Donald Trump Jr. said that he and his brother-in-law Jared Kushner, in June 2016, had met Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who offered potentially damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Photo: AP
Donald Trump Jr. said that he and his brother-in-law Jared Kushner, in June 2016, had met Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who offered potentially damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Photo: AP

Donald Trump’s son may fall into Russia investigation over meeting

Donald Trump Jr., who has admitted to meeting a Russian lawyer in the run-up to the 2016 US Presidential polls, may be probed for Russian meddling in the election

New York/Columbus/Washington: US President Donald Trump’s eldest son may become a subject of investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign after acknowledging that he met last year with a Russian woman who offered potentially damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

The meeting took place in June 2016, after his father had secured the Republican presidential nomination, according to a statement on Sunday from Donald Trump Jr.

The younger Trump said in the statement that he was joined at the meeting by his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the man managing his father’s campaign at the time, Paul Manafort.

Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said that the senate intelligence committee should interview Donald Trump Jr. as part of its investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign. Collins sits on the panel.

“I certainly believe that our intelligence committee needs to interview him and others who attended the meeting, and I suspect that the independent counsel will as well, the special counsel will as well," she told reporters at the Capitol. “To me it shows the need for both investigations to continue."

Donald Trump Jr. responded on Twitter: “Happy to work with the committee to pass on what I know."

The watchdog group Common Cause filed a complaint with the justice department and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) on Monday alleging that Donald Trump Jr. “in his role with the Trump campaign, illegally solicited a political contribution from a foreign national—in the form of opposition research he believed would be damaging to the Hillary Clinton campaign."

A spokeswoman for the FEC, Judith Ingram, said it doesn’t comment on potential enforcement cases. One former FEC lawyer said the complaint is unlikely to succeed because the Russian lawyer volunteered the information and it didn’t have monetary value.

Damaging information

The encounter was reported earlier by the New York Times, which said on Sunday that Donald Trump Jr. had been promised damaging information on Clinton before agreeing to the meeting.

Representatives of the younger Trump and Kushner confirmed that the meeting with the woman, a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya, had taken place at Trump Tower as reported. A spokesman for Manafort didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In his statement, Donald Trump Jr. said that the woman had been referred to him by an acquaintance from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant and that he had been told she could provide information that could help his father’s campaign. He said that he wasn’t told her name before the meeting.

The younger Trump said the meeting lasted about 20 to 30 minutes. He said the woman told those present that she had information about funding and support for Clinton and the Democratic National Committee by people connected to Russia. Trump said “it quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information."

“Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense," Trump said in the statement. “No details or supporting information was provided or even offered."

Changed subject

He said that the woman then changed the subject to the adoption of Russian children and the Magnitsky Act, a US law that sanctions people for human-rights abuses as well as those deemed complicit in the 2009 death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Russian President Vladimir Putin halted US adoptions of Russian children after that measure was passed.

Trump said that he then advised the woman that his father was still a private citizen, “and that her comments and concerns were better addressed if and when he held public office." He said he took her initial offer of information on Clinton as merely a pretext to discuss the other issues.

Kate Belinski, a former senior counsel to the FEC and a partner at Nossaman LLP, said that Common Cause’s complaint is unlikely to succeed. FEC rules allow foreign nationals to volunteer their services to campaigns, and Veselnitskaya apparently offered the information to Trump’s campaign. According to his son’s statement, the campaign didn’t find it credible. “Can you solicit something that doesn’t exist?" she asked.

Another hurdle is whether negative information on an opponent has monetary value. “I’ve never seen a matter where the FEC has actually quantified the value of opposition research," said Belinski. “It’s difficult to say that this piece of dirt was clearly worth $10,000."

Veselnitskaya told the New York Times that nothing about the 2016 campaign was discussed at the meeting and that she had never acted on behalf of the Russian government. Moreover, she told the newspaper, she never discussed the matter with anyone from the Russian government.

“We don’t know who this is and, of course, we can’t keep track of the meetings of all Russian lawyers either in Russia or abroad," Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on Monday on a conference call, when asked about Veselnitskaya.

Congress returns

Revelations about the encounter at Trump Tower surfaced as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and congressional committees continue to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether there was any collusion between members of the Trump campaign and Moscow.

As lawmakers returned to Washington after the 4 July recess on Monday, some members of Trump’s political party criticized the concept of campaign officials meeting with representatives of foreign governments to obtain derogatory information about rival candidates.

“That doesn’t strike me as appropriate," senator Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, told MSNBC. “I think it encourages countries to come in and undermine our democratic process."

The president on Monday morning was focused on former FBI director James Comey, retweeting a “Fox & Friends" video that cited “a brand new bombshell report" in The Hill that cited anonymous sources as saying more than half of Comey’s memos about his conversations with Trump have been determined to contain classified information.

“James Comey leaked CLASSIFIED INFORMATION to the media. That is so illegal!" Trump wrote on Twitter.

The Hill reported that an FBI spokesman declined to comment.

Improved ties

News of the meeting began emerging on Saturday, a day after the US president met face-to-face for the first time with Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg—an encounter Trump said he hoped would help foster better relations with Moscow.

Yet hopes by the president for improved ties with Russia have been hampered by US intelligence agencies’ public conclusion that Putin’s government helped direct a sophisticated effort to tilt the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favour. Trump has been reluctant to accept those findings.

“It could very well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries," Trump said during a news conference in Warsaw last week before the G20. “I think a lot of people interfere. I think it’s been happening for a long time."

The New York Times reported on Saturday afternoon that the meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Kushner, Manafort and the Russian lawyer had taken place. On Sunday afternoon, the newspaper reported in another article that she had offered damaging information on Clinton.

Cybersecurity proposal

Hours after the first of the two articles was published, Trump tweeted that he had discussed with Putin the idea of working with Russia to create an “impenetrable" cybersecurity unit that would seek to prevent future tampering with elections.

The idea of collaborating on cybersecurity with a nation accused by US intelligence agencies of interfering with the 2016 election drew howls of criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike.

“It’s not the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, but it’s pretty close." Republican senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in response on NBC’s “Meet the Press."

Graham said Trump has a “blind spot" when it comes to Putin, and that Trump is only empowering the Russian president and hurting himself. “This whole idea about moving forward without punishing Russia is undercutting his entire presidency," Graham said.

Trump later played down the idea, telling his 33.5 million Twitter followers on Sunday night: “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t-but a cease-fire can,& did!" He was referring to the ceasefire in parts of Syria that was announced after he met with Putin at the G20.

‘Nothing burger’

White House chief of staff Reince Priebus dismissed the meeting as “a nothing burger" that he said was about Russia’s policy on foreign adoptions. “It was a nothing meeting," he said. Asked why such high-level Trump officials would have a meeting about Russian adoption policy, Priebus said, “you’re going to have to talk to them."

Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Trump’s legal team, said in a statement on Sunday that “the president was not aware of and did not attend the meeting." Bloomberg