Trump Jr. completes five-hour interview with Senate staffers

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

President Trump’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 TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Trump Jr. declines further Secret Service protection: report Report: Mueller warned Manafort to expect an indictment MORE Jr. told Judiciary Committee staffers that he accepted a meeting with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax hit by earlier hack | What to know about Kaspersky controversy | Officials review EU-US privacy pact Overnight Tech: Equifax hit by earlier undisclosed hack | Facebook takes heat over Russian ads | Alt-right Twitter rival may lose domain 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 FeinsteinDems call for action against Cassidy-Graham ObamaCare repeal Feinstein pushes back on Trump’s N. Korea policy Feinstein on reelection bid: ‘We will see’ 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 Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Senate passes 0B defense bill 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 WhitehouseJuan Williams: Momentum builds against gerrymandering Overnight Regulation: FTC launches probe into Equifax | Dems propose tougher data security rules | NYC aims to slash greenhouse gas emissions | EPA to reconsider Obama coal ash rule Overnight Cybersecurity: Kaspersky to testify before House | US sanctions Iranians over cyberattacks | Equifax reveals flaw that led to hack MORE (D-R.I.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTop Louisiana health official rips Cassidy over ObamaCare repeal bill Senate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions 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 KlobucharWeek ahead: Crunch time for defense bill’s cyber reforms | Equifax under scrutiny Some Dems sizzle, others see their stock fall on road to 2020 Consumers the big winners of Amazon-Whole Foods merger MORE (D-Minn.) and Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsRaising awareness about maternal health worldwide on National Bump Day Senate plans hearing for bills to protect Mueller Entering a new era of African investment MORE (D-Del.). One Republican, Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchFinance to hold hearing on ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea Week ahead in finance: Clock ticking for GOP on tax reform 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.