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What we know—and what we don’t—about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer

July 14, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
President Donald Trump returned Friday from Paris to new questions about whether his campaign sought damaging information on Hillary Clinton from Russia. Among the uncertainties: How many people were at a June 2016 meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and Russian officials at Trump Tower? And when did the president know? John Yang reports. Then, Judy Woodruff gets the latest from the AP’s Julie Pace.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The week is ending the way it began, with new disclosures about the president’s son and his meeting with a Russian lawyer.

It turns out at least one more person was at that session than previously known.

John Yang begins our coverage.

JOHN YANG: President Trump returned from his quick Paris trip to face new questions about whether his campaign sought damaging information on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government.

Among the uncertainties? How many people were at the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower? Today, a new name emerged, Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-born Washington lobbyist and Soviet army veteran. He met with Donald Trump Jr., Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, music promoter Rob Goldstone, an acquaintance of the younger Trump who helped set up the session, and an interpreter.

Donald Trump Jr. had not disclosed the additional people.

SEAN HANNITY, Host, “Hannity”: So, as far as you know, as far as this incident is concerned, this is all of it?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP JR., Son of Donald Trump: This is everything. This is everything.

JOHN YANG: It’s also not clear just when President Trump was told of the meeting. This week, he told Reuters that he had only learned of it just two or three days before that.

But aboard Air Force One on his way to Paris, the told reporters, in fact, maybe it was mentioned at some point.

Kushner has revised his security clearance disclosure form at least three times to add as many of 100 more foreign contacts. That’s drawing the ire of Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif., Minority Leader: I also called for the revoking of the security clearance of Jared Kushner. It’s absolutely ridiculous that he should have that clearance.

JOHN YANG: And Mr. Trump is adding to his legal team. Washington attorney Ty Cobb becomes special counsel to the president and will oversee the legal and media response to the Russia investigation.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m John Yang.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more, we’re now joined by Julie Pace. She’s the Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press, and she took part in a phone conversation with Rinat Akhmetshin earlier today.

Julie, thank you very much for talking with us.

So, Julie, what is known about Rinat Akhmetshin?

JULIE PACE, Associated Press: Well, Rinat is a person who is actually fairly well-known in Washington.

He’s a lobbyist who has worked on issues with ties to Russia, a bit of a character, a bit of a fixer on these types of issues, not this sort of backroom, shady character who doesn’t have a profile.

If you work in these circles in Washington, he’s probably someone that you have run in to. He’s been on Capitol Hill before. But, despite that, it is certainly unique that he would end up in a conference room at Trump Tower in the middle of a presidential campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I heard the word fixer associated with his name.

Why is his name surfacing only now? We learned about this meeting days ago.

JULIE PACE: That is the perfect question on this, why now? Why is it that we have had so many different explanations about the purpose of this meeting and the participants of this meeting?

It’s kind of baffling if you’re thinking about this from a political strategy. This is sort of politics 101, that if you are in a crisis, if there is something controversial that’s happened, it’s best to get all of the information out. Take the hit in one lump, as opposed to dripping that out, in this case, over the course of a week.

So, there has been no explanation as to why we’re just finding out that he was a participant, other than the fact that he was willing to get on the phone with us today and disclose this information and talk to us at some length.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it sounds like now he is talking to the press. Is there anything more to be learned about this meeting than what’s already said?

JULIE PACE: I think there is.

The big thing that all of the participants have said is that in the end, nothing came out of this meeting. One of the things that Rinat told us today, though, is that the Russian lawyer who was in the meeting actually showed up with some documents in hand, and they were in a plastic folder.

He professed to not know the content of those documents. I think that that’s one question that we need to answer. What were those documents, who were they specifically given to, who took them out of the room?

But, more broadly, I think that it’s worth pressing participants in this meeting about whether anything did come out of this. Given the fact that the explanations have changed so much, I really don’t think we should be taking explanations on face value at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Julie, there’s also this question now — and we heard it mentioned in the report — when President Trump himself learned about the meeting. Initially, it was that he had just learned about it a few days ago, but then I guess he said something different in that conversation with reporters.

JULIE PACE: I think this is — again, timelines keep shifting when it comes to this meeting.

What the president initially said is that he only knew about it two or three days before. One of the reasons why there are so many questions about this, though, is that Jared Kushner and his advisers said that this is something that they discovered and put on a disclosure form a few weeks ago.

So, this was known to people in the White House prior to this past weekend, when the reporting started to come out. And given the closeness of the president to his family, and given the fact that the Russian investigations and every little detail about these investigations is so critical right now, it is hard to imagine that this is something that would be kept from the president for so long.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, finally, Julie, you mentioned Jared Kushner.

There have been a number of stories this week about turmoil, ongoing turmoil inside the White House, fingers pointing in different directions, and some of the White House staffing being upset with Jared Kushner. What is that about?

JULIE PACE: Well, this has become a bit of pattern for this White House. When something goes wrong, you start having people turn on each other. The finger-pointing gets pretty intense.

And, in this case, you have a situation where you have someone like Jared Kushner, who is a senior adviser to the president, but operates in pretty rarefied territory because he’s also family. He is the one person whose name has come up in relation to the Russia investigations who is currently sitting in the West Wing.

And for some of the folks who are in there right now, the fact that he is in that situation and still remains a protected adviser, it’s pretty irritating to them. And they worry about their interactions with him.

Whenever you have a special counsel investigation that revolves around the White House, you have staffers that have to get lawyers, staffers that are pretty — staffers that are fairly well-paid having to get pretty expensive lawyers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

JULIE PACE: This is not a comfortable situation for anybody in there.

And Jared Kushner, given his relationship and his position in the West Wing, is taking a lot of the heat internally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meantime, we have seen some Democrats on Capitol Hill, some of them saying he should step down, others saying he should have his security clearance taken away.

Julie Pace with the Associated Press, we thank you.

JULIE PACE: Thank you, Judy.

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