The Kremlin was unaware of a meeting between Donald Trump’s senior staff and a lawyer with deep ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 2016 campaign, where the lawyer reportedly offered damaging information about Hillary Clinton, Putin’s spokesperson said Monday.
According to a report in the New York Times on Sunday, citing three White House advisers briefed on the meeting and two others with knowledge of it, the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, promised Donald Trump Jr. information that could harm Clinton during the race — information she never produced, Trump’s son claimed in a statement.
Asked about the reports, Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin does not know who the lawyer is and added that the Kremlin “cannot keep track” of every Russian lawyer and their meetings in Russia or abroad.
The June 9, 2016, meeting, first reported by the New York Times on Saturday, appears to be the earliest known private meeting between key aides to the president and a Russian national. The sit-down, at Trump Tower, occurred some two weeks after Trump won the Republican nomination.
Trump Jr. had on Saturday confirmed the meeting and described it as a “short introductory meeting” during which they discussed a disbanded program that used to allow US citizens to adopt Russian children, making no mention of Clinton.
Russia ended the adoptions in response to American sanctions brought against the nation following the 2009 death of an imprisoned lawyer who spoke about a corruption scandal.
On Sunday, Trump Jr. said in a statement that he met the lawyer following a request by an unnamed acquaintance.
“After pleasantries were exchanged,” he said, “the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”
He said the conversation then turned to the adoption issue and “it became clear to me that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting.”
It is not known whether Veselnitskaya had information about Clinton nor whether she passed it along to Trump Jr.
A spokesman for Trump’s lawyer, whom he had hired to deal with a number of probes into alleged collusion between his campaign staff and the Russians, told the Times that “the president was not aware of and did not attend the meeting.”
In his statement, Trump Jr. said he asked Jared Kushner, the president’s adviser and son-in-law, and presidential campaign manager Paul Manafort to attend but did not tell them what the meeting was about.
Unlike Kushner, Trump Jr. does not serve in the administration and is not required to disclose his foreign contacts.
Kushner’s lawyer, Jamie Gorelick, said her client already disclosed the meeting in a revised filing of a form that requires him to list meetings with foreign agents.
“Mr. Kushner has submitted additional updates and included, out of an abundance of caution, this meeting with a Russian person, which he briefly attended at the request of his brother-in-law, Donald Trump Jr. As Mr. Kushner has consistently stated, he is eager to cooperate and share what he knows,” she said.
The Times reported Saturday, citing unnamed people familiar with the matter, that Manafort disclosed the meeting to congressional investigators questioning his foreign contacts. Manafort’s representatives declined to comment on Sunday.
Manafort helmed Trump’s campaign for about five months until August and resigned from the campaign immediately after the AP reported on his firm’s covert Washington lobbying operation on behalf of Ukraine’s ruling political party. He is one of several people linked to the Trump campaign who are under scrutiny by a special counsel and congressional committees investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign and potential coordination with Trump associates.
Manafort has denied any coordination with Russia and has said his work in Ukraine was not related to the campaign.
The newspaper said Veselnitskaya is known for her attempts to undercut the sanctions against Russian human rights abusers. The Times also said her clients include state-owned businesses and the son of a senior government official whose company was under investigation in the United States at the time of the meeting.