WASHINGTON — At the White House briefing on Monday, principal deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders faced questions from reporters about a meeting last year between a Russian lawyer with government connections; Donald Trump’s son, Donald Junior; Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and his campaign manager at the time, Paul Manafort. By Donald Junior’s account, the lawyer offered to provide damaging information about Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
Sanders defended the meeting as routine campaign activity.
“The only thing I see inappropriate about the meeting was the people that leaked information on the meeting,” Sanders said.
Trump’s presidency has been haunted by questions about his relationship with Russia. Intelligence officials have blamed the Kremlin for a hacking effort that leaked information from Clinton’s campaign in an effort to boost Trump, but the president has questioned whether Russia was really behind the release of emails from Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Trump has also strongly denied that he or anyone on his team conspired with the Russians.
Some members of Trump’s team did have contact with Russian officials before the president took office. However, the meeting with the lawyer is the first confirmed instance of Trump’s advisers indicating they were open to receiving election aid from Russian sources.
In the briefing on Monday, Sanders argued it is normal for political campaigns and reporters to be open to receiving potentially useful information from a wide variety of sources.
“Look, I’ve been on several campaigns and people call offering information as I know many of you receive similar calls of people offering information,” Sanders said. “Don Junior took a very short meeting from which there was absolutely no follow-up.”
The encounter between Trump’s inner circle and the lawyer was first revealed by the New York Times last weekend. According to the Times, the meeting took place at Trump’s Manhattan skyscraper on June 9, 2016, shortly after he secured the Republican nomination. The participants were Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian attorney who has represented state-owned companies and the daughter of a senior government official, Donald Junior, Kushner, and Manafort. The three were among Trump’s closest advisers during his White House bid. In a follow-up published a day later, the Times reported that Veselnitskaya suggested she had information that could have hurt Clinton’s campaign, citing as its source “three advisers to the White House briefed on the meeting and two others with knowledge of it.”
Donald Junior gave the Times a statement saying Veselnitskaya claimed she had information that “individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Mrs. Clinton.” However, Donald Junior said she simply made “vague” comments and offered “no details or supporting information” before turning the conversation to another issue. Donald Junior said Veselnitskaya focused on the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 U.S. law that blacklists alleged human rights abusers. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to the law by stopping Americans from adopting Russian children.
“It became clear to me that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting,” Donald Junior told the Times.
In a statement to the Times, Veselnitskaya denied the group discussed campaign matters and said she “never acted on behalf of the Russian government.”
At the briefing, Sanders said she doesn’t “know of any other meetings” Donald Junior had with Russians. The chief White House correspondent for CBS News, Major Garrett, noted Trump and his allies have repeatedly denied there were any connections between his campaign team and Russia. Garrett asked Sanders how the news of the meeting with Veselnitskaya can be squared with this “long history of blanket denials.” Sanders responded by denying there was any “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“I think the point that we’ve tried to make every single time … and will continue to make … is that there was simply no collusion that they keep trying to create that there was,” Sanders said.
Kushner is the only one of the participants who has taken an official position in the White House. As a senior adviser to the president, Kushner underwent a security clearance check. During this process, Kushner initially did not disclose meetings with Veselnitskaya, Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, or the head of a Russian bank. Failure to disclose foreign contacts during a security clearance check is a crime and can result in access to classified information being restricted.
Yahoo News asked Sanders if the White House was concerned Kushner initially failed to disclose his meeting with Veselnitskaya and whether the multiple undisclosed contacts with Russians raised questions about his “competence or honesty.” Sanders stressed that the meetings were disclosed in Kushner’s updated paperwork. After Kushner’s meetings with Kislyak and the banker were revealed, his advisers described the omissions as a mistake and said Kushner had notified the F.B.I. and would be revising the documents. Sanders claimed the White House wasn’t worried about the omissions, since Kushner’s original clearance check was “just an incomplete form.”
“All of his foreign contacts were listed in the updated version, not in the original,” Sanders said of Kushner.
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