Sen. Warner: I don’t accept Donald Trump Jr. ‘rookie mistake’ defense

On Capitol Hill, Donald Trump Jr.'s release of emails detailing his interest in making contact with a reported Russian government representative about opposition research has generated more questions than answers. Judy Woodruff speaks with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, about the revelations and how it could affect the investigation.

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    And for more on the latest documents in the Russia investigation, we turn to the vice chairman on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Mark Warner of Virginia. He joins us from Capitol Hill.

    Senator Warner, thank you for being here.

    What do you make of this latest story?


    Well, Judy, again, I have said this a couple of times, that you can't make some of this stuff up. It would — it strains credibility.

    This bothers me on a variety of levels. One, it bothers me that this is a continuing series of individuals affiliated with the Trump campaign or the Trump administration who say they have had no meetings or contacts with Russians, until there is proof of those meetings, and then they have to recant or, in the case of General Flynn, the national security adviser, he got fired, or the attorney general had to recuse himself.

    And what's particularly, I think, significant about these last 48 hours is, this is the first time the public is seeing now in black and white what we have heard from the intelligence community, that there was an organized effort by the Russian government to interfere to help one candidate, Donald Trump, to hurt another candidate, Hillary Clinton.

    And what is so particularly disturbing is that we have now got the president's son, the president's son-in-law and the president's campaign manager at the time all being willing to take the meeting that this so-called Russian agent, or at least has been represented as part of this Russian government effort to discredit Clinton, and that they were anxious to receive this kind of information.

    I find that — and there would be folks like special counsel Mueller who will have to determine whether that meets a legal standard of criminality, but it sure does make it very important that we in the Senate investigating committee get a chance to talk to all three of these individuals, which we plan to do.


    Well, you mentioned — you used the word collusion. You said that's what this investigation has been about.

    One of your Democratic colleagues on the Intelligence Committee, Senator Wyden of Oregon, said today this proves there was at least an attempt at collusion. Is that how you see it?


    Well, Judy, I feel like my job in this investigation is to keep this investigation bipartisan, working along with Chairman Burr.

    I'm going to reserve my final judgments until we get a chance to talk to all of the witnesses, get all of the information that we're continuing to collect. But it sure as heck bothers me that there is this continuing pattern of individuals from the Trump campaign and the Trump administration denying these contacts with Russians, and then, when the proof comes out, they dodge or dance or amend their filings.

    Well, now, in a particular case, we're asked to believe that the president's son and son-in-law had information that was part of a Russian government effort to discredit their opponent, and that somehow that was never shared with their father or father-in-law. Again, I will accept that their word until we get a chance to talk to them in person.


    Well, Senator, how do you, though, interpret their evolving explanations?


    It is — frankly, it strains credibility that this administration continues to say there's no there there, yet we have seen this pattern, not with one, two, three, but literally I think it was close to a dozen individuals that have either been affiliated with the information or in a case of certain spokespeople who said, for example, that Jim Comey was fired because of his bad performance with handling the Hillary Clinton e-mails, only to be corrected by the president himself when he called James Comey a nutjob in front of the Russians and said it was all about the Russian investigation itself.

    So, we have this constant pattern where this administration doesn't come clean on these items involving Russia until the proof comes out, and then we hear fairly feeble excuses.


    I hear you saying, Senator, you're not prepared to pronounce whether there was collusion. You're not prepared to say whether there was illegality, but you have been around politics now for a number of years.

    How do you judge, how do you weigh the — at least the facts on the table at this point?


    Well, Judy, I have heard some of the people coming to the defense of the president's son that this was a rookie mistake.

    I don't accept that. I think anyone of any kind of basic knowledge would know that you don't take information from a foreign power, and particularly a foreign power that's an adversary like Russia. And, clearly, what was laid out in the e-mail in black and white was that this was part of a Russian government effort to help then candidate Trump.

    And you see, not only was there no pushback on that, but in terms of reading the e-mail, Donald Trump Jr. said, that's great, and wouldn't it be great if we got that information late in the summer?

    And if you follow the timeline — I'm sure all your audience hasn't followed this quite as closely as I have — but it was late in the summer that more and more of these DNC e-mails were released, where then Trump confidant Roger Stone first started tweeting about the fact that he had contact with a Russian cutout, Guccifer 2.0, and that it would soon be John Podesta's turn in the so-called barrel.

    And, sure enough, it was John Podesta's e-mails that were subsequently leaked as well. So, the timing, in terms of what Donald Trump Jr. was hoping and then what came to pass is also a little bit curious.


    Senator, finally, how do you view the likelihood that the president himself didn't know about this? The White House is saying he did not know. Do you take them at their word?


    I will take them at their word at this point.

    But the idea that the president's son and son-in-law had this kind of outreach from what appears to be an agent of the Russian government, and that there was a Russian government — knowledge of an effort to help candidate Trump, I'm surprised at least — and, again, I will take them at their word — but surprised at least that this wouldn't come up over dinner conversation at some point over the ensuing months.


    But can we assume that's a question you will be asking?


    You can assume darn right that's a question I will be asking.


    Senator Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, we thank you.


    Thank you, Judy.

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