There isn’t really a good way to tell the world that you took a meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer after being promised dirt on Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” But Donald Trump Jr. made the revelation that he met with attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya during the campaign even worse when he offered two contradictory explanations in a 24-hour period.
We previously learned that the initial statement, which claimed the meeting concerned “the adoption of Russian children,” was crafted aboard Air Force One and approved by the president. On Monday, the Washington Post reported that President Trump actually dictated the statement himself, which raises new questions about his attempts to cover up his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia.
Weeks before the story broke on July 8, lawyers representing Jared Kushner discovered the email chain in which Trump Jr. invited him to the meeting. Kushner, his wife Ivanka Trump, and the president were in Germany for the G-20 summit when the New York Times began asking questions about the meeting. According to the Post, there was a flurry of discussion among top Trump aides on how to respond:
Hope Hicks, the White House director of strategic communications and one of the president’s most trusted and loyal aides, and Josh Raffel, a White House spokesman who works closely with Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, huddled with Kushner’s lawyers, and they advocated for a more transparent approach, according to people with knowledge of the conversations.
But President Trump overruled that plan while the group traveled home aboard Air Force One, and crafted a statement that suggested the meeting was unimportant:
Air Force One took off from Germany shortly after 6 p.m. — about noon in Washington. In a forward cabin, 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.
This is what he came up with:
It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up.
I was asked to attend the meeting by an acquaintance, but was not told the name of the person I would be meeting with beforehand.
That explanation would be contradicted and expanded multiple times (eventually it was reported that eight people were in the meeting). And if the Post report is correct, President Trump’s personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, lied to the press on more than one occasion. He said on Meet the Press, “I do want to be clear — that the president was not involved in the drafting of the statement and did not issue the statement.”
In response to the Post report, Sekulow said, “Apart from being of no consequence, the characterizations are misinformed, inaccurate, and not pertinent.”
Of course, lying to the media isn’t a crime, but any cover-up attempts by the president are of interest to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Last week, Mueller sent a notice asking the White House to preserve documents related to the June 2016 meeting, as well as “any decisions made regarding the recent disclosures about the June 2016 meeting.”
Trump advisors said the president has been disregarding experts’ advice on how to handle the Russia probe because he’s convinced that he’s innocent.
“The thing that really strikes me about this is the stupidity of involving the president,” said Peter Zeidenberg, the deputy special prosecutor who probed the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity. “They are still treating this like a family-run business and they have a PR problem … What they don’t seem to understand is this is a criminal investigation involving all of them.”
It seems that, like his father-in-law, Kushner may not fully understand the trouble the family is in. Foreign Policy reported that during a talk with congressional interns on Monday, he assured them that the Trump operation was not coordinated enough to conspire with Russia.
“They thought we colluded, but we couldn’t even collude with our local offices,” Kushner said.
As Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall pointed out, foreign-intelligence agencies try to make collusion as easy as possible:
They actually consider a failure to understand the implications of taking shady meetings a plus.