President Trump’s immediate family and closest advisors repeatedly have made it harder for him to dismiss questions about his campaign’s contacts with Moscow. Again and again, after denying dealings with Russia, they have been forced to alter their stories.
The latest example, involving Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, increased the political peril for the White House, drawing yet another family member into the public debate over Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election.
Trump Jr. had previously disavowed any campaign interactions with Russians but acknowledged Sunday that he met in June 2016 with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who, he said, had promised information “helpful to the campaign.”
The shifting stories about Russia contacts have frustrated the president’s attempts to move beyond questions about Russia and the election. The latest disclosures also provide potential new avenues for the investigation being run by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who is looking at whether the campaign’s contacts with Russians — or the failure of Trump’s aides to disclose them — violated any U.S. laws.
Trump Jr. recently hired a well-known Manhattan criminal defense lawyer, Alan Futerfas. Although the hiring was publicly acknowledged Monday, neither Trump Jr. nor Futerfas said how long ago he was engaged.
On Monday, Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied that any Trump campaign officials colluded with the Russian government to influence the election, insisting that the Veselnitskaya meeting had come to light only because Jared Kushner, the president’s advisor and son-in-law, and former campaign manager Paul Manafort had amended their federal disclosure forms to mention it.
"The only thing I see inappropriate about the meeting was the people that leaked the information on the meeting after it was voluntarily disclosed," she said.
In a briefing with reporters that the White House did not make available for broadcast on television, Sanders said the president only learned additional details about the meeting this weekend.
Other Trump associates who have needed to revise their accounts of meetings with Russians include Kushner, who acknowledged multiple meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and with a banker close to Russian President Vladimir Putin; Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, who admitted to failing to disclose two meetings with Kislyak; and Michael Flynn, the retired Army general who stepped down as national security advisor after admitting that he had made misleading statements about conversations with Kislyak.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that there was a full court press going on by the Russians to engage with Trump,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, which is conducting its own investigation into Russian interference in the election.
Trump Jr.’s account of his meeting suggests that well-connected Russians were reaching out to the campaign beginning at least as early as Trump’s winning of the GOP nomination, using the offer of damaging information against the Democrats to gain access to the top levels of the campaign. The existence of the meeting was first disclosed by the New York Times.
In his statement, Trump Jr. denied wrongdoing. He described the half-hour encounter with Veselnitskaya, which Kushner and Manafort also attended, as brief and unproductive. And he suggested that her objective had been to enlist Trump’s help in overturning a U.S. law that targets Russian officials.
Veselnitskaya claimed to have information about individuals connected to Russia “funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton,” Trump Jr. said in his statement, but “it quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”
She shifted the conversation to “adoption of Russian children” and the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law that bars certain Russian officials from entering the U.S. and using U.S. banks, he said.
“I interrupted and advised her that my father was not an elected official, but rather a private citizen, and that her comments and concerns were better addressed if and when he held public office,” he added.
On Monday evening, the New York Times reported that Trump Jr. had been informed in an email before the meeting that the information being offered was part of an effort by the Russian government to help his father’s campaign.
Earlier in the day, Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, insisted there was less to the meeting than news reports implied.
"I’ve been on several campaigns and people call offering information, as I know many of you receive calls of people offering information," she said. "Don Jr. took a very short meeting from which there was absolutely no follow-up."
The president returned Saturday from a brief trip to Poland and Germany, where he met with Putin for the first time since taking office. Administration officials say he asked Putin about Russian interference in the election, something Moscow and Trump have both dismissed in the past as a hoax. Russian officials said Trump accepted Putin’s denial.
Sanders said that in the meeting with Putin, Trump didn’t dwell on allegations of Russia’s meddling, which U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies have said represented a coordinated campaign to tip the outcome toward the Republican.
"The president heard Putin’s denial, and also realized that they had some very important topics that they needed to cover — Ukraine, North Korea, Syria — and decided to move on from that point of the conversation and focus on those issues," Sanders said.
"He heard Putin’s denial, and he knew that at the end of the day, the important part was them being able to have that conversation, for him to directly ask him. He heard his answer and he moved forward with places that they thought they could work together," she said.
Further discussion on hacking "may still take place" with the Russian government, she said. "But that’s as far as it is right now.”
Rather than talk more about Russia, the White House instead sought to draw attention to a report that was featured on a segment of "Fox & Friends" involving former FBI Director James B. Comey.
Trump, in a tweet Monday morning, incorrectly asserted that the report, first published in a Capitol Hill newspaper, showed that Comey had leaked classified information.
The report concerned seven memos that Comey wrote about his conversations with Trump. In testimony to Congress, Comey said some of the memos had been classified and others had been nonclassified. The new report said at least four of the seven were classified.
The one memo that Comey made public, acting through a friend, was not classified, he testified. No evidence has become public to contradict that, and the report Trump relied on did not suggest otherwise.
Asked if the president was accusing Comey of perjury, Sanders said: "I think it’s something that should be investigated thoroughly.”
8:35 p.m.: This article was updated with a newspaper report that Donald Trump Jr. was told in an email of Russian efforts to help his father’s campaign.