Donald Trump Jr. on Thursday morning told Senate investigators that he accepted a meeting with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAttorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation Durham seeking indictment of lawyer with ties to Democrats: reports MORE to determine the Democratic presidential nominee's "fitness" for office, according to an opening statement reported by The New York Times.
“To the extent they had information concerning the fitness, character or qualifications of a presidential candidate, I believed that I should at least hear them out,” he said. “Depending on what, if any, information they had, I could then consult with counsel to make an informed decision as to whether to give it further consideration.”
Trump Jr.'s acknowledgement that he always intended to seek advice from his lawyers before he used any of the information he got from the Russian lawyer is the first clear indication that the president's son was aware that accepting damaging information on a political rival from a foreign source could run afoul of U.S. law.
Trump Jr. and the White House have offered evolving explanations of the 2016 meeting, which first came to public light in July.
President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE 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 talk with Veselnitskaya had been a waste of time.
But according to emails released by Trump Jr. days later, an intermediary offered to set up a meeting between the president’s eldest son and a “Russian government lawyer” offering information that “would incriminate Hillary [Clinton] 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.
Eight attendees at the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower have been publicly identified, including Trump Jr. and Veselnitskaya; then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort; the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; Veselnitskaya’s translator, Anatoli Samochornov; Ike Kaveladze, an American-based representative of a Russian real estate firm; Rob Goldstone, the intermediary who set up the meeting; and Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-American lobbyist.
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.
Trump Jr. entered an interview behind closed doors with Senate Judiciary Committee staff and a handful of Democratic members just after 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, part of that committee's probe into Russian interference in the election.
The president's eldest son entered a conference room in the basement of the Capitol hidden from media view by a folding partition.
A handful of Democratic senators, including Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinManchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants Democrats hope Biden can flip Manchin and Sinema US gymnasts offer scathing assessment of FBI MORE (Ill.) filtered in and out as the meeting continued throughout the morning.
Trump Jr. was called to testify publicly before the Judiciary panel in July, but offered to give a private, transcribed interview and provide documents instead. The panel’s leaders — Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyGrassley calls for federal prosecutor to probe botched FBI Nassar investigation Woman allegedly abused by Nassar after he was reported to FBI: 'I should not be here' Democrat rips Justice for not appearing at US gymnastics hearing MORE (R-Iowa) and ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinF-35 fighter jets may fall behind adversaries, House committee warns Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack Democrat rips Justice for not appearing at US gymnastics hearing MORE (D-Calif.) — have previously said they still intend for Trump Jr. to appear before the panel publicly and would subpoena him if necessary.
"The agreement that we had is that there will be a public hearing and, if they don't come, they'll be subpoenaed," Feinstein told CNN on Wednesday.
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.