The White House mounted a counteroffensive Monday to fight off allegations that a meeting between Trump campaign officials, including President Trump’s eldest son, and a Russian attorney last year may have been part of an effort to collude with the Kremlin to defeat Hillary Clinton.
“The president’s campaign did not collude in any way,” Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told a press briefing. “Don Jr. did not collude with anybody to influence the election. Our position is that no one within the Trump campaign colluded in order to influence the election,” Sanders said.
The denial followed news, first reported by The New York Times, that Trump Jr. went to a meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya last June, expecting to be given information that might damage Clinton’s campaign.
Trump Jr. has first contact
The meeting, apparently the first contact between senior Trump campaign officials and Russian interests during the campaign, came two weeks after Trump won the Republican presidential nomination, and weeks before Wikileaks began releasing emails embarrassing to Clinton.
The White House counteroffensive also included several network television appearances by senior officials. Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway told a television interviewer Monday (ABC’s Good Morning America) that the brief meeting produced “no information that was meaningful or helpful” in the campaign.
When pressed about whether the meeting might at least be at minimum an attempt at collusion, Conway said, “Are you saying there’s evidence of collusion? Because everybody is trying to convert wishful thinking into hard evidence, and they haven’t been able to do that,” she said.
Chief of Staff Reince Priebus earlier called the collusion allegation a “nothingburger.” Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Trump’s legal team, said in a statement Sunday that “the president was not aware of and did not attend the meeting.”
Democrats call for probe
The denials did little to calm opposition Democrats, who say the meeting should be thoroughly investigated, along with several other contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians officials. Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he “absolutely” wants to talk to Donald Trump Jr. about his conversation with Veselnitskaya.
“What continues to bother me is that this pattern, and I think we’re up to 20-plus examples, of where senior-level Trump officials, and even you could argue the president himself, continues to deny that they’ve had any kind of contacts with Russians until the proof comes out that there were contacts, multiple contacts, and then these senior officials recant or amend their filings,” Warner said.
Senate and House Intel committees are both conducting independent investigations that cover the issue of collusion.
Trump Jr. takes to Twitter
Donald Trump Jr., in a Twitter post Monday, said he would be “happy to work with the committee to pass on what I know.”
A day earlier, he said that he, his father’s then-campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, met with Veselnitskaya thinking she might have information that could help their campaign.
But the president’s son said, “No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”
‘Too many coincidences’
Boston University Professor Thomas Whalen, the author of several books on the presidency, says the sheer number of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians is enough to raise warning flags.
“There are too many coincidences here. There are a lot of nothingburgers being put on the grill,” Whalen said. “It seems like every member of the Trump campaign staff had some sort of liaison or meeting with a Russian official. Why?”
Schumer sounds off
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer underlined the point that U.S. intelligence agencies unanimously concluded that Russian meddling in the presidential election was directed at the highest level.
“The president of Russia deliberately interfered in our elections and sought to undermine our democracy,” Schumer said. “That’s not Democrats making it up, that’s 17 intelligence agencies, men and women, many of them who risk their lives for us every day, people we look up to, people we admire, they’re the ones who said there was interference.”
The Kremlin said Monday it was unaware of the Trump/Veselnitskaya meeting. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin does not know Veselnitskaya, and “cannot keep track” of every Russian lawyer and their contacts overseas.
Veselnitskaya is known for her attempts to undercut sanctions against Russian human-rights abusers, U.S. media reports said. Her clients reportedly include state-owned businesses and the son of a senior government official whose company was under investigation in the United States at the time of the meeting.