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Politics & Government

Emails Confirm Donald Trump Jr. Knew Of Russian Effort To Sway 2016 Election

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We're going to go to the White House now to talk about the fallout from today's news about a series of emails that Donald Trump Jr. tweeted this morning. They were written last summer and were about setting up a meeting between the Trump campaign and a Russian lawyer. In the email exchange, an intermediary wrote that the lawyer had damaging and, quote, "very high-level and sensitive information," unquote, to share about Hillary Clinton. The intermediary also wrote the information was being offered as part of the Russian government's support for Mr. Trump. Donald Trump Jr. responded, if it's what you say, I love it. With us now is NPR's Mara Liasson at the White House. Hi there, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

MCEVERS: So what is significant about this email exchange?

LIASSON: What's significant is that to some legal experts, this meeting and the email chain that preceded it fits the definition of the kind of collusion or coordination that could be unlawful. There are laws that prohibit anyone from taking a foreign contribution for a campaign, including opposition research. There are laws that prohibit conspiring to obtain information from a foreign adversary. And, you know, for months, Donald Trump has stated flatly that no one in his campaign had any contacts with the Russians.

This shows that certainly isn't true. Not only did Donald Trump Jr. meet with the Russians, but he knew in advance from those emails that, as you just read, the Russian government had high-level sensitive information that was part of their support for Trump. And it wasn't just the president's son. Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman at the time, and the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, were on the email chain. They knew Russia wanted to help them, and they attended the meeting, too.

MCEVERS: What has been the president's reaction to all this?

LIASSON: Well, the president has not tweeted about this, which is unusual since he has tweeted many times about the Russian story and about his kids. He did issue a statement, which was read by Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders today which says, quote, "my son is a high quality person and I applaud his transparency." What he was referring to was the fact that Donald Jr. tweeted out the email chain. Of course, that was only after The New York Times told him they were about to publish the emails. But Sarah Sanders also said the president wants everyone to cooperate with the appropriate investigations, as Donald Trump Jr. has said he would do.

MCEVERS: And that White House briefing was off camera again today. You were there. What happened in that briefing? And what was the tone of spokeswoman Sarah Sanders?

LIASSON: Well, the first thing about the briefing, it was - it was very brief. It was about 19 minutes after her opening remarks. And although Sarah Sanders has answered questions about the Russian story in the past, she's also been very combative in arguing that the only inappropriate thing was that any of the information about these meetings were shared with the press. This included just yesterday, when the first accounts of Donald Trump Jr.'s meetings were disclosed.

Today she merely read the president's statement, and then in answer to almost every other question she said she had nothing to add beyond her previous statements, and that any questions about this should be directed to Donald Jr.'s lawyer and the president's outside counsel. She said she's stuck by her earlier statement that there was no collusion, but she declined to define collusion. She did, however, describe the president's general feeling about these new revelations. And here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAH SANDERS: The president is, I would say, frustrated with the process of the fact that this continues to be an issue. And he would love for us to be focused on things like the economy, on health care, on tax reform, on infrastructure.

LIASSON: The interesting thing about that is that the president has not talked about his plans for a health care program or tax reform or infrastructure in any depth at all recently.

MCEVERS: You know, you said that to some legal experts this could represent unlawful collusion or cooperation with a foreign power. I know it's early yet, but how do you see that playing out going forward?

LIASSON: Well, I think the only thing that matters politically is Republican reaction. That's the barometer that counts. And Republicans right now are not breaking in any way with the president. Marco Rubio today said this is all Mueller territory, meaning let the special counsel deal with it. And of course, that investigation does go on. Bob Corker, Senator Corker, said this doesn't really concern him. John McCain, who has predicted all along that more shoes would drop, said this was just another shoe. There are House members, Republicans who have expressed some frustration about this. One of them tweeted the meeting was a big no-no. But it just shows you that right now Republicans are waiting for the special counsel to do his job.

MCEVERS: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.