New York Times
WASHINGTON — President Trump said Sunday that a Trump Tower meeting between top campaign aides and a Kremlin-connected lawyer was designed to “get information on an opponent” — the starkest acknowledgment yet that a statement he dictated about the encounter last year was misleading.
Trump made the comment in a tweet Sunday morning that was intended to be a defense of the June 2016 meeting, and his son Donald Trump Jr.’s role in hosting it. The president claimed that it was “totally legal” and of the sort “done all the time in politics.”
But the Twitter message also served as an admission that the Trump team had not been forthright when Trump Jr. issued a statement in July 2017 saying that the meeting had been primarily about the adoption of Russian children.
Trump Jr. made the statement after The New York Times revealed the existence of the meeting.
A few days later, Trump posted a tweet similar to the one he wrote Sunday morning: “Most politicians would have gone to a meeting like the one Don Jr. attended in order to get info on an opponent. That’s politics!”
But his administration at the time was sticking to the adoption storyline, with his press secretary, Sean Spicer, saying later that day there was no evidence that anything but that topic had been discussed during the meeting.
Although the president tried again Sunday to portray the meeting as routine, it is a key focus of the investigation by the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
Mueller is looking into whether the president’s campaign worked with Russians to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump or his associates obstructed justice by lying about their activities.
It is illegal for a campaign to accept help from a foreign individual or government. Candidates also are prohibited from receiving donations or items of value from foreigners.
Trump’s tweet Sunday was one in a series in which he renewed his attacks on Mueller, saying his inquiry was riddled with “lies and corruption.”
The president denied a report in The Washington Post that he was worried about the legal exposure for Trump Jr., who had been promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton before agreeing to hold the meeting with the Russian lawyer.
While Trump said the meeting was legal, he also distanced himself from it, repeating his assertion that he knew nothing about it at the time.
‘‘Fake news reporting, a complete fabrication — that I am concerned about the meeting my wonderful son, Donald, had in Trump Tower,’’ Trump wrote. ‘‘This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics — and it went nowhere. I did not know about it!’’
The meeting’s true purpose was revealed when The Times published e-mails between Trump Jr. and Rob Goldstone, a British-born former tabloid reporter and entertainment publicist who helped arrange it.
Numerous White House aides and lawyers for the president aggressively denied at the time that the president had been involved in drafting the misleading statement.
Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s lawyers, said in 2017 that “the president was not involved in the drafting of that statement.” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the current press secretary, insisted that the president “certainly didn’t dictate” the statement.
But the Post reported in July 2017 that Trump had in fact done so. And earlier this year, Trump’s lawyers acknowledged in a memo to Mueller that the president had dictated the statement.
On Sunday, Sekulow admitted that his earlier statement had been erroneous, saying on ABC News’ “This Week” that “I had bad information at that time and made a mistake in my statement.”
In the interview, Sekulow said it was not clear what laws the president’s son and the other campaign officials at the Trump Tower meeting might have violated when they met with the Kremlin-connected lawyer.
“Well, the question is, how would it be illegal?” Sekulow said. “The question is, what law, statute, or rule or regulation’s been violated? Nobody’s pointed to one.”
The president and his legal advisers have in recent weeks ratcheted up their attacks on Mueller personally. In other tweets Sunday, Trump again called the inquiry a “rigged witch hunt” and singled out Mueller by name — a step he had avoided until recently.
“Why aren’t Mueller and the 17 angry Democrats looking at the meetings concerning the fake dossier and all of the lying that went on in the FBI and DOJ?” Trump said, once again attacking his own law enforcement agencies.
“This is the most one-sided witch hunt in the history of our country. Fortunately, the facts are all coming out, and fast!” he added.
Sekulow echoed the president in the interview Sunday. Asked about the Trump Tower meeting, he repeatedly steered his answers back to attacks on Mueller’s investigation.
“Let’s be honest with the American people. There are irregularities in this investigation the likes of which we have not seen,” Sekulow said.
A decision about whether Trump agrees to be interviewed by Mueller may occur in the coming weeks, according to another one of his attorneys, Rudy Giuliani.
Trump has seethed about what he considers bogus charges against his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, whose first federal trial began last week in Virginia.
Trump has also raged lately about the status of Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and fixer, who is under federal investigation in New York. Cohen has indicated that he would tell prosecutors that Trump knew about the Trump Tower meeting with Russians ahead of time.
The president last week again described Russian election meddling as a “hoax,” even as his national security team warned against future Russian interference.
And at three rallies, Trump escalated his criticism of the media, complaining about what he sees as unflattering and biased coverage.
‘‘The fake news hates me saying that they are the enemy of the people only because they know it’s true,’’ Trump tweeted Sunday. ‘‘I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American people. They purposely cause great division and distrust. They can also cause war! They are very dangerous and sick!’’