President Donald Trump’s credibility took a sharp blow after his son released emails that directly contradict months of assertions that investigations of possible campaign collusion with Russia were nothing more than a partisan “witch hunt.” Just 173 days in office, Trump already has seen his political clout depleted by a stymied agenda in Congress and approval ratings consistently under 40 percent. Now, confronted by evidence that Donald Trump Jr. was willing and eager for campaign help from the Russian government, the president faces emboldened Democrats in Congress and Republican lawmakers who may be even more likely to shy away from taking a big political risk on his behalf.
Trump, never one to back down from a fight, was unusually silent on Twitter about the mushrooming controversy over his son’s meeting with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton. He had no public events on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, the day he’s set to leave for France for a Bastille Day commemoration.
After his son released the emails on Tuesday, the president issued a one-sentence statement: “My son is a high-quality person, and I applaud his transparency.” On Wednesday morning, the president said on Twitter, “My son Donald did a good job last night” on Fox News. “He was open, transparent and innocent. This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political history. Sad!”
Trump’s nominee to lead the FBI, former federal prosecutor Christopher Wray, told senators at his confirmation hearing before the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that anyone facing circumstances like those that confronted Donald Trump Jr. should contact the FBI.
“To the members of this committee: any threat, or effort to interfere with our elections from any nation state, or any non-state actor, is the kind of thing the FBI would want to know,” Wray said in response to a question from Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.
Inside the White House, there is growing concern that there is more trouble to come. “It’s a firestorm here,” one administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
The concern is especially acute for Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Kushner attended the June 2016 meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya along with Trump Jr. and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Of the three, he’s the only one who now holds a White House job and a high-level security clearance.
Trump Jr. forwarded the email chain to Kushner ahead of the meeting that identified Veselnitskaya as a “Russian government attorney” with information that would “incriminate” Clinton, Donald Trump’s campaign opponent. Veselnitskaya hasn’t responded to inquiries from Bloomberg News but has said in interviews with other news organizations that she did not represent the Russian government.
Kushner and his representatives did not respond to requests for comment. A person close to Manafort said that he had disclosed the meeting to congressional investigators probing Russian interference in the 2016 election. The person said he didn’t know whether Manafort saw or read the email exchange Trump Jr. had forwarded to him.
The younger Trump said in an interview with Fox News on Tuesday that he never told his father about the meeting. “There was nothing to tell,” he said, according to excerpts the network released.
Asked whether he had meetings with other Russians, Trump Jr. said, “I don’t even know. I’ve probably met with other people from Russia” but not in formal settings.
While he’s maintained he did nothing wrong and nothing came of the meeting, Trump Jr. said in the Fox interview that he “probably would have done things a little differently.”
The emails the younger Trump posted on Twitter were exchanges with British publicist Rob Goldstone, who set up the meeting on behalf of a client he said was working with the Russian government. Goldstone said the information the lawyer had was “obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for” Trump’s White House bid. It is not clear from the emails that Trump posted why Goldstone thought the information came from the Kremlin.
Goldstone also has not responded to requests for comment. A lawyer for the client he was representing, Russian pop singer Emin Agalarov, said Goldstone may have misunderstood the reason for the meeting and said Agalarov was not representing the Russian government.
Donald Trump Jr. responded in the email exchange: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.” He has since said that the meeting with Veselnitskaya yielded no useful information and that most of the 20 to 30 minutes of the meeting was spent talking about adoption policy.
“It was literally just a wasted 20 minutes, which was a shame,” he said in the Fox News interview.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that Trump was only made aware of the meeting in the “last couple of days.” A spokesman for Trump’s legal team said the president was not aware of the meeting at the time it happened and did not attend.
The emails have also been another blow to Trump’s standing in Congress, sending Republicans running for cover while trying to keep focused on policy. Top Republican leaders met with Trump’s economic adviser Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Tuesday to discuss ways to advance a plan to overhaul the tax system in a sign of trying to keep to business as usual.
There was little evidence at the U.S. Capitol of Republican lawmakers rallying to support Donald Trump Jr. Even reliable defenders of the administration, like Senator David Perdue of Georgia, declined to comment about the emails.
“I can’t think of anything more directly on point for the special counsel than the facts that came out over the last 48 hours,” Representative Trey Gowdy, a Republican who chairs the House Oversight Committee, said in an interview.
Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said Wednesday that if he received an email similar to the one Goldstone sent Trump Jr., “it should go to my junk email box and be erased.”
Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said Wednesday: “I would not respond. Potentially, I might contact the FBI or something like that.”
Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, stuck to his tried-and-true tactic of saying the matter would be addressed in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russian interference in the election. He refused to defend or criticize the president’s son for meeting with someone he thought was going to deliver dirt to him from the Russian government.
The Republicans are in a defensive crouch at the same time they are struggling mightily to pass a long-promised replacement for Obamacare and tax changes, let alone with the basics of governing like a budget, a defense policy bill and raising the debt limit.
“It sucks the oxygen out of the room,” Arizona Republican Senator John McCain said of the nonstop Russia stories. And he said he doesn’t expect the emails to be the last revelation.
For Democrats, the timing of the bombshell email wasn’t ideal — they’d much rather focus on killing the unpopular Senate Republican health care bill. But they said that Trump Jr.’s disclosure shattered a year of denials from Trump and his surrogates about campaign contacts with Russia and called for immediate hearings.
Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut abandoned an earlier Democratic plan to focus solely on health care, saying the revelations are so serious they probably hurt the health care bill rather than provide cover for it.
And he said there also remains a question that reaches to the president himself.
“Either the president knew about this meeting and is lying about it, or he was running an operation in which he allowed for his closest advisers to freelance collusion with the Russian government,” Murphy said.