Donald Trump Jr has been forced to release damning emails that reveal he eagerly embraced what he was told was a Russian government attempt to damage Hillary Clinton’s election campaign.
The stunning disclosure raised questions over whether campaign laws were broken and why senior Trump associates failed to report a hostile act by a foreign power.
Trump Jr also admitted on Tuesday night that he could have handled the situation better but he had not told his father about meeting a Russian lawyer because “it was a nothing”.
The emails show music promoter Rob Goldstone telling the future US president’s son that “the crown prosecutor of Russia” had offered “to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father”.
British-born Goldstone adds in the exchange of 3 June 2016: “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump.”
Seventeen minutes later, Trump Jr welcomes this with the reply: “If it’s what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer.”
In a later email, Goldstone describes the Russian lawyer they are due to meet, Natalia Veselnitskaya, as a “Russian government attorney”.
Trump Jr agrees, adding that he would probably be accompanied by “Paul Manafort (campaign boss)” and “my brother-in-law,” Jared Kushner, husband of Trump’s daughter Ivanka and now a senior White House adviser.
The formatting of the emails suggests that Trump Jr forwarded the whole chain to Manafort and Kushner before the meeting the three attended with Veselnitskaya at Trump Tower in New York on 9 June.
On Sunday, Trump Jr had said he had asked Manafort and Kushner to attend but not told them what the meeting was about. An associate of Manafort said on Tuesday that the former campaign chairman claims not to have read to the bottom of the chain of emails forwarded to him and Kushner by Trump Jr about the meeting. Jamie Gorelick, an attorney for Jared Kushner, did not respond to questions about whether Kushner read the emails and why he attended the meeting.
Critics seized on the new disclosures to question why three of Trump’s closest advisers were willing to accept such a meeting instead of alerting authorities to interference by a foreign adversary. Special counsel Robert Mueller and the House and Senate intelligence committees are investigating Russian meddling in the election, thought to include stealing Democratic National Committee emails and the use of social-media bots to spread fake news about Clinton.
Trump Jr has offered shifting explanations for the meeting in recent days. In an interview broadcast on conservative Fox News on Tuesday night, he again sought to justify his motives but conceded that he could have handled the situation better.
“In retrospect I probably would have done things a little differently,” he told interviewer Sean Hannity. “Again this is before the Russia mania, this is before they were building this up in the press.
Trump Jr denied that he told his father about the meeting. “It was just a nothing,” he added. “There was nothing to tell. I mean, I wouldn’t have even remembered it until you started scouring through this stuff. It was literally just a wasted 20 minutes, which was a shame.”
Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders read a short statement from the president at the regular White House press briefing. “My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency.”
She then refused to answer several questions on the matter, saying they must be directed to Trump Jr’s legal counsel and outside counsel.
Asked about the president’s reaction to the unfolding drama, Huckabee Sanders replied: “I think the president is, I would say, frustrated with the process, the fact this continues to be an issue and he would love for us to be focused on issues like the economy, healthcare, tax reform, infrastructure.”
‘These emails are explosive’
Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine, a senator from Virginia and member of the foreign relations committee, told MSNBC: “These emails are explosive. This should have set off alarm bells and red lights, and yet what it seemed to do is activate their salivatory glands. This is just wheelbarrows of new evidence for the special counsel and the Senate intelligence committee.”
Trump Jr released the email chain on Tuesday apparently to pre-empt its publication by the New York Times, which, this weekend, first broke the news of his meeting with Veselnitskaya in June last year. Veselnitskaya had promised compromising information about Clinton but apparently failed to deliver.
In a statement posted to Twitter, Trump Jr explained: “To everyone, in order to be totally transparent, I am releasing the entire email chain of my emails with Rob Goldstone about the meeting on June 9, 2016. To put this in context, this occurred before the current Russian fever was in vogue.”
There is no such position as crown prosecutor of Russia, but the most likely candidate would be the long-serving prosecutor general, and a long-standing member of Vladimir Putin’s elite, Yuri Chaika.
