Donald Trump Jr. faced Senate investigators in private on Thursday as part of congressional investigations into Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election and potential connections to his father’s campaign.
The interview with staff on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is probing Russian election interference, took place more than two months after news broke of a June 2016 meeting between a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and the now-president’s son, as well as his son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign-chairman Paul Manafort.
“The meeting provided no meaningful information and turned out not to be about what had been represented,” Trump Jr. said in a prepared statement to investigators, which was provided to BuzzFeed News. “The meeting was instead primarily focused on Russian adoptions, which is exactly what I said over a year later in my statement of July 8, 2017.”
At the same time, however, Trump Jr. acknowledged that he took the meeting because he was told that “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary [Clinton] and her dealings with Russia” were available from Russian sources and would be “very useful” to the Trump campaign.
“The meeting lasted 20–30 minutes,” he said in the prepared remarks, adding that he “never discussed the meeting again” with the two people responsible for setting it up — Emin Agalarov, a singer and the son of a prominent Russian developer, and Agalarov’s music publicist, Rob Goldstone. “I do not recall ever discussing it with Jared, Paul or anyone else. In short, I gave it no further thought,” Trump Jr. said.
By way of explaining why he took the meeting — and did not talk with any lawyer about the meeting beforehand — Trump Jr. said, “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. 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.”
When the New York Times broke the news of the meeting in July of this year, stories examining the purpose and cause of the sit-down on June 9, 2016, and identifying those who attended it trickled out over the course of a week — with shifting explanations from Trump Jr. and others.
In emails released by Trump Jr. in July, Goldstone told him on June 3, 2016, that Emin and his father, Aras, had been told of “high level and sensitive information” about “Hillary [Clinton] and her dealings with Russia.” Goldstone added that the information was available as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump — helped along by Aras and Emin.”
Trump Jr. responded that he would prefer to speak first to Emin about the matter, but added: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
In his statement on Thursday, Trump Jr. attempted to minimize his purpose in writing that line.
“As much as some have made of my using the phrase ‘I love it,’ it was simply a colloquial way of saying that I appreciated Rob’s gesture,” he said.
The email chain released by Trump Jr. in July this year also had referenced a planned phone call between Emin Agalarov and Trump Jr. to take place on June 6, 2016, but lawyers for Trump, Trump Jr., Kushner, or Manafort had not confirmed previously whether they knew whether that call took place.
“My phone records show three very short phone calls between Emin and me between June 6th and 7th,” Trump Jr. told Senate investigators Thursday, according to his prepared remarks. He added, though: “I do not recall speaking to Emin. It is possible that we left each other voice mail messages. I simply do not remember.”
As has been the case with others testifying before congressional investigators, including Kushner, Trump Jr. focused repeatedly in his statement on the disorganized nature of the campaign as part of his explanation for what took place. He referred at one point to the “maelstrom” that was the campaign season, noting that he had “no prior experience in politics,” stating he “field dozens, if not hundred, of emails and phone calls” each day, and saying that June 9, 2016, was “like every other day during the campaign: chaotic.”
After detailing the timeline, process, background, and his related thoughts about the circumstances of the meeting and its aftermath, Trump Jr. reiterated his opening point: “As is clear from the above, I did not collude with any foreign government and do not know of anyone who did.”
Thursday’s interview with the committee, which included questioning after Trump Jr.’s statement, was conducted by Judiciary committee staff. Some members, however, also sat in on the interview, including Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who described the atmosphere as "very sedate."
Hatch also said Trump Jr. is a “good guy” that he knows well. “He's a straight shooter; very honest, very decent man,” Hatch told reporters. “I think Donald Sr. ought to be very proud of him."
Hatch, asked about a likely public hearing with the president’s son in the future, said: "I don't know, but I think it's untoward to just go after the president's sons like that."
Some Democrats on the committee, unsurprisingly, had different takes on the interview. "I just can't wait to get back," Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said. He declined to comment on Trump Jr.’s statement, however.
Delaware Sen. Chris Coons issued a press release after the interview that consisted almost entirely of the text of the statute that prohibits lying to Congress. “It is important to remember that anyone who testifies in front of a Senate committee is under the restrictions of the False Statements statute that says material false statements to Congress are criminal and punishable with fines or imprisonment or both,” Coons said in the statement.
The committee, which began more aggressively investigating the Russia matter in the spring, is expected to interview Trump Jr. again, likely in a public hearing with all committee members. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said she and committee chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, have a plan to have Trump back, but she declined to discuss it.
“I fully expect that he will," Blumenthal said when asked about Trump returning for a public hearing. “I certainly have insisted on it."
Trump Jr. has also agreed to an interview with staff on the Senate intelligence committee, which has taken the lead on congressional investigations into Russian meddling during the 2016 presidential race.