WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s eldest son cast his meeting with a Russian lawyer last year as simply an opportunity to learn about Hillary Clinton’s “fitness, character or qualifications,” insisting to Senate investigators behind closed doors that he did not collude with Russia to hurt her campaign against his father.
Donald Trump Jr.’s description of the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York, delivered in a statement Thursday at the outset of a Senate panel’s staff interview, provided his most detailed account yet of an encounter that has drawn close scrutiny from Congress and special counsel Robert Mueller.
He tried to dismiss concerns about one comment he made in emails leading up to the meeting. He said he was just being polite when he emailed “I love it” to Rob Goldstone, the publicist who was setting up the meeting with a Russian who was said to have election-season dirt on Clinton.
Trump Jr. said it was “simply a colloquial way of saying that I appreciated Rob’s gesture.”
Thursday’s interview at the Capitol was the first known instance of Trump Jr. giving his version of the meeting in a setting that could expose him to legal jeopardy. It’s a crime to lie to Congress.
Multiple congressional committees and Mueller’s team of prosecutors are investigating whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the outcome of the election. A grand jury used by Mueller as part of his investigation has already heard testimony about the meeting, which besides Trump Jr., included the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
Trump Jr. spoke to committee staff members for about five hours, leaving in the midafternoon, out of view of reporters. In a statement released afterward, he appeared to suggest he would not testify publicly before the committee, saying he trusted that “this interview fully satisfied” the panel’s inquiry.
In July, the committee’s chairman, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa, said he wanted Trump Jr. to appear at a public hearing, though in recent days he’s declined to say whether that will still happen. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the panel, said Wednesday that she and Grassley had agreed in July to subpoena Trump Jr. if he wouldn’t appear willingly in public.
Trump Jr. and the Senate Judiciary Committee had negotiated for him to appear privately on Thursday and to be interviewed only by committee staff. Senators were allowed to sit in but not ask questions.
According to one person with knowledge of what was said, Trump Jr. told committee staff that he didn’t inform his father about the June 2016 meeting.
He also said he didn’t know or didn’t recall the details of any White House involvement in his response to the first reports of that meeting, the person said. The White House has said the president was involved in drafting a statement saying the meeting primarily concerned a Russian adoption program.
The person declined to be identified because the meeting was private.
In prepared remarks obtained by The Associated Press, Trump Jr. did not address the drafting of the statement. Instead, he sought to explain the emails that showed him agreeing to the meeting, which had been described as part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign.
He said he was skeptical of the outreach by music publicist Goldstone but thought he “should listen to what Rob and his colleagues had to say.”
“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,” Trump Jr. said.
He said the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, gave vague information about possible foreign donations to the Democratic Party but then quickly changed the subject to a sanctions law, known as the Magnitsky Act, which the Russian government opposes.
On the day of the meeting, Trump Jr. said he didn’t know who would be attending because Goldstone didn’t give him a list ahead of time. He said Trump Tower security also didn’t keep a record. Goldstone was able to bring the “entire group up” by only giving his name to a guard in the lobby, he said.
“There is no attendance log to refer back to and I did not take notes,” Trump Jr. said.
He said he remembers seven people in the meeting, though eight have been publicly reported.
The attendees Trump Jr. identified were himself, Goldstone, Manafort, Kushner, Veselnitskaya, a translator and Irakli Kaveladze, who worked for a Russian development company headed by Aras Agalarov and his son, Emin, who partnered with Donald Trump to bring the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013.
He did not mention Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, who has told multiple news outlets, including the AP, that he attended the meeting at Veselnitskaya’s invitation. In recent weeks, Akhmetshin has testified about his recollection of the meeting before a Washington grand jury used by Mueller.
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, California Rep. Adam Schiff, released a statement responding to reports of the meeting and said Trump Jr.’s statement “raises more questions than it answers” and “highlights how significant the campaign viewed the promise of dirt on their opponent from the Russian government.”
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who briefly sat in on the interview, released a statement later containing the federal statute barring lying to Congress. The statement was addressed to “Interested parties” regarding “Donald Trump Jr. testimony today.”
___Associated Press writer Chad Day contributed to this report.