Trump Jr. becomes central character in Russia storm

Trump Jr. becomes central character in Russia storm
© Greg Nash

Donald Trump Jr. said Monday he’d be willing to speak with the Senate Intelligence Committee about his meeting with a Russian lawyer who promised opposition research on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Shontel Brown gaining ground against Nina Turner in Ohio: poll Biden hits trail for McAuliffe in test of his political brand MORE.

The offer came after Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTransit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal The Hill's Morning Report - Infrastructure vote fails; partisan feud erupts over Jan. 6 panel Senate falling behind on infrastructure MORE (R-Maine), a member of the Intelligence panel, called on her committee to interview Trump Jr. and any other individuals involved in the June 2016 meeting.

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Paul Manafort, then President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump hails Arizona Senate for audit at Phoenix rally, slams governor Arkansas governor says it's 'disappointing' vaccinations have become 'political' Watch live: Trump attends rally in Phoenix MORE’s campaign chairman, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law who is now a senior White House adviser, also attended the June 2016 meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Moscow lawyer who came to the United States last year in connection to a $230 million tax fraud case initially exposed by Sergei Magnitsky — an accountant who died in a Russian prison after accusing prosecutors in that country of the fraud.

Several congressional panels, along with special counsel Robert Mueller, are investigating Russia’s meddling in last year’s presidential election, including possible links between Moscow and the Trump campaign.

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSunday shows preview: Bipartisan infrastructure talks drag on; Democrats plow ahead with Jan. 6 probe Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill to hold platforms accountable for misinformation during health crises | Website outages hit Olympics, Amazon and major banks Senators introduce bipartisan bill to secure critical groups against hackers MORE (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, echoed Collins in saying he thought the panel should talk to Trump Jr. and anyone else involved in the meeting.

“This is the first time the public has seen clear evidence of at least an attempt by the Trump campaign to obtain [information] … from a possible foreign agent that would interfere with the Hillary Clinton campaign efforts,” Warner said. “This is, again, the underlying premise that has been raised throughout the whole investigation.

“In terms of questions, clear collusion or potential violations, that’s for special prosecutor Mueller to determine.”

The White House defended the actions of Trump’s eldest son, who has hired a personal lawyer in connection with the probe.

When first confronted by The New York Times, which first reported the meeting, Trump Jr. did not mention it had anything to do with Clinton.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the campaign never followed up with Veselnitskaya after the meeting. Those at the top of the campaign say they never heard about the meeting because it was inconsequential.

“There’s nowhere else for this story to go,” said one former campaign aide. “It’s a public relations problem at this point, not a legal issue.”

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), another member of the Intelligence panel, told NPR’s “Morning Edition” it was important not to draw early conclusions.

“Just because a meeting occurred doesn’t necessarily mean the campaign cooperated,” he said.

“Should we look into it? Absolutely we should, as we are in this instance and multiple other instances. But just that a meeting that occurred and the Russians reached out does not mean that we were reaching back.”

He said the details of the meeting are “exceptionally important” to determine if Trump Jr. or other officials connected to Trump sought to get information from Veselnitskaya after the meeting.

At an off-camera briefing with reporters, Sanders said it is routine for people to contact political campaigns offering opposition research on opponents. She said that the only malfeasance occurred when someone leaked the details of the meeting to the press after Trump Jr. volunteered the information to congressional investigators.

“Don Jr. did not collude with anybody to influence the election,” Sanders said. “Don Jr. took a very short meeting from which there was absolutely no follow-up.”

The Kremlin has denied knowledge of the meeting, which was reportedly requested by a Russian pop star with connections to both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump.

Privately, current and former White House advisers say they’re not remotely unnerved by the development, even as they cast Trump Jr. as a clumsy political operative prone to stumbling into controversy.

“Don Jr. was never ascendant or consolidating power in the campaign,” said the campaign aide. “He was compassionate and supportive, but he’s a business guy and had never been involved in a campaign.”

Trump’s allies are encouraged by the White House decision to take the matter head-on after weeks in which the administration’s strategy has been to deprive the media of information.

“It’s a big f---ing nothing burger,” said one GOP operative with close ties to the White House. “These meeting and inquiries happen every week on a campaign. Nobody is panicking over this. They’re just frustrated because Don Jr. is going to take a beating in the media for a few days.”

Several allies of the president said the meeting was borne of necessity — Trump’s bare-bones campaign lacked a strong research component and was almost wholly reliant on the Republican National Committee for its opposition research.

“Obviously I’m the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent... went nowhere but had to listen,” Trump Jr. tweeted Monday morning.

Trump himself has remained silent on the matter, even as he jumped to the defense on Twitter of his daughter Ivanka Trump, who came under fire for sitting in for her father at a table with other leaders at last week’s Group of 20 summit.

The meeting touches on a question at the heart of the federal investigation into Moscow’s election-meddling campaign in 2016: whether any Trump associates colluded with Russian officials or representatives. 

Investigators are likely to explore the possibility that Trump Jr. tried to obtain damaging information about Clinton from Kremlin associates. 

With his father in the White House, Trump Jr. is one of three people running the family’s real estate business. But he advised Trump during the campaign and appeared on cable television as a surrogate.

Some moderate Republicans expressed concern over the meeting — and Trump’s shifting explanations — and called for the various congressional and federal investigators to look into the matter.

“It’s a really serious concern,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.

Even if Veselnitskaya ultimately provided no damaging information about Clinton to Trump, Kinzinger said, “the bigger question is, why is anybody meeting with somebody known to be connected to Russian intelligence?”

Common Cause, a government watchdog group, filed a complaint with the Justice Department and Federal Election Commission alleging that Trump Jr. “illegally solicited a campaign contribution from a foreign national” by inquiring about opposition research. 

Robert Ray, the former independent counsel for the Whitewater controversy during the Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Biden hits new low in Gallup poll Biden hits trail for McAuliffe in test of his political brand MORE administration, said legal experts eager to accuse Trump Jr. of a crime were “hyperventilating.”

“It’s not clear that Trump, Jr. received anything of value,” Ray said. “So whatever the Russian lawyer supposedly may have dangled out there in order to entice a meeting, it’s so indefinite that it would be more than a stretch to claim that such conduct by him violated federal campaign finance laws as an in-kind campaign contribution or that it knowingly constituted by him aiding and abetting some form of cyber crime.”