President Donald Trump was unaware until just recently that his son met last summer with a Russian lawyer promising incriminating information from her government about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, he told Reuters in an interview Wednesday, but he does not blame Donald Trump Jr. for taking the meeting.
“I think many people would have held that meeting,” the president said. “Most of the phony politicians who are Democrats who I watched over the last couple of days – most of those phonies that act holier-than-thou, if the same thing happened to them, they would have taken that meeting in a heartbeat.”
Trump Jr.’s meeting last June with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, who the president’s son had been told in an email possessed information on Clinton from the Russian government. The president’s son replied that “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” according to versions of the email exchanged published by The New York Times and by Trump Jr. himself.
The meeting is the strongest evidence yet of cooperation between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, which the U.S. intelligence community has blamed for a campaign of cyberattacks that targeted Democratic institutions and individuals in an effort to aid the president’s candidacy. That Trump Jr. took a meeting with the expectation of receiving information from the Russian government on Clinton contradicts assurances from multiple campaign and White House officials, including from Trump Jr. himself, that no such meetings ever took place.
The president’s son has sought to downplay the meeting, which was also attended by then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and top adviser Jared Kushner, since its existence was first reported. The meeting lasted only 20 minutes, he has said, and no useful information on Clinton was ever received. The bulk of the meeting, he said, focused on issues surrounding Russian adoptions.
And while Trump claimed not to have known about the meeting “until a couple of days ago,” he told Reuters that the promise of opposition research on a political opponent would prompt almost anyone to accept a meeting. Trump Jr.’s meeting, the president noted, predated the wave of cyberattacks that would take on a massive role in the presidential election later in the summer.
“You have to understand, when that took place, this was before Russia fever,” Trump said. “There was no Russia fever back then, that was at the beginning of the campaign, more or less. There was no Russia fever.”