A meeting between President Donald Trump’s eldest son and a Russian lawyer during the presidential campaign occurred at the behest of a Moscow-based singer with family ties to Trump’s businesses, according to a participant in the talks. Donald Trump Jr. acknowledged Monday he made time for the meeting hoping to get information about Democrat Hillary Clinton. The circumstances surrounding the meeting fueled new questions about the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia, which are being scrutinized by federal and congressional investigators. Some election law experts said a discussion of potentially damaging information on Clinton could prompt scrutiny from Special Counsel Robert Mueller in light of federal laws barring foreign contributions to campaigns. Larry Noble, a former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission, said the situation ”raises all sorts of red flags.”
”You do not want your campaign to be involved with foreign nationals, period,” said Noble, now senior director at the Campaign Legal Center. On Monday, Trump Jr. tried to brush off the significance of the meeting, tweeting sarcastically, ”Obviously I’m the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent … went nowhere but had to listen.” Hours later, New York-based attorney Alan Futerfas said he had been retained to represent the president’s son. And Trump Jr. said on Twitter he was willing to work with the Senate intelligence committee, one of the panels probing possible campaign collusion, ”to pass on what I know.”
Lawmakers on the committee from both parties said they indeed wanted to talk with the president’s son. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the panel ”needs to interview him and others who attended the meeting.” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., agreed, saying, ”Based on his own admissions, this is an attempt at collusion.” The sequence of events that led to the June 2016 meeting highlighted the tangled web of relationships that investigators now are sorting through. The president’s son said the meeting was arranged by an acquaintance he knew through the 2013 Miss Universe pageant Trump held in Moscow.
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Trump Jr. didn’t name the acquaintance, but in an interview with The Associated Press, music publicist Rob Goldstone confirmed he set up the meeting on behalf of his client, Russian singer Emin Agalarov. Goldstone said the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, stated that she had information about purported illegal campaign contributions to the Democratic National Committee that she thought Trump Jr. might find helpful.
Goldstone said Trump Jr. agreed to squeeze the meeting into a tight schedule. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Monday the Kremlin doesn’t know Veselnitskaya and ”cannot keep track” of every Russian lawyer who holds meetings in Russia or abroad. Although she has not been publicly linked with the Russian government itself, Veselnitskaya represented the son of a vice president of state-owned Russian Railways in a New York money-laundering case settled in May before a trial. A staff member at Veselnitskaya’s firm told the AP on Monday that she was unavailable for comment.
During his visit to Moscow, Trump spent time with Agalarov, appearing in a music video with him and several contestants in the pageant, which Trump owned at the time. Agalarov’s father, Aras, is a Russian developer who sought to partner with Trump on a hotel project in Moscow and tried to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin during the Miss Universe contest.
According to The Washington Post and several other media accounts, the elder Agalarov paid Trump $14 million to $20 million to stage the pageant in Moscow. But Aras Agalarov was unable to persuade Putin to meet with Trump. Putin canceled the session, sending a Trump a friendly letter and a lacquered box in appreciation, the Post has reported.
On Monday, Goldstone said the Trumps and the Agalarovs stayed in contact after the pageant, and Emin Agalarov asked him to reach out to the Trumps to broker the June meeting with Veselnitskaya.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and now White House senior adviser, and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort attended the meeting. Goldstone said he and a translator also participated.
During the meeting, Goldstone said, Veselnitskaya made comments about campaign funding ”that were not specific,” and then turned the subject to a discontinued Russian adoption program and the Magnitsky Act , a bill passed in 2012 that allows the U.S. to impose sanctions on Russians for human rights violations.
Goldstone said that at one point during the meeting, Trump Jr. or Kushner said, ”Can we get to the point?” And later, after Veselnitskaya had finished her presentation, Trump Jr. said, ”Is that it?”
”The whole thing was really vague,” Goldstone said. He said he and Trump Jr. were the last to leave the room, and ”I turned to him and said: `I’m really embarrassed. I don’t know what that was.”
Unlike Kushner, Trump Jr. does not serve in the administration and is not required to disclose his foreign contacts.
Over the weekend, Trump Jr. initially omitted any mention of Clinton from his account of the meeting, describing it as a ”short introductory meeting” focused on the disbanded program that had allowed American adoptions of Russian children. Moscow ended the adoptions in response to the Magnitsky Act sanctions.
A day later, Trump Jr. acknowledged he was told beforehand that Veselnitskaya might have information ”helpful” to the Trump campaign, and was told by her during the meeting that she had something about Clinton.
”No details or supporting information was provided or even offered,” he said. ”It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.” He said there was no follow-up after the meeting and his father was unaware it happened.
Foreign nationals are prohibited from providing ”anything of value” to campaigns, and that same law also bars solicitation of such assistance. The law typically applies to monetary campaign contributions, but courts might consider information such as opposition research to be something of value.
Bradley A. Smith, a former Bill Clinton-appointed Republican Federal Election Commission member, said that based on what’s known about the meeting, Trump Jr.’s actions are unlikely to be considered illegal solicitation. ”It’s not illegal to meet with someone to find out what they have to offer,” Smith said.
But Derek Muller, an associate professor at Pepperdine who focuses on election law, said, ”It makes perfect sense to investigate this situation further.”
The New York Times first reported the lawyer’s meeting with Trump Jr. and the meeting’s prospect of negative information about Clinton. Trump Jr.’s acknowledgment that he hoped to get information from her on Clinton only came in response to questions from the Times.