Senators: Will quiz Manafort
Russia-probe panel to call in Trump’s campaign manager
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election said Wednesday that they intend to question the former chairman of Donald Trump’s campaign and will issue a subpoena if necessary.
The president, meanwhile, stepped up his defense of his eldest son, who released emails showing the arrangement of a 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer said to have damaging information on Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley said he and the committee’s top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein of California, have agreed to try to have Paul Manafort testify before the panel about the government’s enforcement of a law requiring registration of foreign lobbyists.
Manafort registered last month as a foreign agent, acknowledging that he coached members of a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine on how to interact with U. S. government officials.
Feinstein’s office confirmed that they plan to question him.
Manafort would certainly also be asked about his participation in a Trump Tower meeting last summer with Donald Trump Jr. and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, where the purpose was to hear potentially damaging information about Clinton.
Manafort disclosed the meeting in information he provided to the Senate and House intelligence committees, which are among the panels investigating potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign.
“Obviously it would be appropriate for anybody to get into anything that went on at that meeting, and he was at that meeting,” Grassley, R- Iowa, told reporters Wednesday.
A person close to Manafort said the former campaign chairman hasn’t yet received a letter from the Senate Judiciary Committee about a possible interview. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Manafort’s private interactions with the committee.
A spokesman for Grassley said Wednesday afternoon that Grassley was working with Robert Mueller, the special counsel in the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian meddling, to ensure that any plans to question Manafort don’t conflict with any criminal investigation.
If conflicts do exist, the senator will “work to find a way for the committee to proceed with its oversight responsibility,” the spokesman said.
Separately, Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said his panel wants to look at the Russians’ use of social media to sow discord, as well as whether those actions were connected to the Trump campaign.
That concern is “certainly something we want to explore,” along with the Trump campaign’s data analytics, Schiff said. Kushner oversaw digital strategy for the campaign.
SHIFT IN STRATEGY
The lawmakers spoke a day after Trump Jr. disclosed on Twitter a series of email messages that revealed his eagerness to hear from a Russian lawyer about negative material on Clinton.
The exchange showed Trump Jr. conversing with a music publicist who wanted him to meet with a “Russian government attorney” who supposedly had dirt on Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Taking to Twitter on Wednesday morning, the president praised Trump Jr.’s performance Tuesday night during a Fox News interview in which he sought to downplay the significance of the email exchange and the meeting.
“My son Donald did a good job last night,” Trump wrote of his son’s appearance with Fox News host Sean Hannity. “He was open, transparent and innocent. This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political history. Sad!”
Earlier, Trump re-tweeted the assessment of another Fox News host, Jesse Watters, who wrote that Trump Jr. was “the victim” in the episode.
Trump also assailed the use of anonymous sources in the reports, although in this instance the story was confirmed by the email messages released by Trump Jr.
“Remember, when you hear the words ‘sources say’ from the Fake Media, often times those sources are made up and do not exist,” the president tweeted.
Trump’ s mess a ge s Wednesday represented a shift in strategy. The president remained silent over the weekend as news initially broke about the encounter with the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya.
Trump on Tuesday offered only a brief defense of his son, with spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders reading a statement from the president in which he said Trump Jr. “is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency.”
In an interview before departing Wednesday evening for France, Trump told Reuters that he didn’t know about the meeting “until a couple of days ago when I heard about this.” He also said that he didn’t fault his son for attending. “I think many people would have held that meeting,” he said.
Trump also questioned whether Russian President Vladimir Putin was really pushing for his victory.
“It’s really the one question I wish I would have asked Putin: Were you actually supporting me?” Trump said, referring to their meeting last week on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit.
But Trump insisted that “there was zero coordination” between his campaign and Russia,” adding: “It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Trump Jr. released the email messages after learning that The New York Times had them and was about to publish them. Both Trump Jr. and Veselnitskaya have said in recent days that no actual incriminating information about Clinton was discussed during the meeting and that instead Veselnitskaya brought up U.S. sanctions imposed on Russians accused of human-rights abuses, a topic of great interest to the Kremlin.
In his interview with Hannity on Tuesday night, Trump Jr. acknowledged regret about how he handled the situation. “In retrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently,” he said. “Again, this is before the Russia mania. This is before they were building it up in the press. For me, this was opposition research.”
The president’s attorney, Jay Sekulow, said Wednesday in an interview with NBC’s Today that Trump Jr. did not violate any laws by accepting the meeting. He said the president had not been aware of the meeting and didn’t find out about his son’s email exchange until “very recently.”
Sekulow said the president was not being investigated by Mueller. “I would know a little bit about it. I’m one of the lawyers,” he said on ABC’s Good Morning America.
The Russian government also weighed in Wednesday, insinuating that the U.S. news media was fueling a fake scandal.
“You know, it was with amazement that I learned that a Russian lawyer is being accused of communicating with Trump within Trump’s jurisdiction,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Brussels at a news conference with his Belgian counterpart. “What kind of a problem, what threat could
this constitute for anyone?”
“It’s amazing how serious people are making a mountain out of a molehill, even though there may be no molehill in the first place,” Lavrov added.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, ridiculed the reports as a television spectacle. He called the ongoing investigations into possible collusion “absurd.”
When asked how the publication of correspondence involving the president’s son might affect relations between the U.S. and Russia, Peskov rejected the idea that the Kremlin was aiming to curry favor with Trump.
“Nobody expects concessions to Moscow from President Trump, and Moscow does not expect concessions from Donald Trump, and President Vladimir Putin has never talked about any concessions and has never put the issue this way,” Peskov said.
Trump Jr. released the email messages after learning that The New York Times had them and was about to publish them. Both Trump Jr. and Veselnitskaya have said in recent days that no actual incriminating information about Clinton was discussed during the meeting.
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Trump’s onetime Russian business partner, meanwhile, sought Wednesday to distance himself from reports that linked him to the meeting.
Aras Agalarov, whose name was mentioned in email messages to Trump Jr., insisted he did not know Trump Jr. or the music promoter who set up the 2016 meeting.
Agalarov told a Moscow radio station that it was his son, Emin, a Russian pop star, who developed ties with Trump Jr. when the Agalarov family helped draw Trump’s Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013.
Aras Agalarov denied knowing the music producer, Rob Goldstone, who contacted Trump Jr. to set up the meeting.
“He worked with Emin at some point,” Agalarov said of the British-born publicist.
But Agalarov was mentioned in at least one email exchanged between Trump Jr. and Goldstone. On June 3, 2016, Goldstone wrote that Emin Agalarov wanted to pass along “something very interesting.”
“The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting 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,” Goldstone wrote.
Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, on Wednesday denied any connections between Russian government officials and the Agalarov family. He said the government was not in contact with Aras Agalarov, even though he has been granted many state building contracts and was honored by Putin with the Order of Honor of the Russian Federation.
Agalarov did not directly address why his name appeared in the messages. Instead, he said he believed that Trump’s critics have “made up” allegations that his campaign had potentially improper contacts with Russians during the campaign.
Agalarov suggested that Clinton’s campaign could have been behind the accusations.
Information for this article was contributed by Chad Day, Eric Tucker, David Pitt, Nekesa Mumbi Moody, Julie Bykowicz, Mary Clare Jalonick, Michael Biesecker, Stephen Braun, Ken Thomas, Matthew Daly and Nataliya Vasilyeva of The Associated Press; by Peter Baker and Neil MacFarquhar of The New York Times; and by Natalya Abbakumova, Isaac Stanley- Becker, Brian Murphy and John Wagner of The Washington Post.