed that Trump Jr. and the Russian lawyer had “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children.” 

The lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was at the time lobbying for the removal of U.S. sanctions on Russia; those sanctions had prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to ban all American adoptions of Russian children in retaliation.

In an interview when news of the meeting first emerged, Trump Jr. echoed the White House’s official statement and claimed that the talk with Veselnitskaya had been a waste of time.

The meeting touches on one of the questions at the heart of the federal investigation into Moscow’s election-meddling campaign: whether any Trump associates colluded with Russian officials or representatives to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Democrats say that Trump Jr.’s willingness to accept opposition research portrayed as part of Russia's support for the president shows a clear intent to collude with the Russian government. The president has fiercely defended his son, insisting that the meeting was mere “politics.”

“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 president tweeted in July.