I’m not a lawyer, but I play one in congressional hearings.
Earlier this week, Donald Trump’s lawyer argued it doesn’t matter that his client may have obstructed justice on 19 occasions, because as the nation’s top law-enforcement officer, the president is incapable of obstructing justice. Many legal experts disagreed with this assertion, yet on Wednesday the Trump team decided to try out another creative legal claim.
During a full day of closed-door testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Donald Trump Jr. refused to discuss a phone call he had with his father in July after news broke that he and other Trump officials met with Kremlin-connected individuals in June 2016. Though neither he nor his father are lawyers, Trump Jr. said the conversation was protected by attorney-client privilege because their attorneys were on the call.
“I don’t believe you can shield communications between individuals merely by having an attorney present,” said Representative Adam Schiff, the committee’s top Democrat, on Wednesday evening. “That’s not the purpose of attorney-client privilege.”
Trump Jr. did discuss conversations about how to respond to the New York Times story, but he disputed reports that the president crafted his initial misleading statement about the meeting. He said he spoke about the statement with only with Hope Hicks, who is now White House communications director, as they were flying back from Germany on Air Force One.
The original statement suggested the meeting was primarily about the adoption of Russian children by Americans (which means Russia sanctions). The statement was revised multiple times, and later Trump Jr. posted emails that revealed he’d taken the meeting after a Russian associate promised incriminating information about Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Earlier this week Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Trump Jr. asked if she had evidence of illegal donations to the Clinton Foundation. She said when it became clear that she did not have damaging information about Clinton, Trump Jr. seemed to lose interest.
Trump Jr. said he hadn’t told his father about the meeting when it took place, or let him know that he was exchanging Twitter DMs with WikiLeaks.
Emails show that just before the Russia meeting, which was set up by a publicist linked to Russian real-estate mogul Aras Agalarov, Trump Jr. had two brief phone calls with Agalarov’s son Emin. In between he placed or received a call to another person whose number was blocked. Trump Jr. said he couldn’t recall who he talked to.
Representative Jackie Speier told CNN that she found him “pretty nonresponsive” throughout the day. “My takeaway is he has a very serious case of amnesia,” Speier said.
“He was pretty nonresponsive on a lot of issues that, frankly, you would have a recollection of, considering it was just a year ago that many of these events took place when Donald Trump was the candidate,” Speier added. “He was by his father’s side; he was campaigning with his father. And you get the impression in listening to him that he didn’t spend much time talking to his father.”
Representative Eric Swalwell agreed with Speier’s assessment, and said Democrats plan to challenge Trump Jr.’s lawyer on his claim that attorney-client privilege applied. But they may not get the chance, as “it’s up to the Republicans whether or not to call him back,” according to Swalwell.
Republicans said they felt Trump Jr. was forthcoming. “A lot of questions were asked and answered, and from my perspective all of our questions were answered,” said Representative Mike Conaway, the Republican leading the committee’s Russia investigation.