Goldstone told the Wall Street Journal his reference to the “crown prosecutor” was meant to mean Veselnitskaya. “It’s a language thing,” he said.
He referred questions from the Guardian to his lawyer.
Trump Jr has given varying reasons for why he accepted the meeting, first claiming it was to discuss American adoptions of Russian children, then acknowledging that he was interested in information about Clinton.
The president’s eldest son denies any wrongdoing and tweeted on Tuesday: “Media and Dems are extremely invested in the Russia story. If this nonsense meeting is all they have after a year, I understand the desperation!”
Goldstone told the Associated Press on Monday he set up the meeting on behalf of a client, pop star Emin Agalarov, the son of a Moscow-based developer, Aras Agalarov, who has close ties to Putin and tried to partner with Trump in a hotel project.
Aras Agalarov worked with Donald Trump to bring the Miss Universe contest to Moscow in 2013. Trump appeared in a music video with Emin Agalarov that featured several Miss Universe contestants.
Goldstone’s 3 June email says the Russian government’s support for Trump is “helped along by Aras and Emin”. He asks if Trump Jr wants to speak to Emin about it directly and proposes: “I can also send this info to your father via Rhona” – presumably Rhona Graff, Donald Trump’s longtime executive assistant – “but it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first.” It is not clear from the emails whether Goldstone did send any of the information to Trump Sr, who has denied all knowledge of the meeting through his lawyer.
Before the publication of Trump Jr’s emails, Veselnitskaya had denied she had gone to the meeting with information about the Clinton campaign. “It’s quite possible that maybe they were looking for such information, they wanted it so badly,” she told NBC, denying that she had any to offer. She also answered “no” when asked if she had ever worked for the Russian government.
Later, Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US, dismissed the significance of the Trump Jr meeting. “I don’t think anything about it and to be honest there are more serious things to be think about in relation to Russia,” he told the Guardian at a US-Russia Business Council farewell reception in Washington.
Trump Jr was at Trump Tower in New York on Tuesday, according to a police officer at the building.
Eric Trump, Donald Jr’s brother, was spotted in the lobby at around 1.30pm with his wife Lara. Asked by the Guardian if he had any comment on his brother’s emails or knew Goldstone himself, Eric Trump did not respond. He then headed quickly to a gold elevator and headed upwards, staring silently ahead.
The revelations around 39-year-old Trump Jr’s involvement is one of the biggest blows yet in the saga of the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia, which the president has dismissed as a “hoax”.
Republicans on Capitol Hill were taken aback but reluctant to weigh in just yet. At least two Republicans on the Senate intelligence committee, Senators John Cornyn and James Lankford, said Trump Jr should testify before the panel, which is overseeing one of three parallel investigations into Russian interference in the US election.
John McCain, a frequent critic of the Trump administration, said there were “many allusions and many stories of meetings and communications”, while noting he expected there was more yet to come.
Richard Burr, the Republican chief of the Senate intelligence committee, said it was “too early to draw any conclusions”.
Burr’s Democratic counterpart, Mark Warner, said it was significant that the emails had been forwarded to Kushner and Manafort.
“They’ve got a lot of explaining to do, because all these denials of any knowledge of Russian government involvement seems to be a gross contradiction here,” Warner told Roll Call.
Some of Trump’s most ardent defenders nonetheless stood by the president. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who competed bitterly against Trump for the Republican nomination, blamed the media for fixating on Russia.
“Russia is a significant adversary,” he told reporters. “Part of the irony of this media obsession with Russia is that the Obama administration began with Hillary Clinton bringing the big reset button with Russia.
Norm Eisen, former ethics czar under President Barack Obama, said: “It’s another significant step forward in the investigation of Trump collusion with Russia because it represents an offer to collude and an acceptance of collusion to harm the campaign of Hillary Clinton and intrude upon our democracy.”
He added: “I believe it’s potentially legally actionable but we need to let the investigation play out. I predict it will not be the last bombshell.”