President Donald Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., was promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton before agreeing to meet with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign, according to three advisers to the White House briefed on the meeting and two others with knowledge of it.
The meeting was also attended by Trump's campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Manafort and Kushner only recently disclosed the meeting, though not its content, in confidential government documents described to the New York Times.
The Times reported the existence of the meeting Saturday. But in subsequent interviews, the advisers and others revealed the motivation behind it.
The meeting — at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, two weeks after Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination — points to the central question in federal investigations of the Kremlin's meddling in the presidential election: whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. The accounts of the meeting represent the first public indication that at least some in the campaign were willing to accept Russian help.
And while President Trump has been dogged by revelations of undisclosed meetings between his associates and the Russians, the episode at Trump Tower is the first such confirmed private meeting involving members of his inner circle during the campaign — as well as the first one known to have included his eldest son.
It is unclear whether the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, actually produced the promised compromising information about Clinton. But the people interviewed by the Times about the meeting said the expectation was that she would do so.
In a statement on Sunday, Donald Trump Jr. said he had met with the Russian lawyer at the request of an 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 she then turned the conversation to adoption of Russian children and the Magnitsky Act, an American law that blacklists suspected Russian human rights abusers. The law so enraged President Vladimir Putin of Russia that he retaliated by halting American adoptions of Russian children.
When first asked about the meeting Saturday, the president's son said only that it was primarily about adoptions and mentioned nothing about Clinton.
Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the president's lawyer, said Sunday that "the president was not aware of and did not attend the meeting."
Lawyers and spokesmen for Kushner and Manafort did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
American intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian hackers and propagandists worked to tip the election toward Trump, in part by stealing and then providing to WikiLeaks internal Democratic Party and Clinton campaign emails that were embarrassing to Clinton. WikiLeaks began releasing the material July 22.
A special prosecutor and congressional committees are now investigating the Trump campaign's possible collusion with the Russians. President Trump has disputed that, but the investigation has cast a shadow over his administration.
On Sunday morning on Fox News, the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, described the Trump Tower meeting as a "big nothing burger."
"Talking about issues of foreign policy, issues related to our place in the world, issues important to the American people is not unusual," he said.
But Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the leading Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, one of the panels investigating Russian election interference, said he wanted to question "everyone that was at that meeting."
"There's no reason for this Russian government advocate to be meeting with Paul Manafort or with Mr. Kushner or the president's son if it wasn't about the campaign and Russia policy," Schiff said after the initial Times report.
Veselnitskaya's clients include state-owned businesses and a senior government official's son, whose company was under investigation in the United States at the time of the meeting. Her activities and associations had previously drawn the attention of the FBI, according to a former senior law enforcement official.
Veselnitskaya said in a statement Saturday that "nothing at all about the presidential campaign" was discussed. She said she had "never acted on behalf of the Russian government" and "never discussed any of these matters with any representative of the Russian government."
Since the president took office, Donald Trump Jr. and his brother Eric have assumed day-to-day control of their father's real estate empire. Because he does not serve in the administration and does not have a security clearance, Donald Trump Jr. was not required to disclose his foreign contacts. Federal and congressional investigators have not publicly asked for any records that would require his disclosure of Russian contacts.
John Brennan, a former CIA director, testified in May that he had been concerned last year by Russian government efforts to contact and manipulate members of Trump's campaign. "Russian intelligence agencies do not hesitate at all to use private companies and Russian persons who are unaffiliated with the Russian government to support their objectives," he said.