By Ken Bredemeier
U.S. President Donald Trump took part in drafting a statement issued in his son’s name last month, about a meeting that Donald Trump Jr. and other Trump campaign officials had with a Russian attorney, the White House said Tuesday.
However, Trump’s spokeswoman said, the president did not dictate the content of the statement, which within days turned out to be misleading.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that Trump, while flying home from Germany on July 8 aboard Air Force One, “weighed in as any father would on the limited information that he had,” and played a role in preparing a statement that was released by his eldest son. The statement said the younger Trump had “primarily discussed” adoption of Russian children with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya during a June 2016 meeting in the midst of the U.S. presidential campaign.
“The statement that was issued was true,” Sanders said, “and there were no inaccuracies.” She disputed an account by The Washington Post that President Trump had “personally dictated” the statement claiming the meeting with a group of Russians was not related to the Republican’s presidential campaign.
Within a few days, and under a barrage of questions about his account of the meeting, the younger Trump released a chain of emails disclosing that the Trump team actually had met with a group of Russians about supposed negative information the visitors claimed to have gathered about Trump’s opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
An intermediary for Veselnitskaya had promised she would hand over incriminating information about Clinton. She was portrayed to Trump’s son as a “Russian government attorney” who, with her associates, was part of the Kremlin’s efforts to ensure Trump’s victory in the November election.
Trump Jr. enthusiastically agreed to the meeting, telling the intermediary he would “love it” if he got material that would damage Clinton’s presidential hopes. The younger Trump also called on Paul Manafort, the overall manager of candidate Trump’s campaign at the time, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a close adviser, to join the meeting in New York with Veselnitskaya and her Russian associates.
The younger Trump has since said Veselnitskaya produced no incriminating information about Clinton, and that their conversation 13 months ago turned toward Moscow’s complaints about U.S. sanctions, as well as the Russian government’s subsequent ban on the adoption of Russian children by Americans.
On Capitol Hill Tuesday, Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the president’s actions raised new questions.
Warner said it appeared Trump was “urging his son to put out a statement that deliberately hid all the facts, making it sound like it was about [Russian] adoptions when everyone who looked at the [email] headline knows the subject was about trying to offer bad information about Hillary Clinton.”
The allegations triggered by The Washington Post account of President Trump’s involvement in preparing his son’s statement, Warner said, “involve individuals in the White House that were involved in trying to undercut the evidence about Russian intervention in our elections. This is a pattern that we continue to see, and why both [the Intelligence Committee’s] investigation and [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller’s investigation continue to be so important.”
Public relations ‘stunt’
At Tuesday’s White House briefing, Sanders contended the controversy over the meeting last June was due to partisan political motives.
“The Democrats want to continue to use this as a [public relations] stunt,” the White House press secretary said, “and they’re doing everything they can to keep this story alive and in the papers every single day. The president, the American people, they voted America first, not Russia first, and that’s the focus of our administration.”
President Trump has been engulfed in months of investigations in Washington about Russian interference in the election aimed at helping him win the White House, with numerous congressional investigations under way. One of their focal points has been the younger Trump’s meeting in New York with the Russian lawyer.
Meanwhile, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is conducting a criminal investigation into whether Trump campaign aides colluded with Russian interests during the campaign and whether President Trump obstructed justice when he fired FBI director James Comey while he was heading the agency’s Russia investigation before Mueller took over.
Trump said within days of ousting Comey that he was thinking of “this Russia thing” when he decided to fire him.
Trump has been dismissive of the Russia probes, describing them as a “witch hunt” and an excuse by Democrats to explain his upset victory over Clinton.
VOA Senate correspondent Michael Bowman contributed to this story.