WASHINGTON — Then presidential candidate Donald Trump’s eldest son eagerly agreed last year to meet a woman he was told was a Russian government lawyer who might have information incriminating Democratic rival Hillary Clinton as part of Moscow’s official support for his father, according to an email chain released on Tuesday.
The emails in the chain were between Donald Trump Jr., who posted it on Twitter, and Rob Goldstone, a publicist who helped to arrange the June 9, 2016, meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya, who says she is a private lawyer and denies having Kremlin ties.
“If it’s what you say I love it,” Trump Jr. said in a June 3, 2016 email that was part of the chain arranging the meeting and that he released after the New York Times said it planned to write about their contents and sought his comment.
The email chain’s disclosures could provide ammunition for U.S. investigators probing whether there was collusion between the Kremlin and Trump’s Republican presidential campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Moscow sought to hurt Clinton and help Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
“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,” said the June 3, 2016, email to Trump Jr. from Goldstone.
“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” according to the email Trump Jr. posted on Twitter.
The exchange includes an error. Russia has a prosecutor general rather than a “crown prosecutor.” A spokesman for the prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika, one of President Vladimir Putin’s longest-serving allies, declined to comment immediately.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters that the president applauded his son’s transparency in releasing the emails and viewed him as a “high-quality person,” referring all other questions to Trump’s and his son’s lawyers.
Trump Jr. and his younger brother, Eric Trump, run the Trump Organization, which their father headed before winning the White House.
Vice President Mike Pence distanced himself from the matter, saying through a spokesman he was not aware of the meeting, was not focused on events before he became Trump’s running mate later that summer, and was working to advance Trump’s policy agenda.
The email disclosure jarred financial markets, with the U.S. dollar dropping on fears it will make it harder for Trump to push through plans to overhaul U.S. healthcare and the tax code. U.S. stocks fell in late-morning trading, but recovered later and ended the day little changed.
While the emails do not at first glance appear to provide evidence of illegal activity, legal experts are divided on whether Trump Jr.’s participation in the meeting with the Russian lawyer could lead to criminal liability.
Collusion in and of itself is not a crime. But if the younger Trump conspired or aided and abetted a criminal action, such as hacking into American computer networks, that could be grounds for criminal charges.
Several lawyers also said the meeting could run afoul of federal election laws barring campaigns from accepting gifts or things of value from foreign nationals.
“It appears he knew he could obtain useful information from a foreign national,” said Josh Douglas, a law professor at the University of Kentucky.
The Federal Election Commission enforces the laws through civil lawsuits and the Department of Justice can bring criminal cases alleging violations. The liberal watchdog group Common Cause wrote to both on Monday urging them to investigate.
The New York Times over the weekend first reported the meeting with the lawyer, saying Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, now a White House senior adviser, and Paul Manafort, Trump’s then-campaign manager, also attended.
In a statement accompanying the emails, Trump Jr. said he released them “in order to be totally transparent” and played down the meeting, saying the Russian lawyer “had no information to provide.”
Instead, he said she wanted to discuss adoptions and the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law that sanctioned Russian officials linked to human rights abuses. After Congress passed the law in 2012, Putin banned U.S. adoption of Russian children.
However, Goldstone’s statement that the promise of incriminating information on Democratic presidential candidate Clinton was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump” provides new fodder for federal and congressional investigators who are probing Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in which Trump beat Clinton.
Moscow has denied any interference, and Trump says his campaign did not collude with Russia.
Democrats — and some Republicans — seized on the emails as evidence that the issue of Russian interference in the election deserves greater attention.
“There is no question in my mind that there has been an attempt at collusion,” Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters. “The question is, how far up did it go?”
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is at times harshly critical of Trump, told reporters: “This is very problematic. We cannot allow foreign governments to reach out to anybody’s campaign and say ‘we’d like to help you.'”
Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating the matter, as are U.S. congressional committees. A Senate source said the Senate intelligence panel planned to call Trump Jr. to testify and was seeking documents from him.