NEW YORK CITY — The team led by special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into President Trump’s role in drafting the statement his son, Donald Trump Jr., gave in response to news that he met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer last June during the presidential campaign, NBC News reported.
Mueller is spearheading the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to tilt the 2016 election in Trump’s favour.
News of Trump Jr.’s meeting with the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, first emerged on July 8.
Trump Jr.’s statement, published that month after The New York Times first reported that the meeting took place, said that he and Veselnitskaya “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children” and that the subject of conversation was “not a campaign issue at the time.”
But that characterization evolved over the next few days, with Trump Jr. ultimately publishing his email correspondences with the British music publicist who organised the meeting. The email chain confirmed reports that Trump Jr. had agreed to the meeting after he was told Veselnitskaya was offering damaging information about then candidate Hillary Clinton. The meeting, Trump Jr. was told, was being arranged “as part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” to which Trump Jr. replied, “I love it.”
President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Trump’s campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort, also attended the meeting. It eventually emerged that the meeting also included Rinat Akhmetshin, a former Soviet military intelligence officer; Anatoli Samachornov, a Russian translator; Rob Goldstone, the British music publicist who arranged the meeting at the request of Aras Agalarov, a wealthy Russian developer, and his son Emin; and Ike Kaveladze, a senior vice president at Crocus Group, Aras Agalarov’s real-estate company.
Trump’s lawyers initially said he was not involved and did not know about the meeting. A few weeks later, however, The Washington Post reported that Trump had “dictated” Trump Jr.’s initial misleading statement about it.
When news of the meeting broke, a group of Trump’s advisers reportedly agreed that the White House should release a truthful statement that could not be repudiated if more details surfaced later.
But Trump overruled the advisers and “personally dictated” the statement that was eventually published, according to The Post. The statement was then crafted aboard Air Force One as Trump returned from the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.
NBC News reported on Monday that in light of those revelations, prosecutors on Mueller’s team are “keenly focused” on finding out what Trump knew about the meeting and whether he acted to conceal its purpose.
A source familiar with Mueller’s thinking told NBC News that investigators are looking into whether Trump made a “knowingly false statement” when he crafted his son’s response to the Times’ story about his meeting with Veselnitskaya last June.
Renato Mariotti, a former assistant US attorney and longtime federal prosecutor, noted that one possibility behind the special counsel’s scrutiny is that legally, “helping to conceal a conspiracy is an act in furtherance of a conspiracy.”
The president’s advisers have acknowledged his vulnerability. “This was…unnecessary,” one aide told The Post, referring to Trump’s direct involvement in drafting Trump Jr.’s statement. “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.”
But “even if Trump is not charged with a crime as a result of the statement, it could be useful to Mueller’s team to show Trump’s conduct to a jury that may be considering other charges,” a source told NBC News.
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