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White House Mounts Counteroffensive Against Fresh Russia Collusion Allegations

  • Peter Heinlein
  • Ken Bredemeier

Donald Trump Jr. speaks as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens during a campaign stop in Indianapolis, April 27, 2016.

The New York Times reported late Monday that the man who set up a meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian attorney last year indicated in an email to Trump that the Russian government was the source of information that might hurt Hillary Clinton's campaign for president.

The Times said its story was based on information from three people with knowledge of the email, and that the message from publicist Rob Goldstone told Trump that the material was part of a Russian government effort to help his father, Donald Trump, defeat Clinton.

The meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya last June, 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.

Alan Futerfas, a lawyer for Donald Trump Jr., dismissed the Times story as "much ado about nothing."

Earlier Monday, the White House mounted a counteroffensive to fight off allegations that the meeting, which also included President Trump's son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, and his then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, was part of an effort to collude with the Kremlin.

"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.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway is interviewed by Howard Kurtz during a taping of his "MediaBuzz" program on the Fox News Channel in New York, March 10, 2017.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway is interviewed by Howard Kurtz during a taping of his "MediaBuzz" program on the Fox News Channel in New York, March 10, 2017.

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."

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va, leaves the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 3, 2017.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va, leaves the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 3, 2017.

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.

FILE - In this photo taken on Nov. 8, 2016, Kremlin-linked lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya speaks to a journalist in Moscow.
FILE - In this photo taken on Nov. 8, 2016, Kremlin-linked lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya speaks to a journalist in Moscow.

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, Manafort and 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?"

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 28, 2017.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 28, 2017.

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.

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