Congressional testimony released Wednesday complicates the evolving public understanding of how Donald Trump Jr. and the Trump White House worked together to explain away a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting pitched as an opportunity for the campaign to obtain Russian “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
In an interview last year with the Senate Judiciary Committee, Trump Jr. downplayed his father’s role in the entire matter. Most notably, the President’s eldest son minimized how involved Trump was in crafting a July 2017 statement aboard Air Force 1 that served as the family’s initial public comment on the Trump Tower meeting.
Trump Jr.’s account contrasted sharply with contemporaneous reports from the Washington Post and New York Times that cast the President as directly involved in the wording of that July 8 statement.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller has reportedly honed in on both the meeting and the varied explanations the Trump team has offered about it as he investigates possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, as well as possible obstruction of that probe by the President.
Two questions about the Trump Tower meeting were included on a leaked list of questions that Mueller wants to ask Trump if he ultimately agrees to sit for an interview.
According to Trump Jr.’s testimony, he never spoke to his father about the meeting he held with then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, his brother-in-law Jared Kushner, and a handful of Russian businesspeople including Kremlin-linked attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya. Trump Jr. said that he neither offered his father advance warning that he’d been invited to learn about Russian government “dirt” on Clinton, or informed him after the fact that the conversation had instead mostly focused on reinstating a program allowing Americans to adopt Russian children.
“I wouldn’t have wasted his time with it,” Trump Jr. testified.
Later in his testimony, Trump Jr. repeatedly deemphasized his father’s role in shaping how this information was conveyed to the press. That matter came to a head in early July 2017 as Trump and his top officials were flying back to the U.S. from the G20 summit in Germany.
Contacted by reporters from the New York Times, Trump Jr. and the White House were asked to explain how the June 2016 sit-down came about.
Trump Jr. told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he “never spoke to” his father about the initial statement that went out, which made no mention of the damaging information about Clinton and said the meeting focused primarily on the adoption issue.
“Numerous” people were involved in the statement, including counsel, and the President “may have commented through [then-communications staffer] Hope Hicks,” Trump Jr. continued.
Asked if any of those comments made through Hicks were incorporated in the statement, Trump Jr. admitted “some may have been,” but reiterated that “this was an effort through lots of people, mostly counsel.”
Pressed on whether he asked Trump to provide assistance, Trump Jr. said, “No. [Hicks] asked if I wanted to actually speak to him, and I chose not to because I didn’t want to bring him into some thing that he had nothing to do with.”
But according to blockbuster July 2017 articles in the Times and Post, Trump put himself at the center of the response. The Post reported that Trump “personally dictated” his son’s statement, while the Times reported Trump “signed off” on it. Both newspapers noted it was unclear what Trump knew about the meeting when he helped put the statement together.
As more damaging details about the true purpose of the meeting trickled out, Trump Jr. on July 9 issued a new statement admitting that he had actually sought damaging information on Clinton from these Russian actors.
Then, on July 11, aware that the Times was about to publish the full email chain setting up the meeting, Trump Jr. tweeted it out himself. He claimed he did so in an effort “to be totally transparent.”
Asked to account for the evolving statements, Trump Jr. told Senate investigators that “they’re all very consistent with each other.”
“It did not talk about what got them into the door, and I didn’t expand on it because I didn’t think it was relevant to discuss what the meeting was not actually about,” Trump Jr. said of the initial Air Force 1 statement. “As more questions were asked and more information was requested, we released more information and went into greater detail.”
This post has been updated.