By Patricia Zengerle and Karen Freifeld
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s eldest son told Senate investigators on Thursday that he had set up a June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer because she might have had damaging information about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Donald Trump Jr., in a prepared statement to Senate Judiciary Committee investigators for a meeting behind closed doors, said it was important to learn about Clinton’s “fitness” to be president.
“To the extent they had information concerning the fitness, character or qualifications of a presidential candidate, I believed that I should at least hear them out,” said the statement, which was seen by Reuters.
Trump also said the meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and others in Trump Tower in New York provided no meaningful information.
The New York Times first reported the statement.
Russia has loomed large over the Trump presidency. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded Moscow worked to tilt the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor. Several congressional committees and a special counsel are also investigating allegations of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
The younger Trump’s testimony is believed to be the first by a member of the president’s family to congressional investigators, much of whose work has been conducted behind closed doors.
Moscow denies meddling and Trump denies collusion by his campaign, while regularly denouncing the investigations as political witchhunts.
When news of the meeting with the lawyer broke earlier this year, the younger Trump at first said that the main topic at the encounter was child adoption from Russia but then he released emails that showed his reason for attending the meeting was to receive possibly damaging information about Clinton.
His statement on Thursday is further acknowledgment that he was willing to receive potential help from a Russian citizen to help his father’s campaign, when it was still not certain he was going to be the Republican presidential nominee.
“The fact that Trump Jr. acknowledges taking the meeting along with two other top campaign officials … during a time in which the nomination was to be contested at the convention, also highlights how significant the campaign viewed the promise of dirt on their opponent from the Russian government,” Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, now a senior White House adviser, and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort also attended the Trump Tower meeting.
Congressional investigators have focused on the June 9, 2016, meeting, and what came of it, if anything, in terms of the relationship between Russians and the Trump campaign or Trump business interests.
“As will become clear, I did not collude with any foreign government and do not know of anyone who did,” the statement said, promising to “set forth the sum and substance” of what happened at that meeting.
Trump Jr. was questioned by Judiciary Committee staff for five hours. He left without speaking to reporters, and the meeting room entrance was shielded by a special partition that kept news cameras from recording his arrival and departure.
A handful of mostly Democratic senators attended the meeting but said questioning was limited to staff. The session was not classified and Trump Jr. was not under oath. However, it is illegal to provide false information to Congress.
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal described the atmosphere in the room as “cordial.” He said the testimony made it clear there was more to discover.
“There certainly are a lot of areas that are opening for future witnesses, and questioning,” he told reporters.
Blumenthal also said he expected Trump Jr. would testify under oath later at a public Judiciary Committee hearing. Schiff said his panel looked forward to having many questions answered when he appeared before them.