WASHINGTON ― The White House on Tuesday appeared to distance itself from President Donald Trump’s eldest son meeting with a Russian lawyer last year in an effort to get damaging information about his father’s Democratic opponent.
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders read a statement from the president vouching for Donald Trump Jr.’s character: “My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency.”
But she would not defend the meeting, instead repeatedly referring questions to outside lawyers representing Trump and his son. “Not to sound like a broken record, but on all questions related to this matter I would refer you to Don Junior’s counsel and outside counsel,” she said.
Just one day earlier, Sanders had stated unequivocally that nothing untoward had happened. “I’m saying that the president’s campaign did not collude in any way,” she said.
Trump Jr. released a chain of emails on Tuesday morning, detailing an exchange with a business associate who offered him the chance to meet with a Russian lawyer promising information from the “Russian government” that would harm Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.
The email from Rob Goldstone called the promised material “very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Trump Jr. responded, just 17 minutes later, with enthusiasm: “If it’s what you say I love it.”
The president applauded his son’s “transparency,” but Trump Jr. only released the emails via Twitter after he learned that The New York Times had obtained them and was preparing to publish an article based on them.
In responses to previous Times articles on the matter, Trump had not disclosed that the entire purpose of the meeting was to obtain the negative material about Clinton. He had claimed that the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, made vague references to such material, but then moved onto the topic of 5-year-old sanctions against Russia and Russian leader Vladimir Putin responding by freezing U.S. adoptions of Russian children.
Trump met face-to-face with Putin on Friday, the first time he’s done so since taking office in January. He spent more than two hours with the Russian strongman, and his description of the encounter raised alarms from even Republican members of Congress.
Trump claimed he and Putin had agreed to a joint effort to build “an impenetrable” barrier against future hacking ― an idea that both intelligence experts and GOP members of Congress called reckless and dangerous. Just 13 hours later, Trump said the plan would not work: “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t.”
Trump also claimed he brought up the question of whether Russia was involved in hacking the U.S. election, and that Putin had denied it. “I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election. He vehemently denied it. I’ve already given my opinion,” he wrote Sunday morning, the day after he returned from the G-20 economic summit in Germany where the meeting had taken place.
Trump has long dismissed U.S. intelligence agencies’ consensus that Russia had interfered in last year’s presidential campaign with the goal of helping him win. He has said it was impossible to know who had done the meddling, and at different times blamed the theft of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign chairman on a hypothetical man in New Jersey and another hypothetic 400-pound guy in his bed.
Even last week, the day before he met Putin, Trump said the email hacking may have been committed by Russia, as well as other countries that he declined to name.
Trump has for years spoken and written admiringly about Putin, calling him a better leader than former President Barack Obama. He has defended the Russian leader against allegations that he has had political opponents and journalists murdered by claiming that the U.S. government also has done “plenty of killing.”
When the question of Russian meddling came up during a presidential debate last fall, Clinton said it was obvious that Putin preferred Trump to win because he would be his puppet.
Trump responded: “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet.”