WASHINGTON ― Veterans of several Republican presidential campaigns say they would never have taken a meeting like the one attended by Donald Trump Jr. last year in June, just weeks before his father officially became the GOP presidential nominee.
Trump Jr. said he met with Kremlin-linked lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya after she claimed to possess damaging information about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump’s Democratic opponent. The president’s son added in a statement that he did not know the identity of Veselnitskaya prior to the meeting and that he asked then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and son-in-law Jared Kushner, now a senior White House adviser, to attend but “told them nothing of the substance” about the get-together.
Trump Jr. and other White House allies on Monday defended the sit-down by attempting to characterize it as a normal campaign exercise ― as if every presidential campaign were willing to accept help from a nameless foreign agent.
“I’ve been involved in 9 presidential campaigns ... never happened, never would happen for all kinds of reasons,” said GOP consultant John Weaver, who advised the White House bids by Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Rick Tyler, a former top aide to the presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz Texas, said he would have called the FBI if approached by a foreign agent from an adversarial nation like Russia.
“Senior presidential campaign officials don’t take meetings with nameless people. Doesn’t happen,” Tyler said.
Cruz emerged as one of Trump’s main foes in last year’s Republican race.
Michael Steel, a former top aide to the presidential campaign of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said the presence of a campaign manager at such a meeting would be unusual.
“Aside from the candidate himself, the campaign manager’s time is among the most valuable resources for any campaign,” he told HuffPost. “So, yes, it would be very odd for the campaign manager to appear at a meeting with a more-or-less random foreigner claiming they’re peddling [opposition research.]”
Stuart Stevens, the chief strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, echoed that sentiment.
“If you can find someone in other presidential campaigns who has received oppo from foreign interests, please share,” he wrote on Twitter, referring to opposition research.
Stevens noted an episode during the 2000 presidential campaign when debate preparation materials from the campaign of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) were mysteriously mailed to the campaign of his Democratic opponent, then-Vice President Al Gore. Thomas Downey, Gore’s debate coach, contacted the FBI when he realized the package contained leaked information from Bush’s campaign.
Richard Painter, the former top ethics lawyer in Bush’s administration and a frequent Trump critic, suggested Trump Jr. ought to have done the same.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated incorrectly that Donald Trump Jr. said he knew the identity of Kremlin-linked lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya before meeting with her. Trump Jr. said he did not know her identity.