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Donald Trump Jr. meets with House Intelligence panel in Russia probe

  • Donald J. Trump, Jr., is pictured at the White House on April 17, 2017 in Washington, D.C. THS File Photo



Bloomberg News
Thursday, December 07, 2017

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, told House lawmakers Wednesday that he couldn’t answer questions about what he told his father after a controversial meeting with a Russian lawyer in June 2016, citing attorney-client privilege, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said.

The Democrat, Adam Schiff of California, rejected Trump Jr.’s argument, telling reporters, “In my view, there is no attorney-client privilege that protects a discussion between father and son.”

Schiff said Trump Jr., answered the “overwhelming majority of questions” during more than six hours of closed-door testimony with the committee’s probe into Russian meddling in the U.S. election.

Trump Jr., acknowledged he discussed the June 9, 2016 meeting with his father after it became public through news accounts a year later. But he declined to answer questions about what he told his father. His lawyers claimed that conversation took place in the presence of legal counsel, which is why he invoked attorney-client privilege.

Schiff said the committee planned to follow up on the claim of privilege and asked for more time to deliberate on it.

The conversation is “important, depending on what was discussed,” Schiff said. “It would go to both what took place during the meeting, as well as whether there was any effort to obstruct the investigation into the campaign’s contact with the Russians or any other misrepresentations to the public about that meeting.”

Committee Republicans, led Texan Michael Conaway, wouldn’t comment on the specifics of Trump Jr.’s testimony, but portrayed him as forthcoming. “From my perspective, all of our questions were answered,” he said.

Asked if Trump answered all the lawmakers’ questions, Conaway wouldn’t say.

Trump Jr. has already met behind closed doors with the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Wednesday’s voluntary appearance was his first face-to-face meeting with Congress since Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation leveled charges against four associates of President Donald Trump, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Trump Jr. has said he went into the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya to obtain damaging information about Democrat Hillary Clinton, but nothing came of it. Others attending were Manafort; Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, now a senior White House adviser; and lobbyist and former Soviet counterintelligence officer Rinat Akhmetshin.

The Trump campaign has dismissed the meeting as part of a bait-and-switch Russian lobbying effort to amend a 2012 law known as the Magnitsky Act that placed sanctions on Russians for human rights abuses.

Later this December, a British publicist, Rob Goldstone, who helped set up the meeting, will be interviewed by the House committee. He is likely to be asked about an email to Trump Jr. in which he offered “to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”

Schiff said it was unclear whether the committee Republicans would agree to recall Trump Jr. again to answer their remaining questions.

“If they are serious about getting to the bottom of this and following the facts wherever they lead, they can’t say in the face of a meritless claim of privilege that were going to effectively allow the witnesses to refuse to answer to answer any question they’d rather not answer,” said Schiff.

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina said Tuesday he expects to have Trump Jr. talk with his committee’s investigators but a date hasn’t been set. Separately, Senate Democrat Richard Blumenthal on Tuesday wrote a letter to the chamber’s Judiciary Chairman, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa, asking that Trump Jr. be subpoenaed to appear again before that panel.

“Recent revelations have shown beyond question that the American people can only feel certain that Mr. Trump Jr. has been fully forthcoming if he is subject to a subpoena,” wrote Blumenthal of Connecticut.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, wrote a letter Tuesday requesting that White House deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn produce documents and agree to an interview. One of the topics, she said, is reports of a private meeting Trump Jr. had in Kentucky with Alexander Torshin, a Russian official close to Putin.

Feinstein of California said in her letter that it has been reported that Dearborn shared with other Trump campaign officials a request from Torshin to arrange a meeting between Donald Trump and Putin. She added, “Mr. Torshin ultimately met Donald Trump Jr. at a private dinner the night before Donald Trump spoke” at a convention of the National Rifle Association.

During Wednesday’s appearance by Trump Jr., House Democrats had also planned to focus on Trump Jr.’s private message exchanges with WikiLeaks during the campaign, at a time the web site was publishing hacked Democratic emails. And Feinstein has been seeking details of a reported meeting in Kentucky in 2016 between Trump Jr. and a Russian official close to President Vladimir Putin.

“Certainly the emails, and texts and direct messages with Wikileaks will be a hot topic this morning,” House Intelligence Committee member Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, said on CNN. “As will the company, the Trump Organization, and the inordinate number of Russians who have either purchased interests or condominiums, and the extent to which those individuals have criminal backgrounds.”

Trump Jr.’s private message exchanges with WikiLeaks occurred in the weeks before the election. Schiff has described the exchanges as a known interaction with a Kremlin “cut-out,” or proxy. Blumenthal said in his letter to Grassley that the exchange was “among the most stunning disclosures” involving Trump Jr.

Trump Jr. acknowledged the communications last month but sought to minimize their significance, releasing on Twitter copies of what he said was the full exchange. In the messages, he mostly answered contacts from WikiLeaks politely or not at all, though he didn’t reject communications with the Julian Assange-fronted web site.

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump praised WikiLeaks’ release of stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. But earlier this year, Trump’s Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo called WikiLeaks a “nonstate hostile intelligence service” and singled out Assange as the leader of a hostile force that threatens the U.S.