WASHINGTON – The White House acknowledged Tuesday that President Trump worked on a disputed statement about his son's meeting with a Russian lawyer, in an apparent break with comments made by the lawyers defending the president in the Russia investigation.
"The president weighed – in as any father would – based on the limited information that he had," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
Sanders was referring to a statement Donald Trump Jr. gave on July 8 about a meeting that is now a subject of various investigations into Russia's involvement in the presidential election.
The Washington Post reported on Monday that Trump personally dictated the statement about Trump Jr.'s June 2016 meeting with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, which said the meeting had to do with the adoption of Russian babies – and was not a campaign issue.
That initial statement, which was originally provided to The New York Times as it prepared a story on the previously undisclosed meeting, was later proved to be incomplete and misleading.
Trump Jr. himself released email correspondence showing that he arranged the meeting in the hopes of obtaining potentially damaging information about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton – even after he was told it would be provided by the Russian government.
Yet Sanders said "the statement that Don Jr. issued is true, there's no inaccuracy in the statement" – even though it omitted those facts.
Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigators are now looking into the Trump Tower meeting, which was also attended by Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, as part of the probe into possible collusion between Trump associates and Russians seeking to influence the presidential election.
Soon after Trump Jr. released his emails, Trump attorney Jay Sekulow and other aides said Trump had nothing to do with the statement issued in his son's name.
"I do want to be clear, the president was not involved in the drafting of the statement and did not issue the statement," Sekulow said on NBC's Meet the Press on July 16. "It came from Donald Trump Jr."
And John Dowd, the lead attorney for Trump’s outside legal team, on Tuesday characterized the report of Trump’s involvement in crafting his son’s statement as “crap.’’ As Dowd put it: “It is of no consequence. We can back it up if we have to.’’
Dowd declined to elaborate, referring to a statement attorney Sekulow provided to the Post. “Apart from being of no consequence, the characterizations are misinformed, inaccurate and not pertinent,’’ that statement said. Dowd said Trump's legal team stood by Sekulow's statement.
Sanders on Tuesday insisted that while the president was involved with the statement, he did not dictate it. She also insisted that the meeting was "without consequence."
"There was no follow up," she said. "It was disclosed to the proper parties, which is how The New York Times found out about it to begin with."
Both Trump Jr. and Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer, said they spoke only about sanctions on Russia that led to a freeze on adoptions – and not anything to do with Clinton.
Yet Trump's actions in response to the Russia probe are already under scrutiny by investigators, and the latest revelations only add to the controversy.
The Post reported that Trump's advisers wanted to provide a full statement about the Trump Tower meeting in order to be transparent – but Trump directed a different response while on board Air Force One returning from the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.
Mueller and various congressional committees are investigating Russian efforts to influence the election by hacking Democrats close to the election, and whether there were any links to Trump's campaigns.
Trump's firing of former FBI director James Comey in May and recent tweets criticizing his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have also raised questions about whether the president was trying to obstruct or wrest control over the federal Russia investigation.
Richard Painter, chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, said Trump could face legal exposure if he was involved in the drafting of the statement.
"Knowingly drafting a false statement for a person who is a witness in a criminal investigation is itself a crime," tweeted Painter, who is now vice chairman of the group Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "Obstruction of justice."
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on Twitter the Post report, if true, shows "a troubling willingness" and "intention to mislead" on the part of Trump.
In remarks Monday to a group of congressional interns, Kushner said the Trump campaign was too disorganized to be involved in any collusion with Russia.
According to a tape of the off-the-record event obtained by Foreign Policy, Kushner said, "we couldn't even collude with our local offices."