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Trump Jr.‘s emails on Russia meeting raise question of what the president knew

July 11, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
President Trump's son Donald Jr. released a potentially explosive email chain on Thursday, showing he was eager to hear "dirt" on Hillary Clinton with Russia’s support. Trump Jr. said he released them to be transparent, but The New York Times said he acted once he knew the newspaper planned to publish them. John Yang reports and The New York Times' Mark Mazzetti joins Judy Woodruff.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For months, a big question confronting official Washington has been, did the Trump campaign collude with the Kremlin to undermine Hillary Clinton?

Tonight, President Trump’s eldest son finds himself at the heart of the matter after he released a potentially explosive e-mail chain.

John Yang begins our coverage.

JOHN YANG: The e-mails show Donald Trump junior eager to hear dirt on Hillary Clinton, said to be offered as part of Russian government support for his father’s campaign.

The chain begins with message from Rob Goldstone. He’s a British-born music publicist. The younger Trump met him at the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow, which President Trump then owned. Goldstone said a client’s father, a real estate developer who teamed with President Trump for that pageant, had been told of official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia.

Goldstone said it was part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.

Donald Trump Jr. responds: “If it’s what you say, I love it.”

In a four-day flurry of e-mails, Donald Trump Jr. and Goldstone set up a meeting at Trump Tower in New York with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Also attending, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Veselnitskaya told NBC News today she has no connection to Russian government and knew nothing damaging about Clinton.

NATALIA VESELNITSKAYA, Russian Attorney (through interpreter): It is quite possible that maybe they were looking for such an information. They wanted it so badly.

JOHN YANG: Today, Donald Trump Jr. said he thought he was being offered political opposition research. The president’s son says he put out the e-mails to be totally transparent.

On Capitol Hill, the release generated more questions than answers.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: I know Donald Trump Jr. is new to politics. I know that Jared Kushner is new to politics, but this is going to require a lot of questions to be asked and answered.

SEN. RON WYDEN, D-Ore.: If you look at Donald Trump Jr.’s own admissions — these are his words, not mine, his — this was an attempt at collusion. And so now the question is really, was it successful?

JOHN YANG: At an off-camera White House briefing, principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders read a one-line statement from the president.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, Deputy White House Press Secretary: “My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency.”

JOHN YANG: Sanders said the president only learned of his son’s meeting in the last several days, but wouldn’t say whether he knew of the apparent Russian offer to help his campaign.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m John Yang.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to Mark Mazzetti, Washington investigations editor for The New York Times. He’s been leading the team of reporters that broke today’s story.

Mark Mazzetti, welcome back to the program.

So, tell us what the latest information is that The Times is reporting on connections, contacts between the Trump, the Trump family and Russian officials.

MARK MAZZETTI, The New York Times: Well, last night, The Times reported the existence of an e-mail that showed that the meeting that was brokered in June of 2016 showed — an e-mail to Donald Trump Jr. — showed that the offer of damaging information about Hillary Clinton came from the Russian government or was purported to come from the Russian government and that Donald Trump Jr. very eager responded that he was very interested.

And it seemed to raise the stakes, because it was no longer just private information from a lawyer, but something that seemed to come from Moscow and the Kremlin.

This morning, we reported on the actual e-mails themselves, what the e-mails contained that show the long thread that led up to the June 9, 2016, meeting between these various players, and at the same time, right as we were about to publish, Donald Trump Jr. put out the e-mails himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, striking language in the e-mails, at one point referring to this is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.

But I want to ask you about what happened today. When your reporters reached out to Donald Trump Jr., what happened?

MARK MAZZETTI: We reached out to his attorney in the morning, notifying him that we were planning to publish the contents of the e-mails and gave them a deadline.

And right around the time of the deadline, when we were waiting for their comment, Donald Trump Jr. put the e-mails themselves out on Twitter, and that’s when we published our story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was what Donald Trump Jr. put out on Twitter exactly what The Times had?

MARK MAZZETTI: The e-mails that he put out are consistent certainly with what we saw.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And The Times was prepared to publish them whether he had done that or not?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, we were not planning to publish actual e-mails. We had a story ready describing the e-mails with some actual word-for-word language in the e-mails.

And the word-for-word language that we were going to quote from in our story lined up with what he put out on Twitter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it fair to say, Mark Mazzetti, that Donald Trump Jr. and others involved in the story have been cooperating? Because the sense one gets from reading these stories over the past few days is that the explanations you have been given by Donald Trump Jr. and by others has changed from day to day.

MARK MAZZETTI: Yes, it’s been evolving over about four days.

Saturday, when we were publishing our first story about this meeting, we got a response from Donald Trump Jr. that the meeting was about primarily adoptions, which is a big issue for the Russian government relating to the sanctions the United States has imposed on the Russian government.

The next day when we were publishing our second story, we knew that the meeting was not about that. It was about proposed damaging information about Hillary Clinton. We got another statement that said, yes, that’s true. However, it was something anyone would do. Any one part of the campaign would look for damaging information about their opponent.

And then, yesterday, we told them that we were planning to publish the e-mail that — published the existence of an e-mail that indicated it was Russian government support. There’s been yet another answer. So, yes, it certainly has evolved over several days.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark Mazzetti, what is the White House saying about the president’s involvement this? What has Donald Trump Jr. said about that?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, what the president knew about this is still unclear.

The White House has said the president didn’t know of the meeting. And there has been some, I would say, conflicting accounts coming out of the White House about just how to handle this story and how it should be spun and how to handle the damage that was coming out of this story.

But the question of — and there has been, frankly, some blame going on internally about it. But the question, the main question, of course, we are still endeavoring to find out is what now President Trump knew about the meeting at the time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But as you say ,right now, the White House is saying he had no involvement?

MARK MAZZETTI: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Mazzetti, Washington investigations editor for The New York Times, thank you very much.

MARK MAZZETTI: Thank you.

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