Donald Trump Jr. says he met with Russian lawyer to judge Clinton's 'fitness' for office

Donald Trump Jr. agreed to meet during the campaign last year with a Russian lawyer who had promised to provide damaging information on Hillary Clinton because he hoped to assess her “fitness” for office, the president’s eldest son told Senate investigators Thursday.

Moscow lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and three associates with links to Russia went to an office in Trump Tower in Manhattan for the June 9, 2016, meeting with Donald Trump’s top lieutenants, including his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and son Donald Jr.

“To the extent they had information concerning the fitness, character or qualifications of a presidential candidate, I believed that I should at least hear them out,” Trump Jr. said in a prepared statement about his meeting with the Russians.

“Depending on what, if any, information they had, I could then consult with counsel to make an informed decision as to whether to give it further consideration,” he added.

Trump Jr.’s closed-door testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of the four congressional panels investigating the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia, provided the most detailed account yet of the meeting.

It also is a focus of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s separate criminal investigation of alleged links between Russian government authorities and several members of Trump’s family, as well as current and former aides.

Trump Jr. sought to dispel speculation Thursday that President Trump knew about the meeting at the time. He told the panel he had not informed his father, then the expected Republican nominee, about it, according to a person familiar with his testimony.

Investigators see the Trump Tower meeting as significant because it was specifically offered to Trump Jr. as part of an effort by Moscow to help his father win the White House, and because attendees have provided varying accounts of what occurred.

They also are trying to understand what Trump knew about the Russian offer. After Trump Jr. was first promised damaging information, his father promised to give a major speech to discuss “all the things that have taken place with the Clintons.”

The Trump Tower meeting took place five days before news broke that hackers linked to the Russian government had stolen thousands of emails from computers at the Democratic National Committee. The emails began appearing on WikiLeaks in July.

Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-born lobbyist who attended the meeting, testified last month before a grand jury convened by Mueller to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Trump Jr., a businessman, agreed to appear before the Judiciary Committee after the chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), had subpoenaed him and Manafort.

The subpoenas were withdrawn after both agreed to testify in private. Grassley said they both eventually would be questioned by senators in a public hearing.

Mueller’s office has approached the White House about interviewing staff members who helped write Trump Jr.’s first public statements after news of the 2016 meeting emerged two months ago, CNN reported.

He initially said he and Veselnitskaya had “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children.”

That was an oblique reference to the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law enacted in 2012 that imposed financial sanctions on Russian officials and businessmen, including one of Veselnitskaya’s clients. Moscow responded to the sanctions by banning American adoption of Russian children.

But Trump Jr. later released emails that he agreed to the meeting in hopes of receiving damaging information about Clinton, then the expected Democratic nominee.

The emails show he was contacted by Rod Goldstone, a former business associate, who described Veselnitskaya as a “Russian government attorney” who had “official documents and information” that would “incriminate” Clinton “and would be very useful to your father.”

Her information was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Goldstone told Trump Jr.

In his statement Thursday, Trump Jr. said he was skeptical of Goldstone’s information, since he had “only known Rob as a somewhat colorful music promoter who had worked with pop stars such as Michael Jackson.”

He added: “Nonetheless I thought at the time I should listen to what Rob and his colleagues had to say.”

Goldstone had worked with Trump Jr. on the Trump-owned Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013. He attended the June 2016 meeting along with Irakly “Ike” Kaveladze, a Russian-born business executive. Both work for a billionaire Moscow developer with close ties to the Kremlin.

Trump Jr. said Veselnitskaya opened the meeting speaking “very generally” about “individuals connected to Russia supporting or funding” Clinton. “It was quite difficult for me to understand what she was saying or why,” he added.

She produced no incriminating information about Clinton, Trump Jr. said, and ended in 20 or 30 minutes when the Russian shifted the discussion to the Magnitsky Act, a subject that Trump Jr. said he knew nothing about.

“It was clear to me that her real purpose in asking for the meeting all along was to discuss Russian adoption and the Magnitsky Act,” he said.

Trump Jr. said he “proceeded to quickly and politely end the meeting” by telling her that “because my father was a private citizen there did not seem to be any point to having this discussion,” saying he “gave it no further thought.”

“I did not collude with any foreign government and do not know of anyone who did,” he said.

Kushner, in particular, faces scrutiny because he failed to initially report several meetings with Russians, including the one with Veselnitskaya, when he submitted federal disclosure forms to obtain a security clearance.

He told the Senate Intelligence Committee in July that his failure to report the meetings was not deliberate. He blamed an aide who he said had mistakenly submitted the form before it was complete, and that he later updated it.

Kushner called the June 2016 meeting a “waste of time,” and said that after 10 minutes, he quietly texted an assistant asking for a call on his cellphone to provide an excuse to leave.

Manafort met privately with Senate intelligence committee staff in July. Kushner has met with that staff, as well as members of the House Intelligence Committee.

Trump Jr. also is expected to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee at some point.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that “Trump Jr.’s expression of disappointment that the meeting did not focus solely” on damaging information about Clinton “only underscores what he and the campaign hoped to gain from the meeting.”

david.cloud@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidcloudLAT

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