Republicans quiet over Trump Jr as Democrats come out swinging
Republicans were reluctant to condemn Donald Trump Jr over the revelation that he met a Russian lawyer whom he was told was part of a Kremlin attempt to undermine Hillary Clinton.
One senior Senate Republican said on Tuesday that outrage over the issue, which led Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, to ruminate about potential “treason”, was “overblown”. Others deferred to the investigation being run by the special counsel Robert Mueller or to the procedures of congressional committees.
Democrats attacked forcefully, one senator saying that though “for a long time, we saw a lot of smoke but no fire” on investigations into links between Trump aides and Russia, “you’re seeing the fire today”.
In a 2016 email exchange with an intermediary, the music publicist Rob Goldstone, the oldest son of Donald Trump was told: “The crown prosecutor of Russia … 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.
“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump.”
Trump Jr responded: “If it’s what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer.”
Within a week of the email exchange, Trump Jr, the then campaign manager Paul Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner met Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya at Trump Tower in New York.
On Tuesday, Republicans on Capitol Hill said it was premature to cast the emails as evidence of collusion. Some pleaded ignorance when asked about the revelations, saying they had not read the emails and were focused on other issues.
Others acknowledged that the emails raised concerns, but said they would reserve judgment until Trump Jr and others had an opportunity to testify before relevant congressional committees.
Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said the possibility of any “criminal element” to Trump campaign dealings with Russia was being handled by special counsel Bob Mueller.
Asked by the Guardian if Trump Jr’s emails demonstrated a willingness to collude with the Russians, Rubio demurred.
“That’s something Mr Mueller and them will have to determine,” he said. “Our job is to issue a report on how the Russians interfered in our elections and the tactics they used. This could very well be insightful in that regard.”
Susan Collins, another Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, called on Trump Jr and all those involved in attending or facilitating the meeting to testify before the panel. Asked by the Guardian if the emails showed the Trump campaign was receptive to being aided by the Russian government, she said it was “really dangerous to jump to a conclusion”.
“We’re still in the pretty early stages of this investigation,” Collins said. “But certainly the emails raise concerns that need to be thoroughly investigated.”
Orrin Hatch, chair of the Senate finance committee, came to Donald Trump Jr’s defense.
“I think this is overblown,” said Hatch. “Donald Trump Jr is a very fine young guy. He’s smart. He’s decent. He’s honorable.”
The Utah Republican also expressed shock about the suggestion by Kaine that Trump Jr’s behavior might be treasonous.
“You got to be kidding,” he said. “That kind of language should never be used.”
Asked however if he would ever agree to meet a representative of a foreign government representative who had incriminating information on an election opponent, Hatch quickly and strongly replied: “No. No.”
The Arizona senator Jeff Flake, a Republican who will face a tough re-election battle next year, declined to weigh in at all.
“There’s a bipartisan committee looking into that, and there’s a special counsel looking into it too,” he said.
There was at least one crack in the pro-Trump facade. Lee Zeldin, a representative from New York who called Trump Jr’s meeting “a nothingburger” in a tweet on Monday, changed his tune.
The two-term Republican from Long Island tweeted on Tuesday: “I voted for @POTUS last Nov & want him & USA to succeed, but that meeting, given that email chain just released, is a big no-no.”
Democrats saw the revelation as an escalation of a continuing drama. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut told reporters: “At the beginning of today, I thought the Russia story was a distraction from healthcare but things have moved quickly.
“This is a pattern of lies that is deeply, deeply disturbing. For a long time, we saw a lot of smoke but no fire. You’re seeing the fire today.”
Mark Warner of Virginia, vice-chair of the Senate intelligence committee, told reporters “there are no excuses for what we’ve seen in the past 24 hours” and said the emails from Donald Trump Jr were “the acknowledgment in black and white that this was the crown prosecutor of Russia and part of a Russian government effort to try to discredit Clinton and help Trump”.
Warner added: “So all of these denials we have heard in the campaign in the transition, in the administration, that there were no contacts with Russia, no discussions about the campaign, were all patently false.”
Warner went on to raise questions about Trump Jr’s comments in the emails hoping for help “later in the summer”.
“Interestingly enough,” the senator noted, “the information started to be released in late summer.”
Warner also dismissed the excuse that Trump Jr’s actions were the result of inexperience. “Lying is not a rookie mistake,” he said.
Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said the approach to Trump Jr “certainly appears” to have been a play by Russian intelligence. Schiff also expressed anxiety that “the Russians possess compromising information, what they call kompromat, that can influence this president’s conduct of American policy”.
“The Russians know about this meeting,” he said. “They were behind organizing the meeting. If there were other meetings that the Russians know about, if there were other interactions that Russians were aware of, that is something they can hold over head of the president.
“The American people need to know that the president is acting on their behalf and not acting because he has a fear that the Russians could disclose things that could harm him or his family.”
The Oregon senator Ron Wyden, who sits on the Senate intelligence committee, said it was clear from Trump Jr’s emails there was “an attempt at collusion”.
Based on the emails, Wyden told reporters, “the highest levels of the Trump campaign walked, eyes open, into a meeting that was designed to advance the Russian government’s support for Donald Trump”.
Perhaps the strongest statement came from Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate. He told CNN: “We are now beyond obstruction of justice. This is moving into perjury, false statements and even potentially treason.”
Kaine wasn’t the only Democrat to use the word “treason”. Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a veteran of the Iraq war, tweeted: “If this isn’t treasonous, I’m not sure what is.”