Trump dictated son’s meeting account, sources say
On the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany last month, President Donald Trump’s advisers discussed how to respond to a new revelation that Trump’s oldest son had met with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign, a disclosure that the advisers knew carried political peril, according to sources close to the president.
The strategy, the advisers agreed, should be for Donald Trump Jr. to release a statement to get ahead of the story. They wanted to be truthful, so their account couldn’t be repudiated later if other details emerged.
But within hours, at the president’s direction, the plan changed, the sources said.
Flying home from Germany on July 8, President Trump personally dictated a statement in which Trump Jr. said he and the Russian lawyer had discussed child adoptions when they met in June 2016, said multiple people with knowledge of the deliberations. The statement, issued to The New York Times as it prepared a story about the June 2016 meeting, emphasized that the subject of the meeting was “not a campaign issue at the time.”
Over the next three days, multiple accounts of the meeting were provided to the media as public pressure mounted, with Trump Jr. ultimately acknowledging that he had accepted the meeting after receiving an email promising damaging information about Hillary Clinton as part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s presidential campaign.
The extent of the president’s personal intervention
in his son’s response, the details of which have not previously been reported, adds to a series of actions that Trump has taken that, the sources say, some advisers fear could place him and some members of his inner circle in legal jeopardy.
As special counsel Robert Mueller investigates potential obstruction of justice as part of his broader probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, the advisers worry that the president’s direct involvement leaves him vulnerable to allegations of a cover-up.
“This was … unnecessary,” said one of the president’s advisers, who like most other people interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. “Now someone can claim he’s the one who attempted to mislead. Somebody can argue the president is saying he doesn’t want you to say the whole truth.”
President Trump has already come under criticism for steps he has taken to challenge the Russia investigation.
He fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9 after a private meeting in which Comey said the president asked him if he could end the investigation of ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats told associates that Trump asked him in March if he could intervene with Comey to get the FBI to back off its focus on Flynn. In addition, Trump has criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing the FBI’s Russian investigation.
Although misleading the public or the media is not a crime, advisers to Trump and his family told The Washington Post that they fear that any indication that the president was seeking to hide information about contacts between his campaign and
Russians would draw additional scrutiny from Mueller.
President Trump, they say, is increasingly acting as his own lawyer, strategist and publicist, often disregarding the recommendations of the professionals he has hired to advise him.
“He refuses to sit still,” one presidential adviser said. “He doesn’t think he’s in any legal jeopardy, so he really views this as a political problem he is going to solve by himself.”
Because President Trump believes he is innocent, some advisers explained, he does not think he is at any legal risk regarding a possible cover-up.
The White House directed all questions for this article to the president’s legal team.
One of Trump’s attorneys, Jay Sekulow, declined to discuss the specifics of the president’s actions and his role in crafting his son’s statement about the Russian contact. Sekulow issued a one-sentence statement in response to a list of detailed questions from the Post.
“Apart from being of no consequence, the characterizations are misinformed, inaccurate, and not pertinent,” Sekulow’s statement read.
Trump Jr. did not respond to requests for comment. His lawyer, Alan Futerfas, told the Post that he and his client “were fully prepared and absolutely prepared to make a fulsome statement” about the meeting, what led up to it and what was discussed.
Asked about President Trump intervening, Futerfas said, “I have no evidence to support that theory.” He described the process of drafting a statement as “a communal situation that involved communications people and various lawyers.”
THE PLANE RIDE HOME
The discussion about how to deal with the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting began weeks before any news organizations began to ask questions about it, sources said.
Presidential adviser Jared Kushner’s legal team first learned about the meeting
when doing research to respond to congressional requests for information. Congressional investigators wanted to know about any contacts the president’s sonin-law and senior adviser had with Russian officials or business people.
A string of emails showed that Kushner attended a meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in the midst of the campaign — one he had failed to disclose. Trump Jr. had arranged it, and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort had also attended it.
To compound the issue, the emails, which had not yet surfaced publicly, showed Trump Jr. responding to the prospect of negative information on Clinton from Russia with: “I love it.”
Lawyers and advisers for the president, his son and son-in-law gamed out various strategies for disclosing the information to try to minimize the fallout of the new links between the Trump family and Russia, according to people familiar with the deliberations.
Hope Hicks, the White House director of strategic communications, and Josh Raffel, a White House spokesman who works closely with Kushner and Ivanka Trump, huddled with Kushner’s lawyers, and they advocated for a more transparent approach, according to people with knowledge of the
In one scenario, these people said, Kushner’s team talked about sharing everything, including the contents of the emails, with a mainstream news organization.
Hicks and Raffel declined to comment. Kushner lawyer Abbe Lowell also declined to comment.
Then The New York Times began asking about the Trump Tower meeting, although advisers believed that the newspaper knew few of the details. While the president, Kushner and Ivanka Trump were attending the G-20 summit, the Times asked for White House comment on the impetus and reason for the meeting.
During breaks away from the summit, Kushner and Ivanka Trump gathered with Hicks and Raffel to discuss Kushner’s response to the inquiry, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. Kushner’s legal team joined in at times by phone.
Hicks also spoke by phone with Trump Jr. Again, say people familiar with the conversations, Kushner’s team concluded that the best strategy would be to err on the side of transparency because they believed the complete story would eventually emerge.
The discussions among President Trump’s advisers consumed much of the day and continued as they prepared
to board Air Force One that evening for the flight home.
But before everyone boarded the plane, President Trump had overruled the consensus, according to people with knowledge of the events.
It remains unclear exactly how much the president knew at the time of the flight about Trump Jr.’s meeting.
The president directed that Trump Jr.’s statement to the Times describe the meeting as unimportant. He wanted the statement to say that the meeting had been initiated by the Russian lawyer and primarily was about her pet issue — the adoption of Russian children.
Air Force One took off from Germany shortly after 6 p.m., about noon in Washington. In a forward cabin, President Trump was busy working on his son’s statement, according to people with knowledge of events. The president dictated the statement to Hicks, who served as a go-between with Trump Jr., who was not on the plane, sharing edits between the two men, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.
In the early afternoon, Eastern time, Trump Jr.’s team put out the statement to the Times. It was four sentences long, describing the encounter as a “short, introductory meeting.”
Over the next hour, word spread through emails and calls to other Trump family advisers and lawyers about the statement that Trump Jr. had sent to the Times.
Some lawyers for the president and for Kushner were surprised and frustrated, advisers later learned. According to people briefed on the dispute, some lawyers tried to reach Futerfas and their clients, and began asking why the president had been involved. Information for this article was contributed by Alice Crites of The Washington Post.