New York Times
By NICHOLAS FANDOS and MAGGIE HABERMAN
SEPTEMBER 7, 2017
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump Jr. told Senate investigators on Thursday that he set up a June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer because he was intrigued that she might have damaging information about Hillary Clinton, saying it was important to learn about Mrs. Clinton’s “fitness” to be president.
But nothing came of the Trump Tower meeting, he said, and he was adamant that he never colluded with the Russian government’s campaign to disrupt last year’s presidential election.
During five hours of questioning, investigators for the Senate Judiciary Committee pressed Mr. Trump on numerous topics related to the meeting with the Russian lawyer, including how the president’s aides this summer drafted a statement aboard Air Force One in response to queries from The New York Times about the meeting.
Mr. Trump said he did not speak to his father about the draft statement because he did not want to involve him in something he “knew nothing about,” according to one person briefed about parts of his testimony. Lawmakers have wanted to know what, if anything, President Trump knew about the June 2016 meeting and whether he was involved in preparing the draft statement to The Times.
In his prepared remarks on Thursday to Congress, the younger Mr. Trump said he was initially conflicted when he heard that the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, might have damaging information about Mrs. Clinton. Despite his interest, he said, he always intended to consult with his lawyers about the propriety of using any information that Ms. Veselnitskaya, who has links to the Kremlin, gave him at the meeting.
A copy of Mr. Trump’s statement was obtained by The New York Times.
The acknowledgment by the president’s eldest son that he intended to seek legal counsel after the meeting suggests that he knew, or at least suspected, that accepting potentially damaging information about a rival campaign from a foreign country raised thorny legal issues.
“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.”
Mr. Trump’s lengthy interview took place in the basement of the Capitol, with Mr. Trump successfully evading reporters as he left and returned for bathroom breaks. The interview was conducted by committee staff, with Democratic and Republican teams of investigators taking turns questioning Mr. Trump in one-hour blocks. A handful of senators also attended portions of the meeting.
The June 2016 meeting was arranged after the younger Mr. Trump received an email from a family associate saying that potentially damaging information was being provided as part of the Russian government’s support for his father. But in his statement on Thursday, he described his decision to agree to the meeting as the byproduct of the chaotic, seat-of-the-pants campaign assembled by his father, rather than any attempt to collude with Russia.
Mr. Trump has given differing accounts of his contacts last year with Russians. He told The Times in March that he never met with Russians on behalf of the campaign, a statement his lawyer has since said was meant to refer to Russian government officials. In July, he described the Trump Tower meeting as primarily focused on the issue of Russian adoptions, before eventually acknowledging that he took the meeting because he was told Ms. Veselnitskaya had damaging information about Mrs. Clinton.
But intentionally misspeaking to Congress is a crime, giving his statement on Thursday added weight. If there were any doubt about the stakes, the office of Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware and a member of the panel, made them clear in an email to reporters on Thursday afternoon that included the text of the so-called False Statements statute.
Mr. Trump told investigators that working for his father’s campaign consumed his life. “I had never worked on a campaign before, and it was an exhausting, all-encompassing, life-changing experience. Every single day I fielded dozens, if not hundreds, of emails and phone calls.”
He is the second person connected to the Trump campaign to tell congressional investigators that the campaign was, essentially, too inexperienced and too unfamiliar with politics to pull off a master strategy — let alone coordinate with the Russian government. Mr. Trump’s brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, painted a similar picture during an interview with the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In his statement, Mr. Trump said he had some reservations about the June 2016 proposal from the meeting’s facilitator, Rob Goldstone, whom he described as a “colorful” music promoter he had come to know through the son of a Russian oligarch. Mr. Goldstone asked Mr. Trump to take a meeting that would include potentially damaging information about Mrs. Clinton.
“Since I had no additional information to validate what Rob was saying, I did not quite know what to make of his email,” he said. “I had no way to gauge the reliability, credibility or accuracy of any of the things he was saying.”
“As it later turned out, my skepticism was justified,” Mr. Trump added. “The meeting provided no meaningful information and turned out not to be about what had been represented.”
In an email response to Mr. Goldstone, Mr. Trump wrote that if the promised information about Mrs. Clinton was as advertised, “I love it.”
“As much as some have made of my using the phrase ‘I love it,’ it was simply a colloquial way of saying that I appreciated Rob’s gesture,” he said in his statement on Thursday.
When asked why, shortly after the Trump Tower meeting was set up, his father promised to deliver a “major speech” about Mrs. Clinton’s “corrupt dealings,” Mr. Trump said that that was merely the way his father speaks, according to a person familiar with the interview.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is one of three congressional panels investigating aspects of President Trump’s links to Russia and related matters. The committee, which has oversight of the Justice Department, is particularly interested in the circumstances surrounding President Trump’s abrupt firing in May of James B. Comey as F.B.I. director.
Democrats have repeatedly said that they still expect Donald Trump Jr. to appear at a public committee hearing and were careful to cast the Thursday sit-down as a staff-driven interview, where senators breezed in and out merely to observe. It was unclear if Mr. Trump had agreed to such testimony, and the committee’s chairman, Charles E. Grassley, did not say one way or another whether there would be a hearing.
Spokesmen for Mr. Grassley and Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s top Democrat, declined to comment on the interview after it concluded. Committee members who did not attend are expected to be briefed on its contents in the coming days.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said the mood behind closed doors was “cordial” and that investigators were asking primarily factual questions.
He said that what he had heard from Mr. Trump made him only more certain that the committee needed to hear from other attendees of the Trump Tower meeting, including Mr. Kushner and Paul J. Manafort, who was the Trump campaign chairman at the time. Mr. Blumenthal said that the committee needs to look further into how Mr. Trump’s initial statements to the news media about that meeting were put together.
“We covered a good deal of ground,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “There is still a lot of questioning to be covered.”
Nicholas Fandos reported from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York. Matt Apuzzo contributed reporting from Washington.
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