US President Donald Trump admitted Sunday that his son met with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower in 2016 “to get information on an opponent” but defended it as “totally legal.”
It was Trump’s most direct acknowledgement that the motive for the June 2016 meeting was to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival for the presidency.
As he has in the past, Trump insisted in a tweet that he did not know at the time about the meeting between his son Donald Jr and Natalia Veselnitskaya, a lawyer with links to the Kremlin.
“This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics - and it went nowhere. I did not know about it!”
The meeting has come under intense scrutiny from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating whether members of the Trump campaign coordinated with a Russian effort to sway the 2016 election in the Republican’s favour.
The president’s tweet about the meeting was one in a thread in which he reiterated criticism of Mueller, calling his probe “the most one sided Witch Hunt in the history of our country” peppered with “lies and corruption.”
The Washington Post reported Sunday that Trump has been brooding in private about whether his son unintentionally put himself in legal jeopardy by meeting with Veselnitskaya.
Trump called The Post report “a complete fabrication.”
The Trump Tower meeting was arranged by British music promoter Rob Goldstone, who told Donald Jr that he had “information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”
Young Trump responded “I love it” when first offered the “dirt” on Clinton, the Democratic nominee.
News of the meeting, which Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and top campaign official Paul Manafort also attended, broke in July 2017.
Donald Jr initially said in a statement to The New York Times that the meeting was “primarily” about American adoptions of Russian children.
He later admitted he accepted the meeting with Veselnitskaya in hopes of obtaining damaging information on Clinton, but said nothing came of it.
The Post had reported that the statement to The Times was dictated by the president, though at the time Trump’s lawyers denied his involvement.
They later reversed course in a memo to Mueller and said Trump was indeed behind the statement that omitted the prospect of collecting dirt on Clinton.
Lawyers described the statement as “short but accurate,” according to the Post.
Asked on Sunday why he had denied the president’s involvement, one of Trump’s lawyers Jay Sekulow told ABC that he had “bad information at that point”.
“I made a mistake in my statement,” he said. “That happens when you have cases like this.”
The president’s lawyers argue that the meeting, in and of itself, violated no laws.
“The question is how will it be illegal?” Sekulow said Sunday.
“What law, statute, rule or regulation has been violated?”
Stern on sanctions
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed Sunday that the United States would “enforce the sanctions” it is reimposing against Iran after Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear pact.
As of Tuesday, the Iran government can no longer buy US banknotes and broad sanctions will be slapped on Iranian industries, including its rug exports.
Asked if Tehran would be able to evade the measures, Pompeo told journalists “the United States is going to enforce the sanctions,” speaking en route to Washington after attending a security forum in Singapore.
Pompeo said heaping pressure on Tehran was meant to “push back against Iranian malign activity,” saying Iranians “are unhappy with the failure of their own leadership to deliver the economic promises that their leadership promised them”.
“The Iranian people are not happy, not with the Americans but with their own leadership,” he said.
“This is just about Iranians’ dissatisfaction with their own government, and the President is pretty clear, we want the Iranian people to have a strong voice in who their leadership will be.”
The US walked out of the 2015 nuclear deal in May and is bringing back “maximum pressure” sanctions for most sectors on August 6, and the energy sector on November 4.