WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans sought to deflect, dodge and downplay questions on Tuesday about Donald Trump Jr.’s decision during the 2016 campaign to meet with a “Russian government attorney” to discuss damaging information about then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Some lawmakers said Trump Jr.’s session with the Russian lawyer was due to his political inexperience, and it did not necessarily signal collusion with the Russian government. Others said they didn’t want to comment, given the FBI and congressional probes into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
A few — mostly those GOP lawmakers who have already been critical of the Trump administration — said Trump Jr.’s meeting, and the emails he disclosed showing how that Trump Tower huddle came about, were problematic.
The June 2016 email to Trump Jr. promised that a meeting with a “Russian government attorney" would provide documents that “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”
“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” the email continued. Trump Jr. agreed to the meeting and said: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
The email chain also shows that Trump Jr. forwarded the emails to then-campaign manager Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and a top adviser.
Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Trump Jr.’s actions were “naïve,” though perhaps Manafort should have known better.
Blunt said he would like Trump Jr. to come before the Intelligence panel and explain “what that meeting was all about and why you would go.”
Asked whether he thought the president's son had engaged in any illegal behavior, Blunt said, “I don’t know that. I mean it may be that on his part the level of being relatively naïve about politics and personal exposure to things that are hard to explain. Harder for Paul Manafort to say that he was naïve I think. So we’ll see.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he believes the media was overreacting to news of the emails.
"I think this is overblown," Hatch said. Trump Jr. is "not part of the administration, he doesn't carry any banner he doesn't have any particular job in the administration" which reduces the significance of the disclosures.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was asked by reporters four times some variation of whether he had concerns about the meeting or if it affected his relationship with the Trump Administration related to Russia. Each time he said some version of: "The investigation in the Senate is being handled by the Intelligence Committee and I’m sure they’ll get to the bottom of whatever may have happened.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said he would defer to others to make a judgment on the matter.
“We have a committee looking at that … I’m sure they’ll get to the bottom of it, and we have a special counsel as well,” Flake said. Asked what he would do if someone offered him damaging information about an opponent from the Russian government during his campaign he responded: “From the Russian government? I’d go the other way.”
"The president fired the FBI director. He didn't fire the FBI he didn't fire the Senate Intelligence Committee," said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. "The FBI is going to get to the bottom of this. What it'll find is Russia tried to interfere in our election, duh. They've been doing it for decades."
But Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., normally an ally of President Trump’s, had some harsh words for the administration on Twitter.
"I'm not confident of anything. More shoes will drop ... it's a classic scandal,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters. McCain, who has no problem criticizing the president, frequently says that shoes will continue to drop during the investigation.
But Democrats went much further, with some accusing the Trump campaign of colluding with a foreign government.
“Based on the emails that Donald Trump, Jr., released, the highest levels of the Trump campaign walked, eyes open, into a meeting designed to advance the Russian government’s support for Donald Trump," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee which is investigating Russian interference in the election. "These emails show there is no longer a question of whether this campaign sought to collude with a hostile foreign power to subvert America’s democracy. The question is how far the coordination goes.”
"This is the first time the public has seen clear evidence of the organized Russian effort today. It's an acknowledgement — black and white — that this was the crown prosecutor of Russia, part of a Russian government effort to try to discredit Clinton and help Trump,” said Sen. Mark Warner, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Asked if he had seen the emails previously and he said “I’m not gonna share what we’ve had and when we’ve had it.”
“So all of these denials that we have heard during the transition from the administration that there were no contacts with the Russians, no discussions about the campaign are all patently false,” he continued. “There are no excuses for what we've seen the last 24 hours.”
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, knocked his Republicans colleagues for their responses to the new information.