President Trump is continuing to defend his eldest son's controversial meeting with a Russian lawyer where he hoped to get damaging information on Hillary Clinton as part of an effort by the Russian government to help Trump's campaign.
"I think many people would have held that meeting," Trump told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
The president first weighed in on Tuesday with a brief statement: "My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency." Trump Jr. only released email exchanges regarding the meeting after the New York Times, which originally broke the story, was about to publish the electronic messages.
The president's son has come under fire after he admitted to meeting with Kremlin-linked attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya at the urging of publicist Rob Goldstone. In emails released Tuesday, Goldstone told Trump Jr. that Veselnitskaya had "very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump." Trump Jr. wrote back, "if it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer." In an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity Tuesday night, Trump Jr. admitted he "probably would have done things a little differently" but reiterated there was no information exchanged regarding Clinton at the meeting.
The president echoed what his son has maintained — that he didn't know about the June 9, 2016, meeting held at Trump Tower at the time, which was also attended by his then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is now a White House senior adviser.
"No, that I didn't know until a couple of days ago when I heard about this," Trump told Reuters.
The Times also reported that President Trump personally signed off on his son's initial statement about the meeting published by the newspaper on Saturday. In that initial statement, Trump Jr. portrayed the meeting as an opportunity to talk about a Russian adoption program. Trump Jr. later put out an amended statement clarifying what happened and that the meeting had also been about Clinton.
The deepening story has come as multiple congressional committees and a Justice Department special counsel are investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion between aides to the Trump campaign and Russia. Trump Jr.'s meeting, with emails explicitly outlining that the Russian government was aiming to help his father, arguably provide some of the most clear possible links yet.
President Trump's firing of former FBI Director James Comey, which he has admitted was due to the deepening Russia probe, has only worsened the cloud around his administration. Christopher Wray, Trump's nominee to replace Comey atop the FBI, testified at his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday that in the scenario of being presented opposition research by a foreign government, that was "the kind of thing the FBI would want to know."
House Speaker Paul Ryan sidestepped the question of the appropriateness of the meeting and the email exchange that preceded it, saying Wednesday he wouldn't "go into hypotheticals" as to whether or not he would have taken a similar meeting. Ryan did say it was "important" for investigators to "get to the bottom" of the meeting.
Trump, however, has continued to cast doubt on whether Russia was behind the election interference, which included hacks of the Democratic National Committee's email system and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's emails. His own intelligence chiefs — including Wray during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday — have reiterated they believe Russia meddled in the 2016 elections.
Trump told Reuters he spent the first 20 or 25 minutes of his more than two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week at the G-20 summit addressing the question of election interference, but seemed to suggest he accepted Putin's denials.
"I said, did you do it? And he said no, I did not. Absolutely not. I then asked him a second time in a totally different way. He said absolutely not," Trump told Reuters.
In another interview with CBN's Pat Robertson also on Wednesday, Trump defended his meeting with Putin and their perceived closeness.
"I think a lot of things came out of that meeting but I do believe it's important to have a dialogue and if you don't have a dialogue, it's a lot of problems for our country and for their country. I think we need dialogue. We need dialogue with everybody," the president said. "I had a great... It was a great G-20. You had 20 countries. I get along, I think, really fantastically with the head of every country."
"I think we get along very well and I think that's a good thing, that's not a bad thing. People said oh they shouldn't get along, well, who are the people that are saying that?" Trump asked about Putin. "I think we get along very, very well. We are a tremendously powerful nuclear power, and so are they. It doesn't make sense not to have some kind of a relationship."
Trump also argued that Putin didn't necessarily want to see him in the White House, but preferred "Hillary Clinton in office over him, specifically because the Trump Administration is for a 'strong military' and also because the U.S. is now moving to become self-sufficient with its energy."
Trump has not had any public events since he returned from the G-20 summit, and he left for France Wednesday evening. But he met with a group of evangelical leaders on Monday evening, who laid hands on the president and prayed for him alongside Vice President Pence.