U.S. President Donald Trump said he was unaware that his oldest son Donald had a meeting with a Russian lawyer during the presidential campaign, but he does not fault him for the controversial move.
Asked by Reuters in an interview on July 12 if he knew that his son met with lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya in June 2016, the president said: “No, that I didn’t know until a couple of days ago when I heard about this.”
Donald Trump Jr. revealed in e-mails he published this week that he eagerly agreed to meet the woman he was told was a Russian government lawyer who had damaging information about Democratic rival Hillary Clinton that would be provided as part of Moscow's official support for his father's campaign.
Seated at his Oval Office desk for the Reuters interview, Trump said he does not fault his son for holding the meeting, but rather views it as a decision made in the heat of an upstart, non-traditional political campaign.
"I think many people would have held that meeting," Trump said.
"It was a 20-minute meeting, I guess, from what I’m hearing," Trump said. "Many people, and many political pros, said everybody would do that."
The Trump e-mails are the most concrete evidence to surface to date showing that Trump campaign officials might have been willing to accept Russian help to win the November 8 election.
Despite the president's assertion that "everybody would do that," Trump Jr.'s meeting has raised legal questions, in particular whether it violated a U.S. law barring candidates from accepting anything of value from a foreign government.
A complaint already has been filed before the U.S. Federal Election Commission by Democratic lawmakers alleging that the meeting violated U.S. election laws, while several committees of Congress are seeking further information about the meeting to determine whether it validated allegations that Russia meddled in the presidential election.
Donald Trump Jr., in an interview with Fox News on June 11, said: "In retrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently."
But he insisted that nothing came out of the meeting of use to the Trump campaign, and he did nothing to collude with Russia or cooperate with the Kremlin in any effort to damage Clinton's election prospects.
Trump Jr. said he didn't tell his father about the meeting with Veselnitskaya because "there was nothing to tell."
"It was literally just a wasted 20 minutes," he said. "For me, this was opposition research" that he had hoped might yield "concrete evidence" against Clinton.
In the White House interview, the president said he directly asked Russian President Vladimir Putin if he was involved in what U.S. intelligence agemcies concluded was Russian meddling in the presidential campaign, and Putin insisted he was not.
Trump said he spent the first 20 or 25 minutes of his more than two-hour meeting with Putin on July 7 in Germany on the election meddling subject.
Asked if he believed Putin's denial, Trump paused.
“Look. Something happened and we have to find out what it is, because we can’t allow a thing like that to happen to our election process. So something happened and we have to find out what it is," he said.
While U.S. intelligence agencies and even members of Trump’s Cabinet have said Russia meddled in the election, Trump has wavered on the subject.
Trump equivocated on whether he felt he could trust Putin. He said Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping both look out for their countries' interests, as he looks out for U.S. interests.
"I am not a person who goes around trusting lots of people. But he’s the leader of Russia. It is the second most powerful nuclear power on earth. I am the leader of the United States. I love my country. He loves his country," Trump said.
As in the past, Trump said there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia.
"There was zero coordination. It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard," he said.
The Republican president said Democrats have used the accusations to justify Clinton's loss in November, saying: "The White House is functioning beautifully despite the hoax made up by the Democrats."
Although he and Putin were able to forge a cease-fire agreement in part of Syria, Trump said their interests collide over other important matters.
Trump said his plans to beef up the U.S. military and make the United States a dominant global energy producer are in direct conflict with Putin's ambitions for Russia, where the economy and government are heavily dependent on energy exports.
Because of those major differences, Trump said he wonders whether Putin really did support him over Clinton in the election.
"It’s really the one question I wish I would have asked Putin: Were you actually supporting me?"
With reporting by Reuters and AP